DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals finding lost mojo from years past as season progresses

Oct 13, 2019, 7:30 PM | Updated: Oct 14, 2019, 9:56 am
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) warms up prior to an NFL football game against the A...
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) warms up prior to an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Magic returned to State Farm Stadium on Sunday. Like a long-lost friend.

It’s been a while.

It came in the form of generous officiating. It came in the form of a game-tying extra point that hooked left, making everything alright. And when Kyler Murray took his first knee in Arizona, securing a 34-33 triumph over the Falcons, there was a new kind of optimism in the Valley.

The Cardinals have a two-game winning streak. This unprecedented pairing of a failed college coach and a diminutive quarterback is working and getting better all the time. The new regime posted two victories and one tie in the six games without Patrick Peterson, a momentous achievement. They trail the mighty Rams by only a half-game.

Of course, the Rams are in third place. But progress is all that matters.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet,” rookie NFL head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “We’re getting there. It’s a work in progress.”

This game was a testament to Steve Keim’s vision when hiring Kingsbury out of USC, where he landed after getting fired at Texas Tech. Kingsbury showed off the bandwidth of his offense on Sunday, rolling out flea flickers, throw-back screen passes to the tight end and all sorts of pre-snap shenanigans. He made Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter look antiquated and incompetent by comparison, and the tempo of his offense made a difference on Sunday.

Star receiver Larry Fitzgerald said the team practices significantly faster than they’re allowed to play on Sunday afternoons, where officials can stand over the football and dictate the pace of game. He also said the Falcons were obviously laboring on defense, breathing heavily, struggling to keep up with Kingsbury’s Cardinals.

Of course, it wasn’t all pretty. This game was also an indictment of Vance Joseph, the failed NFL head coach that Keim chose to revamp his defense. For the second consecutive week, the Cardinals coughed up a 14-point lead in the second half. Their secondary is in shambles, allowing receivers to roam free and unattended. They still don’t know how to cover tight ends.

In the end, they received another mulligan on Sunday. Fair enough. They will add Peterson to the mix this week. He’s the best cover cornerback in the NFL and a first-rate leader. It should make a difference. And if Joseph’s unit doesn’t improve, it will be a colossal failure for Keim to draft such an impact quarterback and leave the other side of the football so vulnerable.

While Cardinals fans were going bonkers on social media, Kingsbury downplayed the implications of Atlanta’s comeback.

“That’s NFL football … (the Falcons) have tremendous talent,” Kingsbury said. “You knew they’d come back.”

The Cardinals prevailed because their polarizing running back, David Johnson, made another pivotal catch late in the fourth quarter. They prevailed because every huge officiating decision went in their favor.

To wit:

Both Fitzgerald and Kyler Murray were convinced that Damiere Byrd football near the goal line. The officials saw otherwise. Same with Murray’s late-scramble for a first down. It was like Cardinals fans were being compensated for the dank basement we occupied in 2018.

Mostly, the Cardinals prevailed because Kyler Murray is the real deal. His skill set is unreal. He is the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era with 20 or more completions in his first six games. He has an uncanny feel for taking care of the football. He constantly changes momentum and the course of games with chunk plays that seem to come so easy for him. His composure is profound.

“That’s who he is,” Kingsbury said. “It’s hard to rattle him. He comes over after a touchdown and I kind of want to see him smile. And he looks like, ‘OK, here we go again.’ ”

On Sunday, the Cardinals also went deep, stretching the defense, throwing over the top. And it’s Murray’s accuracy throwing the football that makes their future and our future so bright.

“He’s a freak, you know, when it comes to that … if you’re just having a throwing contest, you can put him up against anybody,” Kingsbury said.

In the end, the Cardinals have survived six weeks without their best football player. We have learned that Peterson might not be their best football player any longer.

Murray is validating the franchise’s controversial decision to select quarterbacks in the first round of successive NFL drafts. The decision to trade-up from Josh Rosen looks especially sage, and will ultimately save Keim’s job. And now the magic has returned.

Entering Sunday’s game, the Cardinals had won only 10 of their previous 27 home games. Their beloved red sea was spawning red seats, the vacant chairs and unused tickets that are the first sign of apathy. They were missing the mojo they so often enjoyed while playing in Glendale, when the din and decibel levels rattled incoming opponents, when thrilling victories and end-game heroics seemed to happen on demand.

The new quarterback is changing all of that. And surely, a home-field advantage and a contending football team isn’t far behind.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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