DAN BICKLEY

Kliff Kingsbury has to go after Cardinals’ embarrassing loss to Rams

Jan 17, 2022, 10:30 PM | Updated: Jan 18, 2022, 11:59 am

INGLEWOOD — The Cardinals owe their fans an apology. Especially the brave-hearted believers who swaggered into SoFi Stadium on Monday night expecting their football team to do the same.

Then it’s time for a change.

A new plan. A new head coach. And to complete the reboot, the team should unveil a host of brand new uniforms, as a cosmetic gesture of good faith.

It’s time to raise expectations across the board.

The Cardinals embarrassed themselves on Monday, slinking into the offseason with a 34-11 playoff loss to the Rams. In the process, they embarrassed every Arizonan who clung to delusions that the team would regain its Road Warrior mentality; that Playoff Kyler would be unstoppable; and that the return of J.J. Watt would provide all the necessary fuel.

“We put up an embarrassing performance,” Watt said. “There’s no other way to put it, really.”

As a result, the Cardinals joined the pile of NFL wildcard roadkill. But this was not a team that scrapped and clawed their way into the postseason. The Cardinals were 10-2 on Dec. 5. They were once the best team in professional football.

Don’t dare call this progress.

“A massive failure,” Watt said.

And yet Kingsbury will surely return for a fourth year in 2022. General Manager Steve Keim recently claimed his head coach was doing a “phenomenal job” and that he and owner Michael Bidwill were very happy with his performance.

But running it back yet again with this head coach, on the mantra of baby steps is a dangerous shell game, and I’m not sure why consecutive second-half collapses continue to be tolerated. I’m also certain that many disgusted fans will reject the incoming propaganda and claims of baby steps. And what I fear is that the whole regime has become too comfortable.

Bidwill is very friendly with Keim, who has produced consecutive playoff-worthy rosters and doesn’t deserve to lose his job. But Keim is clearly too content with a controllable head coach that has very little ego and defers to the GM at all costs.

The fear is they’re getting soft because the wealth never stops, even though winning seems to come to a halt midway through the season. Bidwill has a new team plane and a sportsbook opening soon and the NFL billions just keeps rolling in, year after year. And from Kingsbury to Markus Golden, too much credit was too easily given to the rival Rams. As if blowout losses in the postseason were just part of the workplace hazards in the NFL.

Of course, this loss goes beyond Kingsbury. This performance will leave a mark on Kyler Murray, who joins a small list of NFL quarterbacks with abysmal playoff debuts. His daffy decision to throw the ball up for grabs from his own end zone turned into a laughable Pick Six for the Rams, and it’s not the first time he’s panicked from his own end zone this season. Murray looked rattled and skittish and wholly uncomfortable for the first 2.5 quarters. He will need to atone for this in the future.

But in the NFL, the head coach sets the tone for everything. Did you see how 49ers boss Kyle Shanahan dialed up the perfect opening drive to get Jimmy Garoppolo rolling in their road victory at Dallas?  Same with Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford, a quarterback who exorcised his own playoff demons on Monday. That’s what impact coaches do in big moments.

Too often, Kingsbury gets swallowed by these moments. And on Monday, he failed to get his quarterback in a comfort zone, failed to get James Conner rolling early, failed to get Zach Ertz involved in the offense.

“Experience is a big part of it,” Kingsbury said. “There’s only one way to experience playoff football and that’s to go through it. You just have to go through these moments, learn from it, grow from it and use it as motivation.”

Yes, experience matters. But they’ve been at this for three years. And for those keeping score:  The Cardinals are 0-for-5 over the past two seasons in playoff-clinching games. They lost five of their last seven games in 2020-21, and five of their last six games in 2021-22. If you haven’t noticed, they do not function well under pressure. Not when the games really matter.

“Coming out the way we did, you’re not going to win playoff games,” Christian Kirk said.

And who wants to cheer on a team like that?

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

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