When the Arizona Cardinals began the post-Bruce Arians era, they hoped for great fortune as they eventually ushered in both Kliff Kingsbury as head coach and Kyler Murray as their first-overall pick at quarterback in 2019. The two have had an increasing amount of success over the last three seasons, but something remains not quite right in the desert. Despite general manager Steve Keim also throwing a ton of talent at the roster on both sides of the ball, most notably All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins, a hot start to the 2021 season was met with an ice-cold finish that arguably should've been overcome despite the loss of Hopkins to injury.
It wasn't, however, and the Cardinals are now thrust into their offseason far ahead of their own intended schedule after being thumped by the Los Angeles Rams on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend, and into a list of important questions that must be answered if they're to ever reach their first Super Bowl since the 2008 season, when they failed to get it done there as well.
It's time for bold action in Arizona, if they want to finally fix what ails them for good.
Jump off of the Kliff
What happens with Kliff Kingsbury is going to define the organization for the next decade or more. It's not because they'd sign him to a 10-year extension, but because he'll either succeed in getting a Super Bowl win that will reshape everything about the organization in a good way, or he'll continue to drop the ball when it matters most, and an extension could potentially cost them Kyler Murray down the road and the opportunity to attract big-ticket free agents who aren't interested in simply being paid to lose. It's such an odd situation with Kingsbury, who is routinely praised in the first half of seasons but often struggles in the second half of them.
For context, Kingsbury is 15-5-1 in Weeks 1-7 since taking the reins as Cardinals head coach in 2019, but that record tailspins to 9-20 when the calendar flips to Week 8 and later. It's also a trend that's not exclusive to the NFL, instead also tracing back to his days at Texas Tech, when he never logged a winning record in the final six games of any season. You can justifiably argue that injuries impact this as well, but this is a glaring pattern that doesn't appear near resolution -- one that's now been occurring in each of the last nine coaching seasons for Kingsbury.
It worked in the Cardinals' favor that they didn't ink him to a massive deal when the team was No. 1 in the league, because now that they've seen another late-season collapse, they can have a more robust discussion about the future of Kingsbury, who has only one winning season in three tries and even that came strapped with five losses over the final six games played; including being embarrassed on Super Wild Card Weekend. That said, let's put it in baseball terms, something Murray would appreciate:
Kingsbury is a fantastic starting pitcher, but he's been a terrible closer, annually.
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Locate an extra WR1 for Murray
It's fair to say Kyler Murray has earned the right to be called the future of the franchise at the quarterback position in Arizona, which means there will soon (hint: now) come a time for the Cardinals to begin trying to figure out how to handle his contract situation. A large part in attempting to woo him to remain with the club after obvious triggers are pulled -- e.g., fifth-year option, franchise tag in the potential absence of a deal thereafter -- will be not only who's coaching the club and the success or lack thereof, but also who they've put around him.
The Cardinals did a fantastic job of fleecing the Houston Texans to land perennial All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but they found out what happens to the offense when Hopkins isn't available due to injury. Christian Kirk is talented but streaky, Larry Fitzgerald isn't running out of the tunnel anymore, and trying to turn a declining A.J. Green into the second coming of himself didn't work out well -- Green coming up roses at times but being wildly unable to carry the team at the position when Hopkins was sidelined.
Murray is going to want assurances he won't continue suffering disappointing seasons, because he's not accustomed to losing. It's undeniable there's a good relationship between Murray and Kingsbury -- the latter moving Josh Rosen out only one year after the team used a 10th-overall pick on him to select the former -- but losing will wear thin on Murray and make things wildly more difficult for general manager Steve Keim. So, figure out the situation at head coach, get Murray more firepower in the passing game and then avoid allowing the defense to take a massive step in the wrong direction.
Pay Chandler Jones, period
Find the nearest gif with someone rubbing their temples and insert it here, because it's wholly nonsensical that things have gotten to this point between Jones and the Cardinals. The lack of contract talks devolved into Jones eyeing a way out of the desert in 2021 before going on to land his sixth double-digit sack season in his last seven attempts -- his 2020 season being an anomaly due to having played in only five games thanks to injury.
Still one of the best pass rushers in all of football and with plenty of tread left on his tires, as seen time and again in 2021, the All-Pro is set to garner a lot of interest in his unrestricted free agency to come, but most of it needs to come from the organization he's played for since 2016. Losing Jones can't be an option for a Cardinals team that was also just surgically dissected by Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams on Super Wild Card Weekend, and particularly with J.J. Watt's age and injury history working against him in a massive way.
More pieces are certainly needed on defense to build around Budda Baker, Isaiah Simmons and Markus Golden (extend him), but Jones is a cornerstone piece, and a vacuum will be created in the pass rush if he's allowed to walk.