ARIZONA CARDINALS

Cardinals’ inspired effort this season shows signs of bright future

Jan 7, 2024, 6:13 PM | Updated: 11:24 pm

Kyler Murray...

Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals against the Seattle Seahawks at State Farm Stadium. (Arizona Sports Photo/Felisa Cardenas)

(Arizona Sports Photo/Felisa Cardenas)

Last place is a familiar address in Arizona. The zip code is rarely cause for celebration.

The 2023 Cardinals are a bit different.

Their 21-20 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday was a rebellious and raucous ending to another double-digit loss season. It commemorated James Conner’s first 1,000-yard season as a rusher. It confirmed Kyler Murray’s future as franchise quarterback. It should’ve marked Jonathan Gannon’s first victory against the NFC West.

It was a game ultimately lost by Matt Prater, the historic and highly dependable kicker who choked on a pair of late field goal attempts. But in the process, Prater’s miss made sure the 4-13 Cardinals would possess the No. 4 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, along with 10 other draft selections and $80 million in salary cap space.

Perfect.

Rarely has a gloomy day that looked, felt and sounded like Seattle ended with such internal sunshine. It was another game when the Cardinals physically dominated another quality team in the second half. Just like they did in Pittsburgh. Just like they did in Philadelphia. From winning road games in hostile environments to dominating the line of scrimmage, they are flashing important traits the Cardinals will need to win playoff games in the near future.

There were three other major victories along the way:

The Cardinals re-established Murray as a franchise quarterback, a huge development for a team with numerous holes to fill in the offseason. If Prater makes one of those field goals at the end of Sunday’s game, Murray would’ve finished with a 4-4 record in his return from major knee surgery. Beyond the numbers, he showed enhanced maturity, leadership, composure, coachability and the ability to make big plays when it matters the most.

Murray still has his detractors in the Valley. The rest of us should be tickled at the growth he’s displayed in his return from injury.

The Cardinals also rallied around the steady, hard-nosed leadership of Gannon, an unproven head coach who proved to be worth the hassle and the tampering penalty levied before the 2023 NFL Draft. In a market renowned for alibis, excuses and interminable whining about officials, Gannon threw his first challenge flag of the season on Sunday. It was successful and highly symbolic.

It was a testament to a head coach who instills toughness by displaying toughness. His team never flashed the zombie football that epitomizes broken teams and poor culture. His team kept fighting to the end of games and kept fighting to the end of a 13-loss season. They believed in Gannon’s vision of how a winning program acts and what it will not tolerate.

During the 2023 season, the Cardinals parted ways with players who didn’t always model their new philosophy. They discarded cornerback Marco Wilson before a huge road game in Philadelphia. They discarded defensive lineman Kevin Strong before Sunday’s game against Seattle. They cut Myjai Sanders even with a dearth of pass rushers. They cut K’Von Wallace after a Week 7 benching even though he had started five of the first six games.

They have been steadfast and resilient in setting a standard and not flinching. Gannon has never once moved the goalposts. And in the end, they are the strangest four-win team in Cardinals history:

A team that inspired through failure. A team with a real future.

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

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