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The Cardinals Missed the Playoffs Thanks to a Former AAF QB—and Kliff Kingsbury

All Arizona had to do on Sunday was win, and despite the fact that it was going up against a less-than-healthy Rams team, it couldn’t. Now Kingsbury and Co. have some major questions to answer this offseason.

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Coming into Sunday, the only thing standing between the Arizona Cardinals and their first playoff berth since 2015 was the rival Los Angeles Rams. And not even a fully healthy Los Angeles Rams team—but one that was starting a former AAF quarterback behind center. Rather than capitalizing on their chance, though, the Cardinals lost for the fifth time in seven games and finished off a once-promising season that leaves the team facing more questions than answers.

Sunday’s contest presented a win-and-in scenario for both the Rams and Cardinals, and each squad entered with major injuries. Arizona came in without receivers Larry Fitzgerald (groin) and Christian Kirk (COVID-19 list) in the lineup, and starting QB Kyler Murray was nursing a lower leg injury that he sustained late in last week’s loss to the 49ers. The Rams, meanwhile, were without starting QB Jared Goff, who broke his right thumb last week against the Seahawks. So L.A. turned to backup quarterback John Wolford, who had never appeared in an NFL game before Sunday.

But the Cardinals’ QB advantage quickly vanished. Murray exited the game early in the first quarter after hurting his ankle on the opening series of the game. Arizona then turned to backup Chris Streveler, who previously played in the Canadian Football League and helped the Winnipeg Blue Bombers lift the Grey Cup in 2019. Within a three-minute span, a game with playoff implications was suddenly in the hands of two players who weren’t even on NFL rosters last year.

Wolford’s first pass of the day was an interception, setting up the only offensive touchdown of the entire game: a Streveler pass to tailback Jonathan Ward, which gave the Cardinals an early 7-0 lead.

After that, the game belonged to the defenses. Wolford had some success, completing 22-of-38 passes for 231 yards and one pick while adding six carries for 56 yards. But Streveler and the Cardinals offense looked mostly stagnant, completing 11-of-16 passes for 105 yards, one touchdown, and a game-changing, 84-yard pick-six scored by Rams cornerback Troy Hill. The turnover handed Los Angeles a 12-7 lead entering halftime.

The Rams extended their lead to 11 early in the fourth quarter after a pair of field goals. And though Murray eventually returned and drove the Cardinals inside the red zone, the drive stalled and Mike Nugent’s 37-yard field goal attempt was blocked. That was as much fight as the Kliff Kingsbury’s team put up the rest of the afternoon, and their playoff aspirations—which a few weeks ago looked very realistic—were quietly snuffed out.

Coming into the season, Murray was a favorite candidate to be the league’s breakout player because of how strong Arizona looked across its final three games of 2019. At the close of the 2020-21 season, though, the opposite can be said of the Cardinals. Now the questions surrounding Kingsbury’s squad—along with his tenure—are mounting.

Kingsbury’s merits as an NFL head coach were questioned when he was hired in 2019, largely because of his track record as Texas Tech’s coach. He had compiled a 35-40 career record but was regarded for his offensive acumen, boasting high-powered Air Raid offenses that at one point were helmed by the likes of Patrick Mahomes. Kingsbury’s first year suggested that he was worth the gamble, in large part because of Murray’s development. And through the first seven games of the season, as the Cardinals sprinted to a 5-2 start, that held true. But the limitations of Arizona’s offense were also apparent during that stretch. And following the Cardinals’ Week 8 bye, those limitations became inhibiting. Arizona went 3-6 in its final nine games to finish the season 8-8.

As if the Cardinals’ record wasn’t already suspect enough, they picked up four wins against the lowly NFC East and another victory against the Jets. Arizona’s Week 7 overtime victory against the Seahawks and its Week 10 victory against the Bills were impressive, but the club’s level of play fell off significantly following it. The Cardinals entered Week 17 ranked 20th in Football Outsiders’s offensive DVOA metric and 10th in defensive DVOA.

There’s a case to be made for allowing Kingsbury to continue to grow on the job. As The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen recently noted, the 41-year-old instantly restored the Cardinals offense to competency in his first year. Because of the shortened offseason, he didn’t get the time to build off that momentum like he typically would. And while his offense made the splashy acquisition of superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins last spring, his unit lacks any other notable playmakers and the offensive line hasn’t been consistent. However, those doesn’t issues don’t excuse Kingsbury’s play-calling gaffes, like the fact that he almost exclusively lines Hopkins up on the left side of his formations and relies too heavily on Murray’s athleticism. On Sunday, facing third-and-18 from L.A.’s 48-yard line with five minutes left, Kingsbury dialed up a speed option in which a hobbling Murray immediately pitched the ball to tailback Chase Edmonds, who was swallowed up behind the line for a loss. Then, in a must-win game and trailing by 11, Kingsbury punted the ball away. Those type of confounding game-management blunders happened too often this season.

“Part of it is going through it, learning how to win,” Murray told reporters after Sunday’s loss. “There are some other reasons I don’t care to break down right now. [Missing the playoffs] is an ugly feeling.”

Regardless, Sunday’s matchup—and this season—proved that the Cardinals are still a step behind their NFC West peers. Playing a backup quarterback in a must-win game is something that only a few teams and coaches are prepared to account for midgame. But based on Arizona’s start to the season, and the relative ease of its schedule in the second half, it probably shouldn’t have found itself in the scenario it did. This offseason presents a chance for the Cardinals to upgrade their roster and continue building their offense around Murray. But whether or not they should remain patient with Kingsbury is a fair question to ask. The expectations for the club have been raised. Kingsbury is a major reason that’s the case, but it’s also why he’ll have to live up to them moving forward.