Less than three years ago, the Arizona Cardinals were coming off the best five-year run in franchise history.
A new chapter was beginning — coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer had retired — and the team rested its hopes on first-year coach Steve Wilks and rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, drafted 10th overall out of UCLA.
But that experiment fizzled from the start. The 2018 Cardinals finished 3-13, last in offense, and with little hope. It was back to the familiar doldrums for a historically downtrodden franchise.
Instead of clinging tighter to their convictions and riding them into the ground, however, the Cardinals chose a different strategy. They admitted their mistakes and changed course.
What’s more, they didn’t take a prescribed path back to relevance. They took some major risks. They replaced Wilks with Kliff Kingsbury, who had been fired from Texas Tech after going 35-40 in five seasons and who briefly took the job as USC’s offensive coordinator. And they used the No. 1 overall pick on 5-foot-10 Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who a few months earlier was more interested in a baseball career, having been a first-round pick in the MLB draft.
“The one thing that people hate to admit is, 'We made a mistake,’ ” said Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who in the 2008 season led Arizona to its only Super Bowl. “But the Cardinals came together and said, 'We made a couple mistakes, and we’re not going to bathe in it for three or four years. We’re going to make that move right away, and we’re going to take whatever criticism comes with it.’ ”
Two games into the 2020 season, those gambles don’t seem so crazy after all. In this, the hottest season on record in Phoenix, the 2-0 Cardinals are experiencing a heat wave of their own.
Having dispatched of San Francisco and Washington, the Cardinals in the next three weeks face a winless lineup of the Detroit Lions, the Christian McCaffrey-less Carolina Panthers, and the woeful New York Jets. It’s entirely possible Arizona could be 5-0 heading into a Monday night game at Dallas, a homecoming for Texas natives Kingsbury and Murray.
The rise of the Cardinals is one of the more intriguing early story lines in this season, with the entire NFC West a combined 7-1 and the only loss being within the division.
The season is only two weeks old, and the Cardinals have lots of areas that need improvement — they lead the league in penalties, for instance — but there are legitimate signs the franchise is on a playoff trajectory.
Even during the Arians-Palmer era, slow starts were commonplace, so 2-0 is highly unusual for the Cardinals. Between 2016-19, Arizona was 2-11-1 in the month of September.
The Cardinals rolled up 404 yards of offense in the opener against San Francisco, followed by 438 against Washington. Six times under Kingsbury, the Cardinals have surpassed 400 yards. That happened once in the previous two seasons before Kingsbury arrived.
Still, Kingsbury expressed frustration this week about some offensive miscues. By his count, the Cardinals had 14 negative plays against Washington, which are negative-yardage runs, penalties or sacks. The goal is five or fewer.
“That's no way to make a living,” he said. “Our players understand that we have to take what we're seeing on the practice field and practicing on the practice field and transition that to the game, and just execute at a higher level. Hopefully that will happen soon.”
Nonetheless, the positive numbers are difficult to ignore.
Murray is the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to pass for at least 500 yards and rush for at least 150 through the first two games of a season. No other player in Cardinals history — regardless of position — has opened a season by running for at least 150 yards and three touchdowns in two games.
Arizona already has a Hall of Fame-bound receiver in Larry Fitzgerald and has added All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who already has 22 catches. No other player has done that in his first two games with a team.
Maybe the most surprising aspect of these Cardinals is their defense, which was expected to be suspect. Only Baltimore (11.0) is giving up fewer points per game than Arizona (17.0), and the Cardinals are ranked No. 1 in opponent’s third-down conversion percentage (26.1).
Arizona is getting solid production out of free-agent acquisitions Devon Kennard, De’Vondre Campbell, and Jordan Phillips. That trio has combined for 19 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes knocked down, and a forced fumble.
“The key has been their defense,” said Warner, an NFL Network analyst. “Their defense hasn’t given up a lot of big plays, hasn’t fallen behind in games, and hasn’t put any pressure on their offense to have to score points. Their offense is similar to what it was last year, although more effective in Year 2 and with better personnel, but the difference is defense.”
Keeping that up is the challenge, but there’s no denying the Cardinals, so recently written off, are back on the road to relevance. And it started with a surrender.