The defining moments of the 2023 Arizona Cardinals
Jan 8, 2024, 1:57 PM | Updated: 2:06 pm
Year 1 of Arizona Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort and head coach Jonathan Gannon is officially in the books following a 21-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 18.
Next stop, offseason.
But before we turn the page on the new regime’s first regular season on the job, let’s take a look back at the big moments that came out of the franchise in 2023.
The Arizona Cardinals’ culture shock
Arguably the biggest moment for the Cardinals this year happened away from the football field in the hiring of Gannon and Ossenfort.
A culture shift and a sound foundation were desperately needed and while there’s still a ways to go from a production and a win standpoint, Arizona achieved a massive goal in washing away a lot of the wrongs of the old regime with an influx of new thinking and determination from the new.
The umbrella of this moment includes the 2023 NFL Draft, too, where it was made evident just what type of players this organization wanted to bring in: team-first and bringing a healthy dose of football character.
Quarterback Kyler Murray’s ringing endorsement after Arizona’s Week 18 loss to the Seattle Seahawks was the icing on the cake.
“I trust JG and Monti and their plan that they have going forward,” Murray said. “I know they’ll bring in the right people in here with the right mindset and the will to want to win and do things the right way. I’m confident in that.”
Dropping Dallas down a notch
Week 3 presented Arizona with its toughest challenge to date in 2023 with the 2-0 Dallas Cowboys coming to town behind a point differential of 70-10.
Simply put, the Cowboys were firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball.
Then they took a trip to the desert.
With Joshua Dobbs running the show offensively, the Cardinals hit the Cowboys square in the mouth and never looked back in the decisive 28-16 win.
“Anytime you can beat the Cowboys or ‘America’s Team’ as they call themselves, it’s a great feeling because it’s a storied franchise and I’m really proud of the team right now for coming out with that victory,” rookie wide receiver Michael Wilson said.
Win No. 1 for Gannon and Ossenfort undoubtedly painted a picture of what the offense hangs its hat on.
Led by running back James Conner and averaging 7.4 yards per carry on their way to 222 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, the Cardinals got things done in the trenches.
It would be a blueprint to follow the rest of the season.
Kyler Murray’s long-awaited return
At long last, Arizona’s franchise QB made his return to action from a torn ACL in a Week 11 tilt against the Atlanta Falcons.
He made an instant impact in Arizona’s 25-23 win, its second of the season.
Even with evident rust and little time on task with his pass catchers, Murray still managed to throw for 249 yards on 19-of-32 passing. He also threw an interception in the win.
But it was his work on the ground that really helped put Arizona on top, running the rock six times for 33 yards a touchdown.
Any thoughts on his knee potentially holding the QB back were wiped away pretty quickly, especially after this impressive scramble:
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 14, 2023
“It felt good (to have Murray back in the huddle). He had command, he was comfortable,” wide receiver Hollywood Brown said. “You couldn’t tell that he’s been out for a while because he was really comfortable.”
Trey McBride’s big day(s)
If the Cardinals handed out a most improved player award, no one would deserve it more than tight end Trey McBride.
McBride put his name on the map this season behind 81 catches on 106 targets for 825 yards and three touchdowns in 17 games played (12 starts).
His coming out party, though, really kicked off in Week 8 to the tune of 10 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown.
But it was his performance against the Falcons that really got people clamoring. Becoming the first tight end since 1989 (Rob Awalt) to reach the 100-yard mark, McBride reeled in eight catches for 131 yards.
He didn’t stop there, either, recording another 100-yard day on double-digit catches four weeks later against the San Francisco 49ers.
It wasn’t just about his pass-catching prowess, either, with McBride improving exponentially as a blocker and taking one step closer to becoming a complete tight end. And when you make a guy like Zach Ertz — even though he wasn’t exactly wowing in 2023 — expendable, you know you’re doing something right.
Can you imagine if McBride got a full season of work as Arizona’s no-doubt starting tight end? He could have threatened to hit the 1,000-yard mark.
“I don’t think there’s that many safeties in the league that can probably guard him,” Murray said after beating the Falcons. “He’s getting it rolling, he’s getting his confidence up and he’s got all the ability in the world, so I’m happy to see him do what he’s doing.”
James Conner’s homecoming
For the first time since he left his home state of Pennsylvania to join the Cardinals in 2021, Conner took on his former team in the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13.
His homecoming did not disappoint.
Conner chewed up 105 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries as Arizona knocked off Pittsburgh, 24-10.
“Something we wanted to do coming into this game was having a goal of getting him a lot of carries because he’s such a great player,” Murray told reporters. “He’s
such a great player. He’s a great leader for this team.
“We know how much it means for him to come back home and be able to do his thing, so I was super excited for him.”
Jonathan Gannon gets the last laugh
Three weeks after Conner’s homecoming, Gannon had a similar situation heading back to Philadelphia to take on his former team. Not that long ago — last February — Gannon was donning Philadelphia gear as the Eagles defensive coordinator.
In the penultimate week of the regular season, though, he and DC Nick Rallis were viewed as the enemies.
And boy did they put Eagles fans through a ringer of emotions.
After looking like the Cardinals were going to get laugh off of Lincoln Financial Field facing a 21-6 deficit at halftime, Arizona went nuclear in the second half behind four straight touchdown drives to take home a 35-31 win over the home team.
“In a sense, yes, it’s just another game, but not just another game,” Murray told reporters. “I know he wanted to win it really badly. … I would want to win it, so I know the guys felt that energy from him, that we wanted to come out here and do it for him.”
Have a career day, James Conner
Entering the season finale against the Seattle Seahawks this past Sunday, Conner needed 110 yards to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his seven-year career.
The closest he had ever gotten to 1,000 came back in 2018 when he rushed for 973 yards as a Steeler.
On Sunday, he climbed the ladder of success.
He first set a new career high with 974 rushing yards on a 29-yard touchdown run.
Then on the ensuing Cardinals drive, Conner erased any doubt on whether or not he would hit the 1,000-yard mark by taking his first touch of the possession 27 yards.
And he wasn’t done there, with Conner hitting one more major accolade in the form of a new single-game career high of 150 yards before the dust settled on Arizona’s regular season with one last loss to Seattle.
“It’s awesome. It truly is. I just want to thank the offensive line. Thank everybody, all the tight ends and receivers blocking,” Conner said. “We understood what we wanted to do today, just run the ball hard. I want to thank my coach, (running backs coach) Autry Denson. Really consistent. He’s been awesome to me. Helping me become a better football player, better man on and off the field. We start every meeting with prayer. We haven’t had a meeting without starting with prayer first. Obviously, God is huge in my life and he’s huge in his life, too.
“Really respect Coach AD for our day-to-day process. In individual (periods), we always have something new that’s trying to take us to new heights, elevate our game. I feel like it’s no secret why I’ve had the year I’ve had with him being my coach.”