From fantasy football contenders to an old man and his offensive coordinator, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today, it’s Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and third-year quarterback Kyler Murray.
“As a comedian, you have to start the show strong and you have to end the show strong; those are the two key elements,” legendary stand-up Mitch Hedberg once quipped. “You can’t be like pancakes: all exciting at first, but then by the end, you’re fuckin’ sick of ’em.”
The Kliff Kingsbury Cardinals have been a lot like pancakes in each of the past two seasons.
I’m guessing pancakes were not what GM Steve Keim had in mind when he hit the reset button on the team heading into 2019, hiring a young, forward-thinking coach in Kingsbury before using the top pick in the draft to select an electrifying, Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback in Kyler Murray. Keim undoubtedly had the vision that his scintillating new duo would jump-start the team’s listless offense and put Arizona back on the map. And it worked! … Kinda. Kingsbury and Murray did manage to right the offensive ship, but those improvements weren’t enough: Arizona closed out the 2019 season by losing seven of its final nine games, finishing in last place in the NFC West with a 5-10-1 record.
The team followed a similar trajectory in 2020. Arizona got off to another hot start, soaring to a 6-3 record thanks to Murray’s dynamic skill set and his upgraded offensive core (which included newcomer DeAndre Hopkins, whose jump-ball prowess produced the Hail Murray win over the Bills). But a shoulder injury for Murray and some suspect play-calling and scheming from Kingsbury acted as a bucket of cold water, and the Cardinals once again fizzled to finish the season. They lost five of their final seven games to finish 8-8 and third in the division.
Now, there have certainly been moments over the past two seasons when Arizona has felt like an ascending franchise with its superstar quarterback and wunderkind play-caller. But mostly, the team’s struggles and late-season stumbles have overshadowed those positives and now leave the Kingsbury-Murray duo at a crossroads heading into 2021. Is it wheels-up time for Murray in the Kingsbury Air Raid, or will this offense once again struggle to get off the ground?
When Kingsbury inherited the Cardinals offense in 2019, he had a hilariously low bar to clear. The Josh Rosen– and Mike McCoy–led Cardinals had finished with a negative-41.8 percent DVOA in 2018, per Football Outsiders, which ranked dead last in the NFL and second worst for any team in the metric’s history (which goes back to 1983). So it’s not saying a whole lot that Kingsbury and Murray provided an instant upgrade for Arizona. Still, there were plenty of signs the team was heading in the right direction.
Murray posted an encouraging stat line as a rookie, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,722 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 picks, and an 87.4 passer rating while adding 544 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. And as a unit, Arizona improved to middle of the pack in points per game (22.6) while finishing with an offensive DVOA of 3.2 percent, which ranked 13th in the NFL. In fact, that 45-percentage-point DVOA jump from 2018 to 2019 ranked as the third-largest year-over-year improvement in the stat’s history.
Although Kingsbury and Murray breathed some much-needed life back into the Cardinals’ offense with more three- and four-receiver spread-offense sets and plenty of read-option concepts, the team’s much-anticipated Air Raid offense never fully materialized. Kingsbury tried to run his offense at a lightning pace early in the season, but it soon became apparent they didn’t have the personnel to execute the scheme he had in mind. After stumbling out of the gates to an 0-3-1 start, Kingsbury changed course, leaned more heavily on traditional pro-style schemes (deploying the signature four- and five-receiver sets less frequently while slowing things down), and both Murray and the offense gradually found their footing. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, the team’s run game was actually its biggest strength that season. Murray, who boasts RC-car-like quickness with extraordinary talent for escaping the pocket and keeping plays alive, was a big part of that success―but the team’s running backs also took advantage of the light boxes they regularly faced and the team finished the season second in rushing DVOA.
Heading into 2020, all signs pointed to this offense making a big leap in the second year of the Kingsbury experiment. Arizona had traded for Hopkins, Murray had gotten another offseason under his belt, and Kingsbury had been given a chance to fully implement his playbook. Sure enough, the early returns were good: Through 10 weeks, Arizona ranked seventh in the NFL in points per game (29.5), first in yards per game (425), and fourth in yards per play (6.2). During that stretch, Murray ranked seventh in passing yards (2,375), sixth in touchdown passes (17), and seventh in yards per attempt (7.6). Additionally, the diminutive signal-caller rushed for 604 yards (most among all quarterbacks and eighth leaguewide) and 10 touchdowns (second only to Dalvin Cook) in those games, confounding defenses with his electrifying speed.
But after exacerbating a shoulder injury in the team’s Week 11 loss to the Seahawks, Murray and the high-octane Cardinals offense screeched to a halt. As the Football Outsiders Almanac points out, the team’s Week 12 opponent, the Patriots, created an effective blueprint for matching up with Arizona. New England played with five-plus defensive backs on all but one play, suffocating team speed to match up with the Cardinals’ pass catchers and corralling Murray in the read-option game. Arizona’s opponents took notice, implementing similar strategies down the stretch. After devastating defenses on the ground in the first 10 weeks, Murray averaged just 33 yards on the ground per game over his final six outings, finding pay dirt once. The team’s passing game and overall offense suffered too. From Week 11 on, the Cardinals averaged just 20.6 points per game (24th), 4.9 yards per play (28th), and 332 yards per game (24th). Arizona finished the season with a worse offensive DVOA (negative-2.4 percent, which ranked 19th) than it had in 2019.
Murray’s shoulder injury was clearly an issue, but there were plenty of other reasons for the Cardinals’ drop-off over the second half of the season. Kingsbury failed to adapt to the speed opposing defenses brought to the table down the stretch. He leaned heavily on the RPO game, and as Ringer colleague Steven Ruiz wrote at For the Win last year, they weren’t always the good kinds of RPOs. Instead of attacking defenses vertically, Kingsbury had Murray run plenty of wide receiver screens, earning Arizona the derisive “Horizontal Raid” nickname. Worse yet, the Cardinals didn’t have true difference-making yards-after-the-catch creators in their offense. Far too often, they were running screens with either Hopkins or the 37-year-old Larry Fitzgerald. Additionally, instead of utilizing a field-tilting pass catcher like Hopkins all over the field to isolate him in coverage and pick on opponents’ weakest areas, Kingsbury lined the veteran receiver up in the same spot on almost every snap and asked him to run the same few routes all game long.
DeAndre Hopkins route tree over his last three games has been... limited pic.twitter.com/dQzK9ZQtbV— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) December 8, 2020
Perhaps more concerning, the team, despite its previously efficient run game, couldn’t take advantage of the high rate of light boxes (six or fewer defenders) it lined up against. After finishing second in DVOA in 2019, Arizona ranked just 17th in that metric last year. They finished tied for 24th in stuffed rate, per Football Outsiders (with running backs getting stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 19 percent of the time), far too often keeping the offense off-schedule on early downs. Murray wasn’t good on third or fourth down either, and the Cardinals finished 28th in DVOA in those situations.
So can we expect Kingsbury, Murray, and the Cardinals offense to finally make the jump in 2021? I’m torn. On the one hand, Arizona has upgraded its offensive skill group over the offseason, bolstering Hopkins with veteran free agent A.J. Green while selecting the ultra-athletic Rondale Moore in the second round of the draft. Green could give the team more options for moving its receivers around the formation and provide Murray with another experienced deep threat. Moore, meanwhile, could feast in Kingsbury’s screen-heavy offense. Instead of picking up 2 or 3 yards here and there like we saw frequently from Hopkins and Fitzgerald, the former Purdue star has drag-racer acceleration and high-end speed to evade tacklers and create explosive plays. That should be a massive boost for the offense even if the Horizontal Raid remains. It should also help if Murray can get back to menacing defenses on scrambles and designed runs with his Ducati-like wheels.
On the other hand, I’ve still got a healthy dose of skepticism that Kingsbury is the offensive pioneer that the Cardinals thought they were getting when they hired him from the college ranks. Kingsbury needs to get his run game rolling again this season, but more crucially, he’ll have to prove that his signature style of offense can work for a full season. Arizona remained the fastest offense in the league in neutral situations last year, and that’s a plus, but I’m still waiting for Kingsbury to unleash Murray as an aggressive downfield passer in the mold of Patrick Mahomes. Going back to his days at Oklahoma, Murray has always been a pinpoint passer on vertical throws―that was the case last year, when he threw nine touchdowns and zero picks on throws of 20-plus yards.
But Murray threw deep on only 11.5 percent of his passes last year, per PFF, which tied for 22nd among 39 qualifying quarterbacks (that was his deep throw rate in 2019, too). His average depth of target, 8.3 yards, tied for 21st. Kingsbury sure seems to be leaving a lot of meat on the bone in the team’s passing game with such a screen-heavy, horizontally inclined passing game. And he’s likely running out of time to prove he can fix it.
This could be a make-or-break year for Kingsbury in Arizona. He’s got Murray, who brings the accuracy, arm strength, and aggressive mindset to the quarterback position. He’s got Hopkins, Green, and Moore, a trio of receivers who combine to offer speed, size, and the ability to threaten the defense deep. But now Kingsbury needs to prove he can unlock his young quarterback’s potential, get the Cardinals to start the season strong, and this time make sure that, by the end, fans aren’t fuckin’ sick of ’em.