Pretenders or not, Cardinals deserve credit through Week 2 for clutch decision-making
It would be jumping the gun to suggest the Arizona Cardinals will keep this pace and emerge as a Super Bowl contender.
Even making the playoffs isn’t close to a sure thing in this now-17-game season with the rest of the NFC West keeping pace.
As The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz and others have pointed out, how the Cardinals evolve on offense depends on whether quarterback Kyler Murray can keep making plays out of the framework of the play-calls. How does streetball balance with how good — or bad — coach Kliff Kingsbury’s schemes make that framework?
And defensively, Arizona (2-0) has put together three hot halves of football and one very cold one.
Here’s where we can give Arizona credit now: A more mature Murray and more experienced Kingsbury have been making good decisions on late downs.
We’ve beaten Murray’s recognition of cover-0 blitzes into the ground through two games. In the past, that heads-up play and the execution hasn’t been there. Similarly for Kingsbury, making the right calls in such game-defining situations hasn’t, either.
But then came Sunday with six minutes left in the game and the Vikings up, 33-31.
Arizona had a 4th-and-5 at the Minnesota 41-yard line. It was the pretty obvious and correct decision for Kingsbury to go for it.
ESPN’s Ben Baldwin’s fourth-down decision bot calculated it was a significant call just to attempt a conversion over a punt or a long field goal attempt.
—> MIN (33) @ ARI (31) <—
ARI has 4th & 5 at the MIN 41
Recommendation (VERY STRONG): 👉 Go for it (+5.4 WP)
Actual play: 👉 (No Huddle, Shotgun) K.Murray pass deep middle to C.Kirk to MIN 6 for 35 yards (M.Alexander). pic.twitter.com/EDUdvjqGBn
— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) September 19, 2021
But Arizona made a huge probability swing in terms of the play-call and decision to sling it downfield, something that can be credited to both Kingsbury and Murray.
EdjSports was more conservative about the conversion decision alone, giving Arizona a 3.4% increase in win probability. The 35-yard completion from Murray to Christian Kirk, however, boosted Arizona’s chances of winning by another 20.3%.
Meanwhile, Kingsbury’s counterpart, the defense-first Mike Zimmer, made three extremely conservative decisions to punt that were among the five worst in the NFL for Week 2, according to EdjSports and detailed by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. Zimmer also cooked clock late instead of trying to get kicker Greg Joseph a few more yards closer than his missed 37-yarder that gave Arizona a 34-33 win.
The Vikings-Cardinals game didn’t end up as the only evidence that the NFL is trending toward more game-defining fourth downs this year.
In Week 2’s Sunday Night Football game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, luck combined with risky decision-making also paid off for the Baltimore Ravens. A fumble by Kansas City’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire and a 4th-and-1 decision to go for it by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh gave the Ravens a big win.
— Billy Heyen (@BillyHeyen) September 20, 2021
It’s becoming more in vogue to take those fourth-down risks.
Through two weeks, NFL teams have converted 39 of 88 (44%) of their fourth-down tries. With more success in high-pressure situations, you can assume that the conversion attempt rate will only increase.
When it comes to the Cardinals, maybe their skeptics view Sunday’s win on a missed Minnesota field goal as luck. Murray’s tunnel vision-caused turnovers haven’t struck during back-breaking moments so far.
It should be noted that Murray has made those big throws in key downs this year. With a more experienced quarterback, the late-game risks taken by the head coach should lessen while the comfort in taking them grows. That’s when comfort and continuity in a system should pay off.