Bruce Arians gets last laugh as Cardinals gift game to Buccaneers
Arizona was very good to Bruce Arians. The Cardinals gave him one final present on Sunday.
They coughed up a fourth-quarter lead and a chance to trump their former coach. They wasted three touchdowns from Christian Kirk, vintage moments from Larry Fitzgerald, an NFL record for Kyler Murray and squandered Maxx Williams’ only real chance for atonement.
They suffered their most agonizing defeat of the season: A day when the Florida sun was as bright as Arizona’s future, only to have the final score burn the Cardinals to their core:
Arians 1, Arizona 0.
Nothing against Arians, a former civic treasure and one of the most entertaining head coaches in Valley history. But this game should’ve been a resounding victory and powerful validation for Kliff Kingsbury, who had a great game as risk-taker and play-caller, atoning for his own series of questionable calls in the previous two games.
Kingsbury rolled the dice thrice on fourth down, busting Williams free for a wide-open touchdown. Except his tight end could not catch the ball.
The gaffe was proof that fourth-down analytics are a failed strategy in the NFL. Computer algorithms can’t quantify the heat of the moment, where there is infinite space for human error. It will be a burden Williams will shoulder forever, especially without the cosmetic blessing of a victory.
Yet Kingsbury showed great compassion. He put Williams back in the game, where he would catch one more pass. He also called for a zany fake punt, with Andy Lee somehow completing a pass to a well-covered wide receiver.
Those moments will only build trust for the rookie head coach inside the locker room. As a player’s coach. A guy’s guy.
Apparently, Kingsbury has also learned his Fitzgerald lesson, that no game plan is good without him. It’s a very basic truth, but for some reason, incoming head coaches don’t always recognize Fitzgerald’s brand of greatness.
The harder he gets hit, the more energy he exudes. The more he is targeted in the passing game, the sooner the offense elevates. He always shines in the biggest moments. Like the acrobatic fourth-down reception in the first half that led to a Kirk touchdown, a play that represented why you get him the football at all costs.
There were Cardinals players who might’ve been harboring grudges against Arians entering Sunday’s game. D.J. Humphries doesn’t hide his resentment. David Johnson was always a verbal target and waited forever to earn his first game ball under Arians. Neither of those players distinguished themselves on Sunday, when it mattered, and it’s becoming torturous watching Johnson attempt to run the football.
Also: Neither of them endured what Fitzgerald did during his early years under Arians, when the head coach moved a Hall of Famer to slot receiver, telling him to block and catch in traffic.
Fitzgerald made sure his greatness was still on display against the Buccaneers. These are the moments he lives for.
On the other sideline, Arians was starving for a victory. His Buccaneers were 2-6 entering Sunday’s game. He had his first four-game losing streak as NFL head coach. His new franchise hadn’t won a home game since Week 13 of 2018, and the attendance was spotty. And as the Cardinals were pulling away with a late victory, Arians was in line for an ugly loss to a 40-year old colleague, a man left to bark at officials after squandering two timeouts to the replay challenge process, sabotaging his own team.
Then it all changed.
Trent Sherfield slipped. Murray’s interception-less streak ended. The Cardinals defense folded for Arians just like it did in the Super Bowl, in the same stadium, when he was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers.
The officials got involved, too, but I will blow a gasket if I spend one more minute thinking about them.
Alas, there was no coming back once Tampa regained the lead. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles showed why he’s one of the best closers in this business, ratcheting up the pressure on Murray, forcing the issue, saving the moment for his good friend Bruce. And so it ended on a brutal Sunday in Florida, when the Cardinals coughed up an impact statement, when lessons were served and justice was not.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.