DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ recent stretch setting off 5-alarm fire across Arizona

Dec 19, 2021, 3:34 PM | Updated: 4:28 pm
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) walks off the field after a failed two-point convert...

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) walks off the field after a failed two-point convertion during the second half of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

(AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

Hope, faith, trust. It all disappeared Sunday in Detroit.

The playoffs are still a near certainty. But the Cardinals are a team in crisis. They deserve your contempt.

A 30-12 loss to the lowly Lions has the Valley fuming. The Cardinals showed up flat with a playoff berth on the line. That’s a damning indictment for a franchise that began selling playoff tickets on Dec. 8.

Since then, the Cardinals are 0-2. They lost a game and a giant opportunity against the Rams. And after being manhandled by a one-win opponent on Sunday, they’ve lost a good chunk of their credibility. They are now 0-for-4 in playoff-clinching games over the past two seasons.

They were bad in so many ways on Sunday. But let’s start with the easy target.

When a football coach is notorious for teams that collapse in the second half of seasons, you must question the culture of his entire operation.

After the Cardinals lost two playoff-clinching games to end the 2020 season under Kliff Kingsbury, general manager Steve Keim made drastic steps to import better character, better pedigree, better leaders and more physicality. To make sure a grotesque collapse never happened again.

Well, it’s happening again. It’s fair to wonder if they’ll win another game this season.

Kingsbury’s strategic decisions were once again erratic and occasionally bizarre against the Lions, especially in the red zone. But this is where he seems to get lost:

When the Cardinals have felt most threatened — on the road, against quality opponents — they have responded with a smash-mouth, pro-style offense. At State Farm Stadium and against inferior road opponents, there seems to be a change in philosophy. There is too much confusion and too much cute. Too much spread offense and no meaningful commitment to running the football.

The Cardinals needed to start Sunday’s game the way they started the second half, running downhill with James Conner and Chase Edmonds. By then, it was too late.

The defense is splintering. They can’t stop the run. They have now been gashed by Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff in succession, a pair of quarterbacks who were traded for another in the offseason. The otherwise underwhelming Goff is now 8-1 against the Cardinals and unbeaten against Kingsbury.

How embarrassing?

The Cardinals were outrushed 112-105 by Craig Reynolds, an undrafted running back from Kutztown University who goes by the nickname, “Netflix.” Because that’s what he was watching while waiting for an NFL team to call.

How emasculating?

This loss marked the first time in NFL history that a team with one or fewer victories beat a team with 10 or more wins by double digits.

There was no urgency, and the entire vibe of the team seemed off. Dependable playmakers like Budda Baker, Byron Murphy Jr. and Christian Kirk struggled to meet expectations. Chandler Jones is a ghost. And finally, Kyler Murray.

The former MVP candidate hasn’t been the same since returning from injury. On Sunday, he threw a fade to A.J. Green on a crucial third down. On a pair of fourth-down attempts, he targeted Antoine Wesley. He is not making good decisions. And the loss of DeAndre Hopkins gives the Cardinals very little passing options in the scoring territory.

When Murray plays like a franchise quarterback, he has the power to lift the Cardinals above their litany of injuries and issues. When he plays poorly, they have zero chance. And on Sunday, his frustrations and his body language didn’t exactly inspire.

What a difference the holidays make. The Cardinals savored their Thanksgiving break, which came on the heels of a rugged win in Seattle. Yet on Christmas morning, they’ll awaken to Jonathan Taylor, the streaking Colts, a growing legion of clucking critics and growing doubts about their playoff worthiness.

Granted, hyperbole and overreaction are the currency of professional football. That’s undeniable. But so is Kingsbury’s track record in big games. So are four losses in the past seven games. So is the unforgivable lack of fire the Cardinals brought to Ford Field, where a sorry Detroit franchise showed far more heart and commitment than a 10-win division leader. The day a NFL punch line punched them in the face, setting off a five-alarm fire in Arizona.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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