NFL Playoffs Are Make-or-Break for Kliff Kingsbury

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2022

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 02: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals is seen on the sidelines during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on January 02, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

In the old parable of the tortoise and the hare, anyone sound of mind would bet on the hare to win the race. On paper, the hare is a sleek speed machine, while the old tortoise isn't flashy or exciting.

But we all know how the story ends; when it comes down to it, the hare, for all his God-given talent, is cocky and undisciplined. When he has an enormous lead in the race against the tortoise, he pauses to take a nap, only to awake and find that his slow-moving opponent has slowly and steadily beaten him to the finish line.

In his two most recent seasons in Arizona, after a settling-in period in 2019, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury had started out with all the impressiveness of the fabled hare.

The 2020 Cardinals won five of their first seven before the bye week but only put together three more wins the remainder of the season. At 8-8, they failed to make the playoffs.

This season, everything was coming up aces for Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray in their third year together. The Cardinals won their first seven out of the gate, and by their Week 8 matchup with the Green Bay Packers, they were the NFL's sole undefeated team.

When they faltered 24-21 at home to a Packers club sans Davante Adams, no one felt the need to sound the alarm bells just yet. Another loss to the Carolina Panthers put the team at 8-2.

In Week 14, however, Kingsbury and Co., like the hare, took a bit of a nap. They had been in control of the NFC West, but a loss to the rival Los Angeles Rams made their grasp more tenuous.

The Cardinals ultimately lost four of their last five, finishing the season at a dignified 11-6 but showing fissures on the surface. The Rams locked up the division crown in the final week of the season, and Murray threw for just five touchdowns (and three interceptions) in that five-game stretch.

Now, that's nothing that will cause anyone to clutch their pearls, but consider that Murray, in the season's first six games, amassed 14 touchdowns, including two games with four apiece.

Arizona's defense hadn't been a brick wall early in the season, allowing 18 points per game on average up until the bye week. But in the last five games of the year, it looked more like a sieve, giving up an average of 28 points.

The offense followed the same worrisome pattern; in the 11 games until the bye, Arizona's offense was a high-flying, high-scoring one, putting up 28 points on average, with seven games of 30-plus. In those last five games, it was averaging a touchdown less than that.

The Cardinals are one of the league's best teams that nevertheless finds itself in the crosshairs as the playoffs get underway. Is Kingsbury's job in danger if his team suffers a Wild Card Round exit to the Rams, the same team that sent them limping rather than sprinting through their last five games of the season?

His seat certainly wouldn't be as hot as others', but his 24-24-1 record through three seasons is the definition of middling.

Every franchise has its own rubric for success, but consider that the Miami Dolphins just relieved Brian Flores of his duties after going 24-25 through three seasons, while Matt Nagy is out in Chicago after going 34-31 and leading his unlikely squad to the playoffs twice.

Matt Mitchell @olboyunclemitch

Another Kliff Kingsbury regular season in the books! Let’s update how he’s ended every season as head coach '14: lost 4 of 5 '15: lost 4 of 6 '16: lost 6 of 8 '17: lost 6 of 8 '18: lost 5 of 5 '19: lost 7 of 9 '20: lost 6 of 9 (1 win by Hail Mary) ‘21: lost 4 of 5

The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately?" league, and lately, Kingsbury doesn't have a black mark, but he also doesn't have a lot to point to in the way of success. And even he acknowledged that these Cardinals aren't built to be a future contender; they're built to win now.

"Every year in the NFL there's pressure. So, I just kind of take it week by week and try to do the best that we can," Kingsbury told reporters in September just before the season kicked off. "But it's a team that was put together to win now, there's no doubt, and there's a lot of guys in that locker room that are getting up in age, can still play at a high level, but they have a sense of urgency to try and have a successful season."

Top running back James Conner isn't exactly collecting Social Security at age 26, but that's older in running back years, and already he missed two games because of injury in 2021 and had never played more than 14 games entering the year. The season is not getting any shorter; in fact, it's gotten one game longer, and it means more wear and tear on players like Conner, who had 202 attempts on the year, the second-most of his career.

Tight end Zach Ertz, who saw the second-most receptions of any pass-catcher on the team, is 31. A.J. Green is 33. In fact, if it isn't obvious by now, the Cardinals had the league's oldest roster in 2021, with an average age of 27.31, per Over the Cap.

Excluding quarterbacks, Arizona had 16 positional players over the age of 30. The NFL average is 7.8. The Rams, those thorns in the Cardinals' side, have the fewest with three.

Kingsbury doesn't need to hear it from you or me; he knows this Cardinals team has to avoid wasting the prime years of Murray's career and win now.

A major roster changeover is coming, and while Kingsbury's seat isn't on fire yet, to return to parables, it's a bit like the frog who is gradually boiled in the pot.

Chierstin Susel @ChierstinSusel

"I think this is what he's been waiting for for 3 years... I expect him to play probably the best game of his career." -Kliff Kingsbury on how Kyler Murray will embrace his playoff debut. https://t.co/VqKrHWv1Oa

Ahead of the all-important elimination game against the Rams in the Wild Card Round, Kingsbury preached confidence in his young (but not that young) quarterback in his playoff debut. "I think this is what he's been waiting for for three years. ... I expect him to play probably the best game of his career," Kingsbury said.

To quiet the worries that built up around this franchise and its ability to win when it matters most, he'll need to.