Kyler Murray didn't see anything downfield, felt some pressure from his left and scrambled to his right. It wasn't anything unusual, until he fell over and started writhing in pain.
The Arizona Cardinals' season was already going nowhere. They were 4-8 in the opening minutes of that Week 14 game against the New England Patriots when Murray tore his ACL. Things got worse after that.
Take a deep breath, because this is a lot of negativity for one franchise in less than a year.
The Cardinals lost their final seven games of the season. J.J. Watt announced his retirement. Kliff Kingsbury was fired. General manager Steve Keim, on an indefinite leave of absence due to "health-related issues," left the organization for good. There was a report that Murray likely won't be ready for Week 1 and he might not be back until the second half of the season, leaving Colt McCoy as the likely starter. Fans got their hopes up that Sean Payton might be the team's next head coach, but that didn't happen. A long search landed on first-time head coach Jonathan Gannon, who was the defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Later, the Cardinals had to agree to draft pick compensation with the Eagles to settle a tampering claim due to Arizona contacting Gannon when it wasn't permitted.
The team was widely criticized for a surprisingly quiet free agency when they sat on a lot of salary-cap space, added little of note and lost defensive lineman Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. Safety Budda Baker, probably the best player on the roster, requested a trade. Baker showed up to the team's minicamp but didn't practice.
There was a claim by former team executive Terry McDonough that team owner Michael Bidwill engaged in widespread misconduct, including cheating, discrimination and harassment, and the team shot back with examples of McDonough's "erratic behavior." An NFLPA poll gave the Cardinals grades of F for their treatment of families, nutrition, weight room, training room and locker room.
The team traded the third overall pick of the draft. While it was a shrewd move with the overpaying Houston Texans that should pay off big next April, it doesn't help much now. Not that the Cardinals seem interested in help now.
Then there was the DeAndre Hopkins saga. The Cardinals and Hopkins both wanted a trade, but the team couldn't find any partner for one of the best receivers of this era. Instead of perhaps doing something that would include taking on a majority of Hopkins' salary, the Cardinals cut him before June 1. Instead of any compensation back, they were stuck with a $22.6 million dead cap hit. But hey, at least they won't have any of that cap hit dragging on them next year.
The Cardinals are used to this downtrodden feeling. They haven't won a championship since 1947, the longest title drought in major North American professional sports. It's still stunning how quickly the Cardinals went straight to the bottom. They looked like one of the NFL's best teams for the first half of the 2021 season.
In late October of 2021, the Cardinals were 7-0. They made the playoffs but faded in the second half of that season and had a no-show playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. A year and a half later, they look like the worst team in the NFL.
"For the first three years we’ve been going like this [upward]," Kingsbury said near the end of last season on "Hard Knocks," via the Arizona Republic. "Everybody [was happy] with the core and talent, the quarterback is developing, everything is moving forward. This year, it was dramatically backwards.
“I think we were at a good place up until this season. We’ve just got to find a way to get back there.”
Kingsbury won't be part of that climb, which might take a while. The Cardinals can look forward to the 2024 NFL Draft — they have their own first-round pick and Houston's first-round pick, and those could be the top two selections of the draft — but this season will probably be rough. Arizona probably has the fewest blue-chip players in the NFL.
The Cardinals could use some good news. That might not happen until next year's draft.
The Cardinals had among the most salary-cap space in the NFL heading into free agency, and mostly sat it out. They signed off-ball linebacker Kyzir White to a two-year, $10 million deal, and that was about it. White ranked 33rd in Pro Football Focus' grades among linebackers last season, and he plays a devalued position. The Cardinals lost defensive lineman Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. in free agency. Both of those players are 25 years old and should have been building blocks. Getting nothing for Hopkins before cutting him was a failure. The moves during the draft were more promising. According to practically every draft value chart, the team beat the brakes off the Texans in a deal for the third overall draft pick. The key to that deal was the Texans' 2024 first-rounder, which could be as high as first overall. The Cardinals then made another trade and with the sixth overall draft pick took offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr., who the team reportedly was content to take at No. 3. Arizona made three other trades down to stockpile picks, which is smart for a team in a rebuild. It was a step in the right direction. The prospects of turning the Texans' pick into Caleb Williams or Marvin Harrison Jr. (or possibly both) bumps up the Cardinals a full grade.
Kyler Murray's cap hit next season is $51.9 million. It doesn't dip below $43.5 million for the remainder of the contract after that. Murray's deal runs through 2028. That contract got ugly in a hurry. It's not just the ACL injury that has to have the Cardinals wondering about their future with Murray. He simply hasn't played well enough for a $230 million quarterback. He has shown flashes, but inconsistency and injuries have been a problem. Maybe coaching was holding him back, but now the injury complicates things. If the Cardinals (or Texans) are as bad as it looks like they might be, would they pass on Caleb Williams or Drake Maye with a top-two pick in next year's draft? It will be a fascinating question next offseason.
BetMGM odds breakdown
The Cardinals' win total at BetMGM is 4.5. You have to be brave to take the over. It's a team in disarray. Even if head coach Jonathan Gannon proves to be a big upgrade over Kliff Kingsbury, the roster is in rough shape and the Cardinals' moves this offseason indicate they know what's coming in 2023. If the team is signaling that 2023 is going to be a lost year, why take the over on its (admittedly low) win total?
Yahoo's fantasy take
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Now that DeAndre Hopkins has departed, the Cardinals won’t have a single fantasy player selected in the top 70. That makes sense, with Arizona projected to be the worst team in the NFC West, if not the entire conference. It also makes us leery on James Conner, given that so much of Conner’s value is tied to goal-line equity and positive game script. How much of those things can Conner expect if the Cardinals win the 4-5 games they’re pegged for?
"Conner is also entering his age-28 season, a dangerous period for a running back, and he’s never made it past 15 games in any campaign. Even when the market offers a discounted price on Conner, I’m going to fade him this summer."
Stat to remember
The Cardinals' offense was miserable last season. They were dead last in the NFL in yards per pass, and significantly behind the rest of the league (Arizona averaged six yards per pass; every other team had at least 6.3). Only the Texans were worse in yards per offensive play. Kyler Murray's season-ending injury didn't help that stat, but he didn't produce enough big plays either. Murray's net yards per pass attempt, per Pro Football Reference, was 32nd of 33 qualified quarterbacks. The five quarterbacks right above Murray in that stat: Davis Mills, Matt Ryan, Kenny Pickett, Carson Wentz and Baker Mayfield. Not great. His deep passing grade at PFF, among QBs with at least 30 attempts, was second-worst in the NFL, better than only Marcus Mariota. Zach Wilson ranked right above Murray in that category. Now remove DeAndre Hopkins and perhaps tight end Zach Ertz, who tore his ACL and MCL in November. Marquise Brown, acquired last year for a first-round draft pick, is a good receiver but there's not much else. No matter when Murray returns, Arizona's passing offense will likely be among the worst in the NFL again.
Can Jonathan Gannon succeed?
Gannon had a fast rise to becoming a head coach. By the end of the 2013 season he had never been more than a quality control coach or scout. Then he was an assistant defensive backs coach for four seasons before moving up to cornerbacks coach for three seasons. He got a shot to run the Eagles' defense and two years later he landed the Cardinals' top job. The short track record doesn't mean the 40-year-old won't succeed. He got rave reviews for his work with the Eagles' defense. It's just a fast rise considering that before the 2021 season, the highest rung on the ladder he had reached was cornerbacks coach. We don't know too much about Gannon's schemes — new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis, who will call plays, have never been coordinators before — but the Cardinals liked his energy and vision. He might need patience this season, as well.
It's depressing to say, before a season starts, that the best outcome is losing. But unless you believe Jonathan Gannon is a miracle worker, the Cardinals aren't going to the playoffs. Even if they want to make Kyler Murray work as their long-term quarterback (any best-case scenario includes Murray playing well after his injury to give the Cardinals options in the future), they could get a massive trade haul for the top overall draft pick if they get it. There's a real chance the Cardinals could hold the top two picks of next year's draft, which has happened only once in the Super Bowl era. That wouldn't be a bad consolation prize for what's going to be a long season.
Being bad this season seems unavoidable for the Cardinals. But there are different levels to being bad. If everything goes poorly — Jonathan Gannon looks like a rookie coach, Kyler Murray struggles when he comes back or doesn't come back until very late in the season, there's no pop in the offense and the defense isn't any better with worse personnel — then it could be historically ugly. Nobody wants to go through that, even if it results in the first overall pick of the draft. If Murray creates more questions than he answers this year, then his contract is an even bigger issue for the Cardinals.
The crystal ball says ...
The Cardinals had a slight revival after the Steve Wilks/Josh Rosen season. But after one 11-win season they're back in the muck. It's hard to see Kyler Murray rushing back to join a team that probably won't win many games with Colt McCoy. It would be surprising to not see Murray all season, but that's possible. It's going to be a brutal season. But the light at the end of the tunnel is when the Cardinals end up with the first two picks of next year's draft.
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