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The Cardinals Are Finding Their Wings

After a dominant thumping of the Rams, 4-0 Arizona stands as the last unbeaten team in the NFC. After years of hype, Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray are finally producing a team that looks like a bona fide contender.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury sees several parallels between himself and Ted Lasso. “Like the epic YouTube dance video,” Kingsbury said Sunday. “My [introductory] press conference, it was essentially the same one as Ted Lasso had, where everyone was like, ‘Is this some kind of a joke?’ And then he’s weirdly positive all the time.” The comparison is fraught, however, considering Jason Sudeikis’s character—charming and all—hasn’t (yet?) proved himself to be a winning soccer coach, while Kingsbury’s Cardinals look like the class of the NFL.

Entering Kingsbury’s third season, the jury remained out on whether he could turn Arizona into a winner. Following the Cardinals’ surprisingly dominant 37-20 victory against the Rams on Sunday, the questions surrounding the team have been put to rest for the time being. Arizona is a legitimate NFC threat—the last unbeaten squad in the conference. After spending a little time to find their stride early on, the Cardinals are now in full sprint, 4-0 and atop the NFC West, boasting a supercharged offense powered by early-season MVP Kyler Murray.

Arizona’s arrival party inside Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium was impressive in virtually all aspects of the game. Murray’s magnificent third-year leap is unfurling before our eyes, as he threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns while adding another 39 yards on the ground. The Cardinals rushing attack hammered the star-studded Rams defense for 216 yards and two scores. Arizona’s defense quieted the same L.A. passing game that blasted the defending Super Bowl champs a week before, holding Matthew Stafford to 6.8 yards per attempt and picking him off once. In past seasons, the Rams have gotten away with not being at their best against the Cardinals. On Sunday, L.A. needed its best punch just to be competitive, but it hardly swung.

“The Rams have had our number for a while now,” safety Budda Baker said. “… But new year, new team, new Cardinals team. We did what we’re supposed to do today.”

Sunday marked a statement win, even if Kingsbury and several of his players suggested afterward that it wasn’t. The Rams came into Sunday looking like the NFL’s best team, and the Cardinals had lost eight consecutive games to them—every meeting since L.A. hired Sean McVay in 2017, two years before Kingsbury arrived in Phoenix. Expectations for Kingsbury’s teams outgrew his squads’ capabilities in the past few seasons, but now the Cardinals look ready to live up to the hype. Kingsbury growing into the role explains much of it.

“I think the first year you’re trying to figure out the process and what works, what doesn’t work,” Kingsbury said. “Second year, you can throw out what didn’t work and really improve upon what you think you got going for you. And then you just try to continue to add the right pieces and go from there. But I would say after Year 1, I felt pretty good about our process. We didn’t finish last year like we needed to, but I like how we built it so far and we just got to keep getting better.”

Murray also continues to improve. He entered Week 4 having attempted short passes (zero to 9 yards) at the league’s fourth-lowest rate (38.2 percent of his attempts), according to Pro Football Focus. Against the Rams defense—which often invites offenses to run against light boxes and discourages deep passing by deploying two-high pre-snap coverage shells—Murray was patient. Rather than force the ball into dangerous spots downfield, Murray sent nearly half of his 32 attempts to the short area of the field and eight behind the line of scrimmage. He finished with an average depth of target of 6.7 yards, well below the 8.3 aDOT he had entering the game, per PFF.

Murray picked his spots when he pushed the ball downfield, displaying fantastic touch on throws over the top of the Rams secondary and ripping passes into crowded windows. He notched 17.6 expected points added on his dropbacks and his 82.8 completion rate was 10.5 points higher than expected, per Ben Baldwin’s database.

Of course, several of the completions were set up by Murray using his legs. In the second quarter, he scrambled out of trouble on a third-and-16 in Rams territory, faking out linebacker Kenny Young with his subtle hesitation move before racing around him and another defender to pick up the first down. Facing a third-and-14 before halftime, he scurried up the pocket as L.A.’s pass rushers zoomed by, then flipped a completion to Rondale Moore, who picked up a first down after getting by Jalen Ramsey.

“He continues to impress me with that: knowing when to take off and when the party’s over and throw it away, and then knowing where his outlets are and his shutdowns,” Kingsbury said. “We were off on third down last week. He came back and was really dynamic on third down with his feet and his arm.”

Murray’s speed makes him a thrill to watch, but it wasn’t by design that he made as much use of his legs as he did Sunday. Running back Chase Edmonds estimated that Murray had just one designed run called for him. “It’s a total difference right now in our identity,” Edmonds said. “Last year, K1 would’ve had five to six designed runs a game for him.” In defiance of conventional Air Raid knowledge, Kingsbury’s Cardinals have continued to rank among the NFL’s least pass-heavy offenses, entering Sunday ranked tied for eighth in early-down run rate. Murray said he was confident in Kingsbury’s strategy for the game, calling it “the best game plan that I think personally we’ve had since I’ve been in the league.” (Unfortunately it didn’t involve trick plays with dorky names being drawn up on a whiteboard.)

The Rams defense often dared Arizona to run the football. The Cardinals frequently obliged, running the ball 31 times for a 45 percent success rate on early downs, according to Baldwin’s database. Edmonds rushed 120 yards on 12 carries; James Conner added 50 yards and two TDs on 18 rushes. Effectively winning the line of scrimmage was difficult last year for Arizona, but this season the team boasts linemen up front capable of doing so. Specifically, three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson, an offseason acquisition, has stabilized the Cardinals front by providing a poised, experienced presence who can contribute to pre-snap dialogue.

“I cannot tell you how valuable he’s been changing the dynamic in that room and whatever pieces we roll through there,” Kingsbury said. “He gets them calmed down and he gets them lined up and playing at a high level. Collectively, we’re just progressing as an offense and we’ve got a long way to go still, but it was a good step in the right direction.”

The defense is also looking the part. The Cardinals secondary continued its vulturous ways, as cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. intercepted a deep Stafford pass intended for DeSean Jackson during the first quarter. In the second quarter, outside linebacker Markus Golden knocked the ball out of Sony Michel’s hands and Baker recovered it to set up the Arizona offense in L.A. territory. The Cardinals secondary held its own as the Rams offense leaned on Stafford’s arm to chase the game. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s unit, which entered Sunday ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, kept the Rams out of the end zone for nearly three consecutive quarters.

“They still had some big-time plays,” Kingsbury said. “But I thought we did just enough to create some turnovers and really turn the tide.” Now, the hope is that the wave can carry throughout the rest of the season.

The Cardinals weren’t perfect Sunday. Offensively, they found themselves in third-down situations far too often, yet converted at a high clip (8-for-13) thanks in large part to Murray’s ability to extend plays with his feet. The Rams initially found success running the ball, confusing the Cardinals defense by using jet motions, before Joseph made a halftime adjustment to slow McVay’s run game down. Arizona didn’t have to defend the run as much during the second half anyway, after it built a comfortable lead. Stafford also missed some throws Sunday that he usually will hit. It’s nitpicking, but Kingsbury himself said that the Cardinals could be more consistent in terms of making routine plays.

“I think we can get better,” Hudson said. “Along those drives, even when we score sometimes, earlier in the drive we made mistakes that put us in some situations that could have hurt us.”

Learning how to outgrow self-inflicted mistakes is where added experience can prove useful. When the Cardinals signed a handful of vets such as Hudson, J.J. Watt, and A.J. Green, skepticism was warranted considering where those players are at in their careers. But in addition to bringing an element of physicality that had been missing from Arizona through Kingsbury’s first few seasons, they’re helping establish a tougher culture.

“If you go look at the guys who were brought here, they’re used to winning and played in great organizations that are used to winning,” Murray said. “They brought that over here.”

For plenty of Cardinals—like Edmonds, who Arizona drafted in 2018—winning seasons are foreign. Edmonds still reminisces with receiver Christian Kirk about how the Cardinals finished 3-13 their rookie season. The two are far removed from those days now. “It’s just different when you really had to grind for this and finally be on a successful team,” Edmonds said.

Still, big hurdles remain for the Cardinals. Each of the other three coaches in the NFC West have already led their teams to a Super Bowl appearance. Arizona hasn’t won an NFC West crown since 2015, the last year it posted a winning regular-season record.

“This division, you see it week in and week out,” Kingsbury said. “I mean, anybody can beat anybody, and we know that. The talent level is tremendous. The quarterback play is tremendous and so as it progresses, as health changes, things like that, you just never know with the NFC West.”

Over the offseason, the Cardinals declared that they were no longer going to be the division’s lightweights. Four weeks into the campaign, it’s clear that the NFC West—and the rest of the NFL—should take them seriously. More seriously than any Ted Lasso–coached squad, at least.