DAN BICKLEY

Arizona Cardinals’ 2021 roadmap to success littered with uncertainty

Sep 7, 2021, 12:51 PM | Updated: 1:03 pm
Quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals stands on the sidelines during the second half...
Quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals stands on the sidelines during the second half of the NFL preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at State Farm Stadium on August 20, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. The Chiefs defeated the Cardinals 17-10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Cardinals are a volatile stock in 2021. Some forecast disaster. Others see potential for greatness.

Pro Football Talk rated them 25th in its Week 1 power rankings, predicting head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be fired by the end of the season. CBS Sports rated them ninth overall, ahead of the powerful Titans, their Week 1 opponent.

The Cardinals might lead the NFL in space between the ceiling and the floor.

Truth is, following a preseason full of “minor” issues, strange developments and extremely limited participation, nobody knows what to expect when the curtain lifts in Nashville on Sunday.

This much seems certain:

If the Cardinals are bound for the playoffs, they must score more than 30 points per game. They will have to compensate for a defense saddled with a terrifying chunk of uncertainty and inexperience, a unit that will start a rookie middle linebacker; a rookie cornerback; and a second-year linebacker who remains green and unproven.

The NFL is a pass-happy league with rules that tilt the playing field in favor the offense. The Cardinals are not going to beat elite quarterbacks with their diminished, wafer-thin secondary. They must beat them with their own elite quarterback.

Obviously, Kyler Murray has the skills and the showmanship to make your jaw drop. But he must show better leadership. No more looking like Grumpy Cat while sitting alone on the sideline, brooding over circumstance and scoreboard. His body language must inspire.

He must show great command of the mundane, like taking snaps under center; reading progressions, keeping eyes tuned downfield; staying mechanically sound; and making correct reads that lead to on-time throws from the pocket.

During the great collapse of 2020, the Cardinals surely ranked among the worst teams in football in the category of easy completions.

Murray must also show greater toughness. To gain respect in the NFL, you must play without fear, occasionally laughing in the face of pain. You don’t have to play when you’re injured. But you must play through when you’re hurt, just to show how much you care.

If A.J. Green is still in the same zip code of his prime, the Cardinals can eclipse the 500-point plateau, which has been done 19 times in the 21st century. For comparison, the 2015 Cardinals scored 489 points, often jumping opponents early in games and limiting the stress on their defense.

The 2015 team represented Carson Palmer’s third year in Bruce Arians’ system, the same as Murray and Kingsbury in 2021. And Palmer’s Cardinals exploded out of the gate, winning by 20 or more points in four of their first five games.

If this team is to contend for anything noteworthy, the revamped Cardinals will do the same. They will break from the gates like Secretariat. And that will mean Kingsbury did a masterful job of hiding the storm that is coming, showing very little and saying even less all the way through training camp.

Kingsbury must also evolve. His teams have a troubling history of falling apart in the back half of football seasons. His offenses become too predictable and easily solvable, the equivalent of basic math for the shrewdest defensive coordinators. It’s time to put away the checkers and break out the chessboard, just like we were promised.

The Cardinals have plenty of weakness. They play in a brutally tough NFC West. They also have a surplus of marquee players with a history of making big-time plays in big-time games. That can make all the difference in the world.

The 2008 Cardinals were once described as the worst Super Bowl team in history. They lost by 40 points to Matt Cassel’s Patriots in late December only to go unbeaten in January. They were airlifted out of darkness by a small group of superstars with a history of making things good happen under pressure: Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Adrian Wilson, Edgerrin James, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett.

This team has the same flawed roster. Their aging stars could go bad at any time, like Malcolm Butler or milk on a shelf. But they also have the same constellation of stars, young and old.

They must all shine bright in 2021 to avoid a debilitating market crash. Starting with the quarterback.

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