PHOENIX – Despite a woeful ending that led to criticism of quarterback Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury, voices of support for the Arizona Cardinals’ most high profile figures also followed a postseason loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
“I think things have trended in the right direction,” offensive lineman D.J. Humphries said Tuesday. “But it’s definitely hard to see things end the way that they did.”
The final whistle on Monday night couldn’t have come sooner for the Cardinals.
Their fate appeared sealed once they stepped into the locker room at halftime, down by three scores with only 40 yards of total offense and a pair of turnovers. The second half was more of the same, and it hit an even lower point when All-Pro safety Budda Baker had to be carted off the field at SoFi Stadium after taking a hit from Rams running back Cam Akers.
It was perhaps the worst way to end a campaign that was one of the most promising in franchise history – before Arizona limped into the postseason after losing four of its last five.
Of the many fingers being pointed and assigning blame, all seem to lead right back to Kingsbury, who shouldered most of the criticism after Monday’s 34-11 wild card loss to the Rams. Regardless, the end result was the Cardinals’ best regular season finish since 2015, the last time they played in the postseason.
“We started hot, there’s no doubt,” Kingsbury said. “Later on when adversity struck we didn’t respond as well, but that’s this league and you have to find a way to win despite different things that arise.”
The summation of the Cardinals’ overall performance this season parallels that of Murray’s development, bursting with MVP-caliber accolades before stalling out down the stretch.
Murray sported a 72.6% completion rate to go along with 17 touchdown passes through his first eight games, showing refinement in his ability as a passer. The ensuing five games– after an ankle injury sidelined him for three weeks– were not as kind to Murray, as the Cardinals lost the top spot in NFC without key offensive contributors like running back James Conner and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins at full health.
His two errand interceptions in the Wild Card game on consecutive drives at the end of the first half embodied an important deterring factor that Murray and the Cardinals lack: experience.
“I think there’s been growth at times,” Kingsbury said. “In the back half we didn’t play our best, there is no doubt. But when you look at what (Murray) was able to do through the tough games, keeping us in it, battling, staying in it when it was ugly, those are all things that people don’t see that you have to be able to do in this league.
“Any time you get playoff experience in this league it’s invaluable. As tough of a situation as that was, he’s going to learn from it moving forward. Hopefully when we’re in that position again we can all be a lot better.”
In his young career, Murray continues to garner the trust and admiration from those around him as he progresses, a testament to what impact he can have for the road ahead. Veteran tight end Zach Ertz – acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles at midseason – reiterated the same narrative.
“I’ve been in this league for nine years, and the quarterback always gets too much credit and too much blame,” Ertz said. “That’s the nature of that position. Kyler is the most talented player I’ve ever been around and I think the sky’s the limit for him. He puts so much pressure on himself to be great and to win games, and I think that’s why guys love playing for him.”
Going forward, Arizona will attempt to surround Murray with the right pieces on both sides of the ball, but challenges lie ahead in retaining players like Ertz, outside linebacker Chandler Jones and the backfield duo of Conner and Chase Edmonds. Among many others, those players will hit free agency in less-than a month, leaving a lot of potential depth on the line for Arizona.
They potentially stand to lose defensive coordinator Vance Joseph as well to a second go-around at head coach elsewhere after leading a Cardinals defense that improved greatly upon his arrival.
The various uncertainties will be decided in the coming months but one key takeaway for the players and Kingsbury himself is that Arizona is heading in the right direction. Under Kingsbury the Cardinals have improved, going from 3-13 the season prior to his hiring to 5-10-1 in year one, 8-8 in year two and 11-6 in 2021.
The year-by-year growth, in a crowded and competitive NFC West, has put the Cardinals in the “elite-level,” conversation where they have rarely been mentioned throughout their long history. With that growth, expectation mounted, and the results call into question Kingsbury’s leadership because of it.
“You’ve seen the progress the last three years,” Ertz said. “(Kingsbury) is so smart offensively, and I think he’s continuing to get better. He’s a guy who puts a lot of accountability on himself and I think that’s what players respect about him.”
The Cardinals continue to back Kingsbury through it all, and he believes the future is only going to continue to trend in their favor, but he understands what needs to be done in the meantime.