2021 NFL Preview: Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury got himself on the hot seat in a hurry

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·8 min read
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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Kliff Kingsbury was an unusual hire by the Arizona Cardinals. He couldn't win in the Big 12, but the Cardinals were banking on him winning in the NFL. 

Two years into the experiment, Kingsbury has had mixed reviews at best. 

When the Cardinals fell apart last season, a lot of the blame fell on their head coach. In 2019, the Cardinals were a respectable 3-3-1 before losing seven of their last nine. Last season the Cardinals started 6-3 and missed the playoffs. They lost games they had no business losing. The Cardinals led the NFL in penalties. Kingbury's playcalling and game management were questioned. His offense has been good but far from great. Through nine games Kingsbury looked fine. Then it went sour. 

This is a crossroads season for the Cardinals. Kingsbury has done some good things. The Cardinals, and especially quarterback Kyler Murray, looked pretty good during that 6-3 start. Arizona did improve from Kingsbury's first year to his second. Yet if the Cardinals don't improve on their 8-8 record, Kingsbury might be done. It wouldn't take you long to find stories about him being on the hot seat

Last season was frustrating. The Cardinals' point differential of +43 indicated they should have been a 9-7 team. They underachieved in that area. They ranked No. 13 in Football Outsiders' DVOA, which was better than four playoff teams. It was disappointing to finish .500 and out of the playoffs, especially after a good start. The Chicago Bears were 8-8 too but got the NFC's final playoff spot due to the tiebreaker. Had Kyler Murray not injured his shoulder (it was apparent he was injured in Week 11 against Seattle, but told PFT he actually suffered the injury against Miami in Week 9) or had to exit the season finale with a leg injury, maybe we'd be having a much different conversation about Kingsbury and the Cardinals. But that's life in the NFL. 

The Cardinals have the talent to make the playoffs. Murray is electric. DeAndre Hopkins was every bit the player the Cardinals were hoping for when Bill O'Brien gave him away. J.J. Watt joins a defense that was better than expected last season. 

The time is now. When teams make out-of-the-box hires, there's usually not much patience given. Kingsbury has had two chances, and his second chance ended in a disappointing second-half collapse. Without a playoff berth in year three, there might not be a year four. 

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury faces a critical season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury faces a critical season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Cardinals jumped at the chance to land J.J. Watt when the Houston Texans cut him. He got a two-year deal with $23 million guaranteed. It's risky considering Watt is 32 with some serious injuries in his history, but he played well last season and can be a difference maker. Adding center Rodney Hudson in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders settles that position. Malcolm Butler was signed to replace longtime star Patrick Peterson at cornerback, and James Conner replaces Kenyan Drake at running back. Arizona took a shot on A.J. Green having a revival now that he has escaped the Cincinnati Bengals. Losing Haason Reddick after he had a breakout was hard, but bringing Watt aboard helps. The draft was decent, with first-round linebacker Zaven Collins as the standout and perhaps second-round receiver Rondale Moore helping right away. 

Grade: B-

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Through 10 games, Kyler Murray was on an incredible pace. His 10-game stats prorated over a 16-game season: 4,230 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, 990 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns. He had a 98.7 passer rating. He was one of the best players in the NFL. Then in Week 11 against Seattle, he injured his shoulder. He said the injury happened two games earlier, but it was clearly aggravated against the Seahawks and his numbers the rest of the way were well off his earlier pace. Over the last six games he had a 86.8 passer rating and ran much less, with just 200 yards and one touchdown. If you have optimism for the 2021 Cardinals, it's tied to what Murray can do if he stays healthy all season. Given his size and how much he runs, full health over a season isn't a given. That's scary, considering what he means to the Cardinals' success. 

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The Cardinals' win total at BetMGM is 8.5, and I prefer the over. We saw the upside for this team over the first nine games last season, and Kyler Murray's injuries likely cost them at least one win. There are reasons to believe the Cardinals take a step back, especially if you don't trust their coach, but I think there's a good chance for an improvement. I also like Cardinals to make the playoffs at +185. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It's no fun to fade Kyler Murray, who's quickly become one of the league's signature players. But I'm not fully on board with his passing skills yet, and his rushing pace through two seasons could prove unsustainable. 

"Murray's ground stats dried up down the stretch, in part due to an injury, but it's also plausible that teams were smarter about defending him. I'm not a believer in Kliff Kingsbury, and the skill talent appears similar to last year. I'm not dismissing the idea of drafting a vanity quarterback, someone in the first tier, but Murray makes me nervous."

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The Cardinals defense was a little underrated last season. They finished 10th in Football Outsiders' DVOA, seventh in weighted DVOA (which gives extra credit to late-season performance and indicated improvement for Arizona) and ninth in pass DVOA. That happened with Chandler Jones missing 11 games. The Cardinals get Jones back and added J.J. Watt. While they're both in their 30s, they're elite players. If the Cardinals continue to figure out the best ways to use 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons and get a contribution from this year's first-round pick Zaven Collins, there's no reason the Cardinals can't be a top-10 defense again. Maybe better, if last season's late improvement was legitimate. 

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Can anyone other than DeAndre Hopkins make plays? 

Hopkins had 160 targets his first Cardinals season. Nobody else had more than 79. It's not like that was a bad decision. Nobody on the Cardinals deserved half as many targets as Hopkins. This season won't be much different. Christian Kirk is solid but unspectacular, Larry Fitzgerald is in limbo for this season, Rondale Moore is an exciting rookie but no sure thing, and there's nobody else on the Cardinals depth chart that's a great breakout candidate unless 2019 second-round pick Andy Isabella takes a big step forward. Chase Edmonds might be the Cardinals' second-best receiver and he plays running back. Hopkins is durable and as productive as ever, but the Cardinals' offense could use a reliable second option. 

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A bit surprisingly, the Cardinals' offense hasn't been all that great under Kliff Kingsbury. But there are times it does look like it's on the verge. Kyler Murray is a special talent. Murray has only two seasons as a starter and a third-year jump is possible. If he does that, he'll be an MVP candidate. The Cardinals have a good defense, perhaps with an offense to match, and that 6-3 start last season showed what they're capable of. If the offense explodes with Murray having a huge season, the Cardinals can win a very good NFC West. That would be a great accomplishment. 

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Maybe it just doesn't happen for Kliff Kingsbury in year three. There doesn't seem to be a lot of league-wide confidence in him. In a tough division, the Cardinals could take a big step back. Then the Cardinals would probably be chasing a new coach that has to be a good fit for Kyler Murray's skill set and revamping things on the fly. Key players like Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt and Rodney Hudson are in their 30s and DeAndre Hopkins and linebacker Jordan Hicks turn 30 next June. Starting over next offseason wouldn't be fun. 

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I don't really believe in Kliff Kingsbury, but I do believe in Kyler Murray. What he did the first 10 games of last season was incredible, and with some better injury luck he can sustain that over a full season. If you get an MVP-type season from a quarterback, you're usually a playoff team (or the 2020 Houston Texans). The competition for playoff spots will be fierce in the NFC, but I think the Cardinals will be in the mix. A couple lucky breaks here or there, and not blowing winnable games late in the season, and they could find themselves in the postseason. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team

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