When the Arizona Cardinals hosted the New England Patriots on Monday, it seemed like their enter season was on the line. With a 4-8 record, the Cardinals likely needed to win out the remainder of their games to qualify for the postseason. This was not how their season was supposed to transpire.
Owner Michael Bidwell inked contract extensions to general manager Steve Keim, head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and quarterback Kyler Murray. This took an act of faith when considering that the Cardinals only made the playoffs once in Kingsbury and Murray’s previous three seasons with the organization. It has been a history defined by fast starts but steep late-season collapses. Two years ago, Arizona opened the year with a 5-2 record before losing five of their last seven games to settle for an 8-8 mark. Last year, The Cardinals won the first seven games of the season before losing five of their last six games for an 11-6 regular season record that earned them a date in Los Angeles against the Rams in the NFC Wildcard round. They got crushed in that game by a 34-11 score.
Murray still had two years on his contract going into the 2022-23 season. Bidwell decided to relent to Murray and his agent’s demands to get a contract extension signed before the season started. A controversy ensued when there was an alleged clause in the contract that required Murray to dedicate four or more hours of study time per week when away from the team facilities, which many took as an insult since this is the standard operating procedure for most starting quarterbacks in the league.
The rocky foundation from which this contract was signed carried over into the regular season. Arizona was scoring only 22.0 Points-Per-Game heading into Monday night’s game. Murray and Kingsbury have openly feuded on the sidelines. Injuries have played a role. The game against the Patriots was just the second time all season that wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown were healthy and playing together. But these excuses only go so far after the major parties that represent this team signed big extensions. Even without both top-end wide receivers, Murray’s numbers have been unacceptable.
Arizona went into Week 14 ranking 29th in the league in Offensive DVOA using the metrics at Football Outsiders — bottoming out at 27th in the run and 28th in the passing game. Murray appeared to be regressing — and that evidence started with his struggles against pressure. He had been sacked 18 times in his last three starts (all losses) — he got sacked once for every 12 of his dropbacks. His Passer Rating of 12.8 when under pressure is in the NFL. But it was not just handling pressure where Murray is struggling since he signed his large contract extension — it is when he is not dinking and dunking in the passing game. In passes of at least 10 air yards (which is still technically considered intermediate), he has completed only 49 of 108 passes for a 45.4% completion percentage with two touchdowns on those throws but six interceptions. Furthermore, the 8.4 yards per attempt he is averaging on those throws is the third worst in the NFL — only Kenny Pickett and Joe Flacco have lower YPA averages.
The exclamation point was this: Murray had lost sixteen of his last twenty starts at home. Frankly, if Kingsbury was not able to turn things around, I expected him to be one of the first coaches fired on Black Monday the day after the regular season ended. He has always been a lightning rod since he was hired by the Cardinals even though Texas Tech, his alma mater, fired him after he failed to post a winning record. Perhaps Murray is to blame here — but you can’t fire the quarterback that you just signed to a big extension.
Yet all of that changed when Murray suffered a torn ACL injury early in Monday night’s game. The recovery time on this injury is in the 10-12 month range — meaning Murray’s return ranges from next Halloween to next Christmas, depending on how the rehab process goes (and the deeper analytics do indicate that playing video games six hours a day does not help in the rehab process). Even if Murray were to return next year, the mobility that has been such a critical element of his skill set will take longer to get back to 100%. Donovan McNabb needed more than one season to get back to his previous mobility — and he developed into more of a dropback passer who was never the same running threat as he was pre-injury. Only recently has Joe Burrow regained his pocket mobility and scrambling skills he had before he tore his ACL two seasons ago. This is a devastating injury for Murray at a critical juncture in his career. If Bidwell had not signed him to the contract extension in the summer, raise your hand if you think Murray gets a new deal with the team after this injury. I am not seeing many hands …
So what does this organization do now? After losing to New England on Monday, this season looks over. They have one of the better backups in the league in Colt McCoy, but he is probably not a preferred starting quarterback next season.
But what the Murray injury does is put on hold the divorce proceedings between Kingsbury and him. Furthermore, I think this just bought Kingsbury another year as the team’s head coach. The Cardinals can now bring in a veteran out of a group of free-agent quarterbacks that will include Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady, Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston, Sam Darnold, and Carson Wentz — with other quarterbacks like Zach Wilson and Drew Lock perhaps attainable. The team can take a flier on these players and determine if Kingsbury has the chops to put them in a position to fulfill their vast potential. The team can also draft a quarterback after the first round. If Kingsbury succeeds next season with one of these quarterbacks, then perhaps Murray has to compete for a job in 2024-25 (and he is given the entire season to rehabilitate his leg). If Kingsbury fails with another quarterback, then Murray can probably get on the field before the end of next season to see how it goes (and remove the stigma of his injury, moving forward). At that point, going into the 2024-25 season, Murray and his contract might be moveable.
The news then came out on Wednesday that Keim is going on an indefinite leave of absence due to health reasons. This development only increases the likelihood that Kingsbury is given one more year since he offers stability for the franchise. Who knows, at this point, how long Keim will be away from the team? Presumably, Bidwell would want his long-term general manager making the head coach and quarterback decisions. The Keim situation should get settled before other big decisions are made.
A week ago at this time, I firmly believed Kingsbury’s days were numbered. Now, I expect him to return for his fifth year as the head coach for the Arizona Cardinals. Cue Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast …”
Best of luck — Frank.