DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals defense sabotaging early success of Murray, Kingsbury

Nov 17, 2019, 6:43 PM | Updated: Nov 18, 2019, 11:19 am

Running back Tevin Coleman #26 of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the football against cornerback...

Running back Tevin Coleman #26 of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the football against cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. #33 of the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of the NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Cardinals are a strange stew. A vat full of sunshine and shame. Every spoonful is a surprise. Every week tastes a little bit different.

Their 36-26 loss to the 49ers on Sunday was just more of the same.

Clearly, the Cardinals have a bright future. They have the right quarterback. They have issues that come with a four-game losing streak. They have controversies and hard questions that even the presence of Kyler Murray can’t hide.

Like:

Do they have the right general manager?

The Cardinals led by 16 and twice rallied to reclaim the lead. They also showed off their Achilles Heel, a low-wattage defense that can’t make a stand at the end. Their inability to close out games is the surest sign of a defense void of playmakers, the men who make a difference when it really matters.

So, 11 weeks into the season, here’s a recap:

Steve Keim’s biggest gambit is paying huge dividends. The pairing of Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray — two rookies at the NFL’s most important positions — has raised the ceiling and changed the aesthetics of professional football in Arizona. It’s working.

There were powerful visuals. During his fourth-quarter touchdown run, Murray faked Nick Bosa out of his shoes, symbolizing once again how the Cardinals made the right decision on Draft Day 2019. In two games against the 49ers, Bosa was largely neutralized while Murray produced 51 points.

It was interesting to see the two players exchange jerseys after the game, and how disinterested Murray looked about the post-game trade.

Either way, Murray puts the Cardinals in a really good place. He brings a hope and an energy that transcends the losses and the last-place standing in the NFC West. He’s really good now, and brimming with untapped potential.

He’s ascending so fast that I would prefer only five other quarterbacks if starting a team from scratch: Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson. Maybe six, if you prefer Dak Prescott. That’s how impactful Murray has been as a rookie.

But the Cardinals continue to fail on defense. They make enough plays to keep things interesting. They are finally forcing turnovers. But they are highly erratic. They make Jimmy Garoppolo look like a Hall of Fame quarterback. They have so little talent at linebacker that the 49ers’ backup tight end scored two touchdowns on Sunday, a day that finalized the disappointment that is Haason Reddick.

This is where the story shifts to the handiwork of Keim, who will have huge amounts of money to spend in the coming offseason. He’s also the guy that overpaid Sam Bradford and overpaid for Terrell Suggs. He also gifted David Johnson a player-friendly contract that might haunt this organization well beyond this season, as Johnson did nothing again on Sunday, after Keim claimed he had a great week of practice.

Johnson is playing like he’s begging to be released. And how does Keim claim Johnson as one of his great success stories when Johnson has become such a flameout?

The success of Murray and Kingsbury are the great equalizers. Together, they are moving the ball with ease, with innovation and intensity, led by a quarterback who burns hot. They will surely buy Keim another season, at least.

But Keim’s previous six first-round draft picks were Jonathan Cooper, Deone Bucannon, D.J. Humphries, Robert Nkemdiche, Reddick and Josh Rosen. That’s how you end up with a wretched, unreliable defense. Like the one sabotaging the 2019 Cardinals.

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

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Cardinals defense sabotaging early success of Murray, Kingsbury