There aren’t many teams in the NFL more profoundly disappointing than the Cardinals this season. Sure, you could point to the Russell Wilson led Broncos, or the Las Vegas Raiders — but both those teams had major questions about competitive readiness and new regimes. Meanwhile the Cardinals were coming off an 11-6 season, their best receiver was coming back healthy, they made a big deal to get another weapon, and their franchise QB was locked up long-term. This was supposed to be a year of asserted dominance. The season Arizona planted its flag in the NFC West and told the league they were going to be a staple of the playoffs.
Now we’re 14 weeks in, the team is 4-9, Kyler Murray sustained a devastating injury on Monday Night Football, and everything is on fire. With each passing week it’s looking increasingly like there’s no salvaging what this team has become, and that puts the Cardinals’ braintrust at a real crossroads. With GM Steve Keim, head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and Murray all recently rewarded with massive extensions, is it really time to cut bait and try to rebuild again?
That question firmly puts Arizona in one of the most awkward positions in the NFL moving forward. On paper this team has the talent to at least be contending for a playoff spot, and certainly better than their 4-9 record, but there have also been mammoth missteps along the way. Keim/Kingsbury/Murray have become a triumvirate problem, and an expensive one at that — but who’s really to blame for this huge collapse?
The most tenured man in the room, Steve Keim has been the general manager of the Cardinals since 2012, and he’s been Teflon when it comes to changes around him. For a team with as much mediocrity in its past, Keim has somehow remained with the Cardinals since 1999, filling various roles around the front office and scouting departments until he worked his way up to the top job.
It’s difficult to really assess Keim’s impact on the Cardinals football organization. Without question his biggest coup came during his first year on the job, when he lured Bruce Arians away from the Indianapolis Colts, and numerous other high profile coaching offers to come out to the desert and help reshape the struggling franchise.
Hiring Arians was a master stroke, but Keim was given a lot of credit for things his head coach did. Arians is one of the NFL’s all-time great football geniuses, and the Cardinals’ success flowed upwards as Keim was named NFL Executive of the Year in 2014. The team was soaring under Arians, making the playoffs twice in his first three years, and that success seemed here to stay.
There was just one problem: The team was drafting terribly. There was a bright spot here or there, but the drafting under Keim was either feast or famine. The Cardinals had a tendency to knock it out of the park and pick a team-defining player, or guys who would flame out of the NFL in a few years. They didn’t manage to find a deep pool of starting and backup caliber players.
From 2013 when Keim took over to today there has been a fairly short list of guys you could hang your hat on and say they were a great pick. Tyrann Mathieu, D.J. Humphries, John Brown, Haason Reddick, Budda Baker, Christian Kirk and Kyler Murray — as it stands that’s pretty much it. Outside of those guys there is a much, much longer list of players who are either out of the league, or barely hanging on the roster spots.
To complicate matters Keim has a history of hitting on guys and then letting them go. Reddick has been a staple pass rusher for every team he’s played for, John Brown was a 1,000 yard receiver for the Bills, and the decision not to extend Christian Kirk early led to a free agency feeding frenzy that saw the Jaguars overpay.
The issue is that Keim started throwing good money after bad. Instead of locking up the players the Cardinals actually managed to hit on, they started trading and spending to try and backfill the vacuum being created by the draft. We can silo off DeAndrew Hopkins, because that was one of the great fleecings in NFL trade history, aided by complete dopes running the show in Houston.
It was more the choice to throw big money at J.J. Watt, bringing in Malcolm Butler, and wasting good money on Jordan Philips that didn’t pay off. The most recent appears to be Hollywood Brown, who’s made a mediocre impact considering the first round pick the team gave up.
When it comes to the roles a GM is responsible for: Drafting, trades, and free agency — Keim has failed far more than he’s hit. The chickens have come home to roost in 2022. Every mistake he’s made is glaring, because there’s no team success to distract from his shortcomings now.
We’re now in the fourth year of the Kliff Kingsbury era and he’s starting to look a lot more like Chip Kelly than Pete Carroll. It took the league four seasons to work out Kelly was a flash-in-the-pan coach whose offense tendencies couldn’t translate long-term, and Kingsbury is really giving off those vibes.
No coach in the NFL needs a team more custom built to his needs than Kingsbury. To this end the Cardinals have done everything to make it happen. Despite the vaunted credit the offense has gotten over this time, it hasn’t really translated to success. Arizona hasn’t ranked Top 10 in points scored during any of Kingsbury’s seasons, and their highest passing offense ranking has been 10th in 2021.
In a system that’s supposed to be predicated by big passing plays, that’s a problem.
To make matters worse it’s become clear that Kingsbury isn’t good at adapting on the fly when adversity is thrown his way. Murray only has six fourth quarter comebacks to his name, and while some of that is certainly on the QB — it’s also a factor of the team not being in a position to mount a comeback. By comparison Justin Herbert has 10 recorded comebacks, and he’s not even three years into his career.
In short: If you want a coach who can thrive when everything is set up perfect, Kliff’s your guy. If you face a stiff breeze of resistance, his whole plan falls like a house of cards.
Quarterbacks get the most credit and criticism. It’s part of the job. So when a team is struggling like this we need to look at Murray’s weaknesses in 2022.
The truth is, Murray has regressed, but he hasn’t nearly been as bad as you might think. I’ll absolutely own that I believed Murray was on track to become one of the league’s elite passers based on markers we saw in advanced metrics — but there are some factors out of his control
There’s good justification why Murray has statistically regressed as much as he has this season. He remains an efficient, accurate passer — but there’s been absolutely no spark in the pass game this year. Murray’s yards-per-attempt have plummeting this season to 6.1 (down from 7.9), and while part of that is attributable to Hopkins being out for much of the year, he missed just as many games last year too.
The biggest issue has been playcalling. Route depth has dropped dramatically in 2022 over the past few seasons and that’s had a huge effect. From 2019-21 the Cardinals had Murray throw an average depth of target of 7.7 yards, one of the deepest in the NFL.
This season that’s dropped to a paltry 6.6, much closer to a checkdown YAC quarterback than a vertical passing game. In turn his average depth of reception has fallen to 4.3 yards, down from 6.0. 1.7 yards might not sound like much, but when you apply it to a volume passer like Murray it’s massive. This is coupled by receivers picking up less YAC, down to 4.8 yards this season from 5.4. With this 66.4 percent completion rate this season it means that over 275 passing yards have been lost due to target depth, and poor YAC.
What should the Cardinals do?
There’s an increasing sentiment that Arizona will stand pat this year because of Murray’s injury, essentially bailing out Keim and Kingsbury. This would be a massive mistake. This season was over long before Monday night, and there are very few signs there will be a different result by completing the same thing.
Steve Keim has to go. He’s the easiest part of this puzzle to replace and his time in Arizona has run its course. The team has made a lot of mistakes that are directly attributable to the general manager, and he’s had more than enough time to make this team a consistent winner.
Kingsbury and Murray are trickier. I think a new GM should come in and give them one more season to see if a fresh approach and a fire under them will spark the changes this team needs on the field.
I still have faith that Murray can excel in the NFL, even if this current scheme is hurting him. So either Kingsbury needs to get back to coaching accountability to takes advantage of his strengths, or he’s moved out for someone who can. This logically makes the most sense too, because of the trio, only Murray has major salary cap ramifications with his guaranteed money.
Still, this is all a complicated mess. These three men were all given huge contract extensions which were predicated on the idea an 11-6 team was going to take a step forward. Instead the team is sucking more than ever.
This is a pivotal moment for the Arizona Cardinals, and staying pat is the worst decision they could make.