Arizona on the charge: How the Cardinals have become contenders

Kyler Murray throws the abll
How good can the Cardinals become? Photo from The Ringer.

Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals are legitimate contenders in the NFL in 2020. It’s not just talk anymore. Not after Murray and Cards outlasted Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday Night Football in Week 7.

Arizona won 37-34 after an epic struggle in overtime. The game not only showcased Murray’s burgeoning brilliance. It also showed off the supporting cast making life easier for 2019’s No.1 overall pick.

Murray taking on Wilson, the league’s best quarterback, made Sunday’s NFC West clash a marquee event. Neither QB disappointed, with Murray earning the last laugh after throwing for 360 yards and three touchdowns, to go with 67 yards rushing and a score on the ground.

Murray’s dual-threat skills make him Wilson’s natural heir. Like the Seahawks, the Cardinals have wisely built around the face of the franchise.

It started with hiring Kliff Kingsbury a year ago. Kingsbury was plucked from the collegiate ranks, where he’d worked with a certain Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech.

The Cards made the move after deciding former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was one and done after a 3-13 finish in 2018. Wilks couldn’t keep veteran quarterback Sam Bradford healthy. Nor could he get rookie Josh Rosen up to speed.

Rosen was drafted 10th overall by Arizona two years, ago, but he never lived up to the billing. Rather than dig their heels in and try to milk their investment in vain, the Cards quickly admitted their mistake.

General manager Steve Keim pursued Murray in the 2019 draft and brought in a coach who would let his skills flourish. Kingsbury promised an Air Raid-style offense many doubted would work at the pro level.


The doubters appeared vindicated for a while, but Kingsbury and Murray steadily developed a rapport. At the same time, Keim began selectively putting the right pieces around his quarterback. A smart, mid-season trade brought Kenyon Drake over from the Miami Dolphins to give Murray a running game he could trust.

Keim’s signature move was greenlighting the trade for DeAndre Hopkins earlier this year. Bill O’Brien had the controls for the Houston Texans and decided dealing away the premier wide receiver in the game was a good idea. All the Cardinals gave up was brittle runner David Johnson, a second-round pick this year, and a fourth for 2021.

Hopkins hasn’t disappointed. Instead, he’s caught 57 passes for 704 yards and three scores through seven games. He’s given Kingsbury the ideal weapon for his vertical attack and quickly become Murray’s favourite target.

Defenses focusing on Hopkins has opened up space for Murray’s bevy of other weapons. They include Larry Fitzgerald, the modern-day version of Jerry Rice. Then there’s Christian Kirk, a young receiver of great promise, while Andy Isabella is a deep threat defenses can’t ignore.

H-Back Dan Arnold and backfield pass-catcher Chase Edmonds round out a classy group that ensures Murray is never lacking for options. Every member of this group caught at least one pass against Seattle.

Imagine for a moment you’re an NFL defensive coordinator tasked with stopping the Arizona offense. Go ahead, pick your poison.

Double Hopkins and you’ll let Fitzgerald or Kirk, who scored twice against the Seahawks, run riot. Take away the underneath routes, and Murray will heave one deep to Isabella. Play zone and Arnold and Edmunds will exploit the soft spots.

Okay, so you’re going to lock up Murray’s receivers in man coverage? Not a bad idea, but now you don’t have enough eyes on perhaps the quickest running quarterback in the game.

Now you’re playing zone, spying Murray, and keeping safeties deep to take away any vertical strikes to Hopkins or Isabella. That’s when Kingsbury calls Drake’s number and he gashes you on the ground.

The Cardinals are putting defenses in a bind each week, but their own defense is starting to come up big in clutch moments.

When Keim hired Kingsbury, he also tabbed Vance Joseph to be defensive coordinator. It made sense to have an experienced man next to an unproven, first-year head coach. Joseph had worked alongside Wade Phillips and even had a stint in charge of the Denver Broncos.

Joseph’s first season in the desert didn’t go to plan, but he has the Cards’ defense making big plays in 2020, even with premier pass-rusher Chandler Jones on the shelf. Jones has been missed, but the Cardinals have other playmakers, notably safety Budda Baker.

Joseph is using Baker as a seek-and-destroy missile who will blitz from any side of the formation at any time. Baker also has the skills to match receivers in the slot or on the outside, allowing the Cards to disguise pressure and coverage.

It was Baker who snatched the first of three picks thrown by Wilson on Sunday night. Each time, Seattle’s quarterback appeared fooled by coverage.

Wilson’s third interception was collected by rookie Isaiah Simmons in overtime. Arizona made Simmons the eighth pick in April’s draft largely because he’s a linebacker with the speed and ball skills of a defensive back.

Simmons is one more versatile piece for Joseph’s increasingly flexible schemes. The playbook has helped former first-round pick Hasson Reddick revive a stalled career.

Reddick has been moved to the edge and allowed to focus on rushing the passer. He’s responded with five sacks, three in his last two games.

This isn’t a dominant defense, but it is a big-play unit capable of getting the ball back to Murray and Co. in key situations.

Improved personnel and play-calling have made Arizona a contender, but Kingsbury and his staff also deserve credit for the way they’ve motivated this team. The Cardinals twice trailed the Seahawks and a red-hot Wilson by 13 points on Sunday but refused to quit.

They hung around long enough to seize momentum in the decisive moments. That’s a product of belief, not only in your chances of winning but also in what your coaches are selling.

Kingsbury has the 5-2 Cardinals hot on the Seahawks’ heels in the West and believing anything’s possible.

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