As training camp approaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and with it the unofficial start to the season, we are taking a closer look at the opponents on the team's 2022 schedule. Next up is the Arizona Cardinals, who represent the last non-divisional foe on Tampa Bay's list. The two teams will meet in Glendale on Christmas for a prime-time game (8:20 p.m. ET kickoff) broadcast nationally by NBC.
The 2021 season followed a frustratingly familiar pattern in the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray era, with promising starts rendered moot by serious struggles down the stretch. Arizona was the league's last undefeated team at 7-0 and even as late as December 5 had the NFL's best record at 10-2. Through that 7-0 start, Murray led all qualifying NFL quarterbacks with a gaudy passer rating of 116.8.
But Murray missed three games with an ankle injury and had a couple rougher outings in losses to the Rams and Lions – the latter a real blow to the Cardinals' division-title hopes – and lost four of their last five, or five of their last six if a lackluster bow out to the Rams in the playoffs is included. It certainly didn't help that J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and key offseason addition Rodney Hudson all missed significant time due to injuries, as well.
The Cardinals didn't have a cake-walk to that 7-0 start, opening the season with a sound 38-13 drubbing of the eventual AFC top playoff seed, the Tennessee Titans. Murray threw for 400 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score in a Week Two 34-33 thriller against Minnesota, and that seven-game stretch also included encouraging wins over NFC South foes Los Angeles and San Francisco. Even Arizona's first loss in Week Eight wasn't too discouraging as it came against the NFC's eventual top seed, Green Bay, and was only a three-point decision, though Murray had one of his worst outings of the year.
Arizona did have one bright spot during its 1-4 slide, as Murray and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott put on a show in what would prove to be a 25-22 road win for Arizona. However, that was sandwiched by a 22-16 loss to Indianapolis and a 38-30 defeat at the hands of heated rival Seattle, both in the Cardinals' home stadium. That was a weird and inexplicable theme for Arizona in 2021: The team was an 8-1 juggernaut on the road but finished 3-5 in home games.
Murray still finished the season with sparkling numbers, including 3,787 passing yards, a 69.2% completion rate and a 24-10 TD-INT ratio, all adding up to a 100.5 passer rating. He also ran for 423 yards and five touchdowns, though that was down from 819 yards and 11 scores in 2020. Though injuries eventually took a toll, the Cardinals had a deep and varied receiving corps with Hopkins, Christian Kirk, A.J. Green and rookie Rondale Moore, plus 11 productive games of tight end Zach Ertz after a trade with Philadelphia. Offseason acquisition James Conner led the backfield and scored 18 touchdowns.
On defense, playmaking safety Budda Baker made the Pro Bowl and had three interceptions and 2.0 sacks, and he was joined in the all-star festivities by frequent Pro Bowler Chandler Jones. Jones led the team with 10.5 sacks while linebacker Jordan Hicks got the job done in the middle with 116 tackles and 4.0 sacks. Arizona finished fifth in yardage differential and ninth in points differential and also had a plus-12 turnover ratio, though that was largely due to a league-high 14 fumble recoveries.
Arizona's biggest acquisition of the 2022 offseason wasn't a free agency signing but a draft-night trade that caught everyone by surprise (whether it caught Lamar Jackson by surprise is still up for interpretation). During the first round of the draft the Cardinals sent the 23rd-overall pick to the Ravens for wide receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and the 100th-overall pick. The move reunited Murray and Brown, former Oklahoma teammates, and gave the Arizona offense a different kind of juice and some much-needed depth. That latter point became clear just a day later when Hopkins received a six-game suspension from the NFL to start the upcoming season.
Otherwise, the Cardinals weren't particularly busy in free agency. They picked up former Giant Will Hernandez on an affordable one-year deal and will probably slot him in at left guard. Former Vikings linebacker Nick Vigil and former Chiefs running back Darrel Williams, also inked to one-year deals, add depth at a couple spots but may not equal the production of players who departed from those positions (see below).
After the Brown trade, the Cardinals didn't make their first pick in the 2022 draft until number 55 overall, where they took the first tight end off the board in Colorado's Trey McBride. With Ertz getting a new deal to stick around for a couple more years, the Cardinals could increase their usage of two-TE sets in 2022. Third and fourth-round picks Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders, edge rushers out of San Diego State and Cincinnati, respectively, are more attempts to replace key players lost in the offseason. Sixth-round running back Keaontay Ingram out of USC could get a chance to get in the backfield mix.
The Cardinals also signed former Vikings first-round pick cornerback Jeff Gladney in March but he and his girlfriend were tragically killed in a car accident in late May.
Two of the team's top 2021 performers, as noted in the 2021 season synopsis above, were wide receiver Christian Kirk and, as usual, outside linebacker Chandler Jones. Both are now plying their trades elsewhere, as Kirk got a surprisingly large deal to join Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville and Jones will now be bookending Maxx Crosby in Las Vegas.
Running back Chase Edmonds, who was a fine complement to Conner in the backfield and had 903 yards from scrimmage in 2021, left for Miami and the team released Hicks in March, likely paving the way for a larger role for 2021 first-round pick Zaven Collins. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who started eight games and had 3.0 sacks for the Cardinals last year, signed with Buffalo. The club has not tried to re-sign cornerback Robert Alford, who started five contests last year.
What Else is New?
The Cardinals made some changes to their coaching staff on both sides of the ball. Defensive Line Coach Brentson Buckner followed former Bucs assistant Mike Caldwell to Jacksonville after Caldwell got the Jaguars' defensive coordinator gig. Buckner was replaced by Matt Burke, who was most recently a game management coach for the Jets. On offense, Kingsbury continues to call plays and the Cardinals don't employ an offensive coordinator specifically. However, they made Sean Kugler the run-game coordinator last year and now will have a pair of passing-game coordinators after promoting both Cam Turner and Spencer Whipple.
Will a new contract extension for Kyler Murray get done before training camp?
Now that Murray has played three seasons in the NFL he is eligible for a contract extension, and it's pretty clear that is currently a top priority for both the player and the team. The Cardinals obviously picked up Murray's fifth-year option this spring, so they do have him under team control through 2023 but neither side wants questions about their future together to linger for long.
The new Murray contract storyline took a couple strange twists during the offseason, including mixed signals from the quarterback on social media platforms, but as recently as late May General Manager Steve Keim was saying he thought a deal would get done this summer. Presumably the more specific goal would be to have it done before veterans return for the start of training camp on July 26 so that everyone could collectively move forward with their focus on football from that point forward.
Can the Cardinals break out of their late-season slump cycle?
The aforementioned trend of second-half slides during Kingsbury's tenure even date back to his college days at Texas Tech. As two consecutive promising seasons in the desert have fizzled out, Kingsbury and his players have tried to pinpoint reasons for the slides but generally come back to a sudden rash of self-inflicted wounds such as penalties, bad snaps and missed kicks.
After having those same conversations early in 2021, the Cardinals appeared to be back on track to start the season, as they were not frequently hurt by those types of mistakes in their 7-0 start. But the issues returned, as did the frustration. If the Cardinals get off to another hot start in 2022, it's inevitable that they will have to answer frequent questions about how they will avoid another slump in the second half. Could the first appearance of any little bump in the road lead to a "here we go again" reaction and potentially a self-perpetuating cycle.