On Oct. 24 last year, the Arizona Cardinals looked like they might be the best team in football. They were 7-0 after a win over the Houston Texans.
On Jan. 17, the Cardinals were embarrassed in one of the more toothless playoff performances you'll see. Their 34-11 loss to the Los Angeles Rams was the culmination of a terrible finish to the season. The Cardinals went 4-7 after that 7-0 start.
“It was a massive failure," Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt said after the loss to the Rams, according to the Arizona Republic. “I mean, from what we were capable of doing and what we showed we can do, to what we showed today. There’s no other way to describe it than as a failure.”
That collapse was especially troubling because it was the second straight season Arizona started well and then pulled a disappearing act.
As rough as the end of the season was, the offseason brought even more bad vibes. Kyler Murray did the middle school thing and scrubbed his social media of all things Cardinals. There was speculation he was unhappy with the team as he angled for a new contract, and there was a report the team wasn't thrilled with him, either, after he asked out of the final plays in the Rams playoff loss. He said the social media shenanigans had nothing to do with the Cardinals, and you can make up your own mind on that.
Murray's agent went on the offensive in March, releasing a statement trying to pressure the Cardinals into getting a long-term deal done with his client, which finally arrived in July with a $230.5 million extension. Aside from the Murray drama, Arizona did practically nothing in free agency while losing key players. Superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins was also suspended six games for a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
Last October seems like a long time ago.
It seemed like the Cardinals were trying to appease their quarterback when they overpaid to make a draft-day trade with the Baltimore Ravens for receiver Marquise Brown, Murray's old college teammate at Oklahoma. Murray's talent is worth the money that Arizona invested, but injuries have caused a drop in his play each of the past two seasons. There's risk involved.
All of this is happening as Kliff Kingsbury tries to prove he is the head coach who led the Cardinals to that impressive 7-0 start, and not the one who couldn't adjust as the team lost seven of its last 11. He's on the hot seat coming into this season. And his best path to success revolves around a quarterback who was drafted first overall as a perfect fit for his scheme, but is coming off a mediocre finish to last season.
In a perfect world, the Cardinals recapture their form from that 7-0 start (or even from an impressive win at the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17) and carry that through the second half of the season, Kingsbury has more job security and the franchise feels good going forward. There's also a chance that a roster that's slightly depleted has a rough season, Kingsbury and perhaps general manager Steve Keim are ousted, and everything about the franchise is reevaluated.
There's a lot on the line for the Cardinals this season. They blew a great start to last season. Instead of good vibes about a playoff berth, it seemed like a "massive failure," to quote one of the team's biggest stars. Now there's some uncertainty over what happens next. Some wins early in the season would calm things down, and it would be even better if those wins aren't followed by a ton of crushing losses late in the season.
The big move of the offseason was the trade of a first-round draft pick (23rd overall) to the Baltimore Ravens for receiver Marquise Brown and a third-round pick. That's not a huge overpay, but Brown still hasn't looked like a great NFL receiver. He has averaged 51.3 yards per game through three seasons. Maybe his skills will fit better with Kyler Murray and he'll take a huge step. But it seemed desperate, particularly if you believe it was done to keep Murray happy. Via free agency, the Cardinals lost receiver Christian Kirk, pass rusher Chandler Jones, running back Chase Edmonds, linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive lineman Jordan Phillips. Their two biggest moves in free agency were re-signing receiver A.J. Green to a one-year, $3.5 million deal and signing linebacker Nick Vigil to a one-year, $1.77 million contract. That won't energize a fan base. The draft was going to be light after trading a first-round pick, and cornerback remains a big need as a result. Colorado State tight end Trey McBride was the team's second-round draft pick, but he's a bit redundant with Zach Ertz on the roster. I'm not sure the Cardinals made one move this offseason that should excite anyone, aside from those who believe in Brown's talent.
How good is Kyler Murray? His best is electric. He can make all the throws, and is getting better throwing to all levels of the field. His extreme athleticism bails the Cardinals out of bad situations. Yet, each of the past two seasons have finished in disappointment after a midseason injury, and durability might always be a question given his size. After missing three games due to an ankle injury he suffered in Week 8, Murray had 1,648 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions in Arizona's remaining seven games. That's an 83 passer rating. The downturn coincided with DeAndre Hopkins missing time due to injury, but a franchise quarterback shouldn't be completely dependent on a single receiver. If a team is investing more than $45 million per season in a quarterback, it needs more than great half-seasons.
The Cardinals' win total at BetMGM is 9.5. That's a popular bet, and the odds on the under have shifted to -165. Instead of taking the under at those odds, I'd rather bet the Cardinals to not make the playoffs at -115. Arizona probably should be a playoff-level team in a weak NFC, but there is uncertainty and plenty of red flags. It feels like a situation that could get bad in a hurry, especially if the offense starts slow while DeAndre Hopkins misses six games.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "DeAndre Hopkins is still a top 100 pick in Yahoo, and I don't really understand it. He has a certain six-game suspension off the top. Hopkins is also coming off a year where his yards per game plummeted, and he's entering an age where receivers often hit the decline part of their careers. And was there anything about Kyler Murray's pocket passing that made you feel good last year?
"When I draft a receiver, I expect something close to a full season. I realize Hopkins comes at a modest discount but I'm not going to play the waiting game; I want a flexible and pliable bench, not one blocked by players I have to wait for. He's all yours."
Chandler Jones departs for the Las Vegas Raiders after posting 10.5 sacks. Markus Golden had a strong 11-sack year, and nobody else on the Cardinals had more than four last season. That puts a lot of pressure on Golden at age 31 to carry the pass rush. The Cardinals probably don't have the cornerbacks to hold up if the pass rush isn't good. It would be great if J.J. Watt has a dominant season, but there are a lot of questions surrounding what he has left at age 33. He had one sack in seven games last season before a shoulder injury shelved him for the rest of the regular season. Watt has missed at least half of his team's games due to injury in four of the past six seasons. He's an all-time great player, but injuries have piled up and there is no guarantee he'll have another Pro Bowl season. And there aren't many other answers for the Cardinals' pass rush, aside from Golden.
Is the Cardinals' skill-position talent underrated?
After six weeks this season, the Cardinals should field a really good set of offensive weapons. DeAndre Hopkins is suspended six weeks but assuming he comes back and looks like his five-time Pro Bowl self — which isn't a guarantee, given that he's 30, will miss a month and a half and had a tumultuous offseason — the Cardinals will have athletes all over the field. Running back James Conner had 18 touchdowns last season, which was fluky but Conner played well and he was good with the Pittsburgh Steelers, too. The trade for tight end Zach Ertz was a winner. Ertz put up a 56-574-3 line in 11 games with Arizona, which wasn't easy after joining the team during the season. Marquise Brown is a former first-round draft pick coming off a 1,000-yard season and has big-play potential. If Rondale Moore, a second-round pick last year who had a quiet rookie season, lives up to his potential then the Cardinals will be very hard to defend. That might be one of the best groups in the NFL. Most of that depends on Hopkins, and how six weeks off affects him.
The Cardinals were the best team in the NFL for a fairly long stretch last season. Kyler Murray looked like an MVP candidate. Kliff Kingsbury was a reasonable midseason pick for Coach of the Year. Despite Murray missing three games, the Cardinals were 9-2 going into their bye week. Then Murray returned and it suddenly fell apart. Still, a win at the Dallas Cowboys late in the season was a reminder that when the Cardinals were running well, they looked like a championship contender. While there were some personnel losses in free agency, Arizona isn't far removed from looking like an elite team. If you go back and rewatch Arizona at its absolute best last season — decimating the Tennessee Titans in the opener, winning with Colt McCoy at quarterback vs. the San Francisco 49ers, that win over the Cowboys — it's easy to talk yourself into Arizona being really good, regardless of the offseason drama. One of these years, Murray is going to have a healthy season and he might win an MVP when that happens.
The Cardinals seem like a team that could fracture with a slow start. And we saw what they look like without DeAndre Hopkins in the lineup last season, and it wasn't good. Four of the Cardinals' first six opponents were playoff teams last season. A slow start will bring plenty of speculation about Kliff Kingsbury's job security, particularly after two straight late-season collapses. The bigger question is with Kyler Murray and whether he eliminates any buyer's remorse by playing an elite, injury-free season. A third straight season with nagging injuries and a late-season dip would be alarming.
Few teams in the NFL will reveal themselves more quickly than the Cardinals. If they fly out to a great start without DeAndre Hopkins, it will quell a lot of uneasiness within the organization. A slow start without Hopkins would be bad, especially given how the Cardinals can't seem to figure out how to win after Thanksgiving under Kliff Kingsbury. I don't like what we've seen from the Cardinals since that 7-0 start last season. Maybe the late-season issues will be fixed and it will all look good for the Cardinals in September. I expect: the offense to struggle without Hopkins, the Cardinals will drop games against what should be a tough early schedule, doubt creeps in and they'll have a challenging season. Then ownership will have tough decisions to make.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders