When coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense was labeled “pretty-boy football’ in the preseason, Cardinals players rushed to defend it, speaking confidently of the Air Raid scheme.
Internally, there was a bit more consternation, especially when it amassed only six points in the first three quarters of the season opener against the Lions.
"We didn't know what this was going to be, and we came out and started slow," left guard Justin Pugh said. "A lot of people, including some of us, were like, 'Is this going to work?'"
Eleven weeks later, not only have those fears been assuaged, but there is full-blown confidence that the Cardinals' offense is on the fast track. After a strong effort on Sunday against the 49ers, it is up to No. 9 in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings -- a remarkable turnaround after finishing last by a comfortable distance in 2018.
"We saw what we were able to accomplish (in a furious rally against the Lions), and we've been able to build off that in every game," Pugh said. "We've gone against some of the best defenses in the NFL and we've been able to score points on them. We're excited for where we're going."
Several offensive players pointed to two main reasons for the turnaround: the coach and the quarterback.
Many questioned the hire of Kingsbury following his dismissal from Texas Tech, and while the overall record of 3-7-1 is suboptimal, it's been crickets from critics when it comes to his offensive acumen.
"Kliff's system works," left tackle D.J. Humphries said. "I think we dealt with a lot of flak early on about how it was and how we were going about it. Now you see us going out there, and we're competing with all of these teams that are going to be in the playoffs. We're hanging points on all these teams, and it's like, 'Whoa, we didn't expect that from them.' It's like, 'Yeah, we know you didn't. We've been telling you this all year.'"
Chase Edmonds was optimistic about Kingsbury's hire from the outset because it meant a return to the spread system he enjoyed in college. The second-year running back bought in completely once the team started preparing for specific opponents.
"Kliff is an offensive genius," Edmonds said. "I really knew Kliff was the real deal in our transition from preseason games to regular season games, how the gameplans changed and how much more creative he got, just like that. He had a lot of plays stored up, and that's really when we saw it, man."
Kingsbury needed a trigger man, and No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray has been everything envisioned at quarterback. The 22-year-old is already in the top-10 of ESPN’s Total QBR metric and arguably the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"It's so exciting," Humphries said. "He's showing you the future. The fact that this kid was in college a year ago -- he was getting ready for the College Football Playoff a year ago -- and now he's in the locker room leading us the way that he is, it's super impressive. I can't wait to watch him grow."
Murray took some lumps in the first month of the season, but he's since hit another gear.
In the past seven games, Murray has averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt with 10 touchdowns and one interception. He has a passer rating of 100.5 and has been sacked only 15 times in that span, compared to 18 sacks taken in the first four games.
Murray has yet to lose a fumble this season and is averaging 6.24 yards per carry on 67 totes, which is on pace to be the 16th-best mark in NFL history provided he finishes with 100 rushing attempts.
"Kyler, he's going to be special," Edmonds said. "There are not too many quarterbacks in the National Football League you would take over him in terms of starting a franchise. I mean, Patty (Mahomes), maybe, and you could argue Deshaun (Watson) and Lamar (Jackson), maybe, but outside of that? If he progresses – and he has to continue to work hard – I could see him being a Tier I quarterback. That's truly what I see. I'm not just saying that as his teammate. He brings that completely different dynamic."
The Cardinals have consistently moved the ball this season, as their scoring drive percentage of 41.0 is sixth-highest in the NFL. They have also limited giveaways, as their turnover percentage of 6.6 is third-lowest.
The Cardinals can take another step with improved performance in the red zone, where their touchdown conversion rate sits at only 36.8 percent, fourth-worst in the league. Pugh would also like to see the offense salt away wins with successful late-game drives.
"I think these next five games will set the tone for this offseason," Pugh said. "We have to take this bye week, reflect on what we've been able to do, and then see how much further we have to go to rise up in those critical moments. That's the one thing that keeps ringing home for me. If we can get that accomplished in the next five weeks, we're going to be a dangerous team moving forward."