The Cardinals got a minibye this weekend thanks to their Thursday night game, giving them a small break about halfway through the season – nine games in.
It's a good time to take stock in what the Cards have done in this first season of coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray. The Cardinals are 3-5-1 after the 28-25 loss to the 49ers, with four of their final seven games on the road, a bye coming in Week 12, and four division games left.
Kingsbury isn't looking big picture yet – "That's a post-season-type breakdown for me," he said – but GM Steve Keim acknowledged he was hoping for more.
"I'm discouraged because of the record," Keim said on 98.7, Arizona's Sports Station, after Thursday's loss to the 49ers. "I'm discouraged because obviously I would expect more for our fans and our organization, because that's our mindset.
"But I am encouraged by a number of the things I am seeing, the way we are moving the football, the way coach (Kingsbury) continues to grow as a playcaller, and the way a number of our young players are stepping up."
Nine games does give a good sense of where the Cardinals are. With that in mind, and the stretch run to come, here are the things we've learned about the team thus far:
Kyler Murray Indeed Has The Tools To Be A Franchise QB
Murray's development always was and will continue to be the main story of the Cardinals' season. There have been some divots in the first nine games. But mostly, Murray has been ahead of the curve in terms of his progression. He fits oh so perfectly into what Kingsbury wants to do. He already seems to have grasped better (although still improving) the needs for NFL pocket awareness, what he can and can't do against NFL speed, and how to take care of the ball. Trending like this, there is no reason to think Murray cannot eventually become exactly the kind of quarterback for whom a team spends the No. 1 overall pick.
Kliff Kingsbury's Offense Gives Reason For Hope
The reason Kingsbury was hired was to inject the offense with life. He has done that. But for those who expected it to be Chip Kelly, The Sequel, it has been anything but. Kingsbury's offense is intricate. There have been times, especially earlier in the season, when the degree of difficulty grew perhaps too much in certain situations. But it's already clear that Kingsbury can find ways to create holes for both the run and the pass, and in ways that can increase the value of any one individual player.
Kingsbury Is, Like Murray, A Work In Progress
One of the first things said about Kingsbury was his ability to be flexible and accept suggestions. All along, the Coach said he was going to be learning the NFL game after spending his coaching career on the college level. There will be missteps. At one point, Kingsbury even acknowledged there were so many plays in the college game he could afford to "waste" a couple to set up something later – a luxury he said he learned was not possible in the pro game. He will learn too from situations like Thursday night, like his timeout call before halftime (although Kingsbury said he would make the same decision again in that regard.) The point is that Kingsbury is willing to adapt – like using more 11 and 12 personnel instead of the 10 used so much early. That will help him and the team going forward.
The Cardinals Are Still Trying To Find Their Playmakers
Christian Kirk, David Johnson and Chase Edmonds got hurt. Andy Isabella has been slow to be integrated. Kenyan Drake has been, so far, a revelation. Maxx Williams has been better than expected. Larry Fitzgerald's role seems to be morphing. A hallmark of Kingsbury's offenses in college was often that there was not necessarily one or two go-to guys. The Cards will likely have to see what they have in the playmaker department in the offseason, after being able to real-time their offense to see exactly what they need. The guess is that this roster is not set up totally where it needs to be for Kingsbury to maximize what his offense can be.
The Defense Is Going To Struggle Against The Pass
Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 24 touchdown passes and been intercepted just twice this season against the Cardinals, with a 118.4 passer rating. That makes defensive success pretty hard to sustain. The Cardinals have been unable to get a consistent pass rush beyond Chandler Jones, and the coverage has struggled both with tight ends and with the youth in the secondary. As Steve Keim said Friday, the Cardinals have to have guys like Patrick Peterson play well. What he didn't say was that the margin for error right now is all but zero. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will have to work hard to make it work over the last seven games.
The Running Game Has Been Better Than Expected
Kingsbury made the point a few times in the offseason that the running game has always been an important part of his offense. But now that the regular season has unfolded, the coach has some stats to back it up. Even with the injuries at running back, the Cardinals are averaging 5.0 yards a carry as a team, which would be the franchise's best mark of all-time if it holds through the season. Some of that is because Murray can get you quick, unaccounted for carries for chunks of yards. But Edmonds looked good most of the time when he carried the ball, and Drake did Thursday. (Johnson has been up and down with his YPC.) It hasn't been only about the pass.
They Are Willing To Play Young Players
Playing inexperienced guys or rookies was all but necessary this season as the Cardinals try to rebuild. But not all coaches are comfortable doing that, and Kingsbury has been. Murray at QB. Justin Murray at right tackle (albeit out of necessity.) KeeSean Johnson at wide receiver, and probably more Isabella going forward. On defense, the secondary has the Thompson twins at safety, Deionte and Jalen, along with cornerback Byron Murphy. It'll give such players the foundation of some playing time when the Cards start 2020.