Year 2 of Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury is a matter of perspective
There are a lot of mixed feelings among Arizona Cardinals fans when it comes to the 2020 season.
And it really depends on perspective.
On one hand, the team followed a 6-3 start with a 2-5 record to finish 8-8 and miss out on the postseason due to an 18-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 17’s proverbial play-in game.
On the other, the Cardinals have now improved their record in each of the last two seasons (5-10-1 in 2019) — both of which were Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray’s first two years in Arizona — after finishing with the league’s worst record of 3-13 in 2018.
“When I look at [the head coach and quarterback] position, what I’m watching for is growth and progress, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing from both of those guys in their first two years. It’s a process,” Hall of Famer and former Cardinals QB Kurt Warner told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Tuesday.
“They’re building in the right direction and had a chance to go to the playoffs in their second year. To me, that’s success — that’s what you want to see.”
Expectations are the root of disappointment is the old saying, and the hype was pretty high after the Hail Murray, including possible MVP talks for Arizona’s second-year quarterback.
“It kind of seemed like the team went as Kyler went,” Warner said. “And when Kyler had good games and really kind of carried the team, they did well. When he struggled a little bit more, they just didn’t seem to have a bunch of ways to carry this team and win games outside of a good performance from their quarterback.”
Warner said both the team and Murray did improve in a lot of ways from year 1 to year 2, but added that “they’re not there yet.”
The Hall of Famer compared the 2020 Cardinals to the Miami Dolphins in that both squads started out well with young quarterbacks, but leveled out as the season went on and missed the postseason on the final day.
Warner added that stealing postseason experience would’ve been big for Arizona, even if the Cardinals didn’t make a deep playoff run.
“I think this is where this team is right now and they’re making strides and they’re growing,” he said. “And you have to hope that next year they make that final stride and then they can become a playoff-caliber team that can compete on a yearly basis.”
So what exactly is that next step the Cardinals need to take in order to continue improving and finish with an above .500 record for the first time since 2015?
“I think they still have to grow and evolve as an offense,” Warner said. “You still see a lot of coach Kingsbury’s college-esque feel to a lot of things that they do and in that, they put up a lot of yards and they move the ball really, really well in between the 20s.
“But where it really becomes vital is to be able to play at another level inside the 20s, to be able to put points on the board and A) sometimes be able to design things that create easy opportunities and B) your play-makers having to step up and make plays in those areas because everything’s tougher and it sometimes comes down to winning your one-on-one battles.”
Arizona finished No. 10 in the NFL in red zone conversion percentage at 65.5% by scoring 38 touchdowns in 58 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. The only team to find paydirt in the red area more than the Cardinals that didn’t make the playoffs was the Minnesota Vikings with 42 TDs on 59 attempts.
“That to me, more than anything else, is where they have to evolve to become a more complete offense inside the red zone and that’s play-calling and that’s quarterback play besides the run game,” Warner said. “Because you can’t always count on teams giving you the ability to run zone reads and getting a guy like Kyler out in space to be so dynamic.
“It’s more about evolving as a play-caller and growing and understanding how this thing works and how his guys play and I think it falls on their quarterback. It’s such a quarterback-driven league that you have to continue to get more and more efficient at seeing things and taking what’s there and making those throws and not depending so much on athleticism.”
Warner added that the way the process usually works is younger guys tend to fall back on their athletic ability and then become better in the pocket as they grow older, mature and understand the game and what the offense is trying to do.
However, perhaps a more telling statistic was Arizona’s third down conversion percentage, which at 39.6% (80-of-202) ranked No. 21 in the NFL.
“I think there’s some benefits in the league now because there’s a bigger college-feel to the game — the way passes are thrown, the quick stuff, screens, zone reads and RPOs,” Warner said. “I think Kliff is very comfortable in that world and they’ve done a lot of good things because of that in his first couple of years.
“But I still think NFL is distinctly different in certain areas — red zone, scoring points, situational football — and that’s where I believe Kliff needs to continue to improve, his quarterback needs to continue to improve in that area and that’s what makes you a consistently good team when you can put it all together.”