PHOENIX (BVM) – There weren’t many NFL pundits who had high hopes for the Arizona Cardinals’ 2019 season, and rightfully so.
Following a 3-13 season in 2018, the franchise hired a first-time NFL head coach in Kliff Kingsbury who hadn’t even delivered a .500 record (35-40) during his time leading Texas Tech. The Cardinals drafted quarterback Kyler Murray just four months later with the No. 1 overall pick, another decision that was met with criticism given the former Heisman Trophy winner’s relatively miniature size (5-foot-10, 207 pounds). Combine those factors with a roster void of an offensive star in their prime and competition within arguably the league’s best division, and it becomes clear why Arizona was the target of many slights.
Oakland Raiders safety LaMarcus Joyner called the Cardinals’ quick-tempo offense “pretty-boy football” on the ESPN broadcast of a preseason game last season. Former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan deemed it “basketball on grass.” He also said Arizona would get “whipped” in its 2019 season opener against the Detroit Lions, but the game ended in a tie.
These criticisms, among others, were shared in a video released by the team earlier this week ahead of the 2020 season. Several Cardinals players tweeted the video, including Patrick Peterson and Corey Peters, a sign that the team has heard their skeptics.
Our journey begins. pic.twitter.com/kOlXmyr9kj
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) September 7, 2020
Following a 5-10-1 record in both Kingsbury’s and Murray’s debut NFL seasons and an exciting offseason, Arizona appears poised and motivated for a significant turnaround. Here’s five reasons why it could happen:
The NFC West could be up for grabs
Perhaps the biggest roadblock for a Cardinals playoff berth is their gauntlet of a division featuring the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, two of the NFC’s top teams. But unfortunately for the 49ers, Super Bowl hangovers are real. Since 2000, nine of 19 Super Bowl runners-up have missed the playoffs the following season and only one improved its record from the year before. Each of Seattle’s 11 wins last season came by eight points or less, meaning its luck in close games could dwindle in 2020 with a questionable run-first scheme and aging defense. The Rams, despite key departures on their offensive line, should also still be a threat, but it’s unlikely the Cardinals repeat their abysmal 1-5 record against NFC West opponents in 2020.
Hopkins’ arrival is a game-changer
Arizona signed All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to a two-year, $54.5 million extension this week, giving him the highest annual salary in league history for a non-quarterback. Needless to say, teams don’t do that for just anybody. The Cardinals acquired Hopkins in an offseason trade with the Houston Texans in exchange for running back David Johnson and a pair of draft picks. Hopkins has recorded three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, has arguably the best hands in the league and will serve as the lead dog of a receiving corps that also includes future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Texans fans can attest to the positive impact Hopkins has had on another young quarterback’s career in Deshaun Watson (who also recently received a major pay day). Murray showed promise in his rookie campaign, and a bonafide No. 1 receiver could unlock even more.
The Cardinals’ defense is sneaky good
Arizona gave up the fifth-most points in the league in 2019, so there isn’t much else to do but improve. Peterson missed the first six games of last season after being suspended for a performance-enhancing drugs violation, but provides a lockdown presence for an opponent’s best receiver. The Cardinals addressed this side of the ball with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft by selecting Isaiah Simmons, a Swiss Army knife who can play on all three levels of the defense. Budda Baker will patrol the backend of Arizona’s defense after he inked a deal making him the highest-paid safety in NFL history following a 147-tackle season (most by any defensive back in the past decade). Finally, Chandler Jones came in second for the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season and is arguably one of the league’s most underrated players and premier pass rushers. With difference-makers at each level, the Cardinals’ defense should have more than enough to match their up-tempo offense.
Murray is the future of the position
Cardinals fans may very well look back to the 2019 NFL Draft as the turning point of their franchise. Drafting an undersized quarterback with just one full season as a collegiate starter under his belt with the No. 1 overall pick took guts, but Murray gave immediate return on investment. The 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year kept defenses on their heels all season with his undeniable arm talent and ability to create and extend plays with his legs. Murray became the second rookie – joining Cam Newton – and just the sixth player overall to throw for more than 3,500 yards and run for more than 500 yards. He did all this behind a suspect offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 48 times, tied for the league high. Another year in the league and in Kingsbury’s system could propel Murray into the upper echelon of the quarterback position.
Arizona’s schedule is among the easiest
There’s always a bit of luck required for a special season, and the Cardinals might find some of it within their schedule. Although an NFC West slate and matchups with the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills might make for a daunting schedule, it might not be reality. Football Outsiders, using defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), ranked the Cardinals’ schedule third-easiest in the NFL. The DVOA metric is “a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.” Impact players and upgrades on both sides of the ball, a modern offensive scheme with personnel to match and a favorable schedule gives the Cardinals a great chance of surprising many.