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Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury Are Closer to a Divorce Than NFL Power Couple

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 18, 2022

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) passes against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Inglewood, Calif., Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

For most of the 2021 regular season, no shortage of praise was heaped upon quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals. That praise wasn't undeserved, either—Arizona raced out to a 7-0 start and sported one of the most electrifying offenses in the league. The team's young quarterback could be the next Russell Wilson. The head coach could be the next Kyle Shanahan.

The pair could combine to form the NFL's next great power couple.

But for the second time in as many seasons, as fall turned to winter, some of that praise turned to grumbles as the Redbirds experienced a late-season swoon. It wasn't enough to keep Arizona out of the postseason though, and some pundits (including this writer) thought the Redbirds would close out Wild Card weekend with a win over the rival Los Angeles Rams.

That did not happen. What did happen was much more than a swoon—it was an embarrassing 34-11 loss in which Kingsbury's Cardinals were blown off the field in every aspect of the game and Murray played arguably the worst game of his NFL career.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

It was an abysmal end to a promising season. One that leads to a couple of questions. First, how much of that praise of Murray and of Kingsbury was actually justified? And second, are coach and quarterback a power couple destined for a long run together or a pair headed for divorce?

We might as well just get this out of the way: Kyler Murray was awful against the Rams. Well and truly terrible.

As ESPN's Josh Weinfuss reported, in the leadup to Monday's meltdown, Murray said he used the teachings of Bruce Lee as a tool to help him remain calm and centered.

"Bruce's philosophies, it kind of mellows you out," Murray said. "You mentioned trust your judgment, your instincts, your skills, everything you've worked on. It just kind of gives you a sense of confidence and, like I said, it calms the mental down for me."

Then the game started...and Murray got crane-kicked in the face.

In their totality, Murray's numbers are bad enough—the 24-year-old completed 19 of 34 passes for 137 yards and two interceptions. But the real story of just how putrid Murray was lies in his first-half stats—seven completions in 17 attempts for 28 yards and the interceptions. Over the first 30 minutes, Murray's passer rating was 9.3.

Hey, that's just 149 points shy of perfect.

Then there's this.

Doug Rush @TheDougRush

Kyler Murray with the worst pick-six moment ever. https://t.co/d8QtN3dgl3

At the very top of the list of things an NFL quarterback cannot do while trailing by two touchdowns in the playoffs, in glowing six-foot Arizona Cardinals-red letters, it reads "throw a ball underhanded to no one in particular while falling backward in your own end zone."

It's also not the first time in the last month that Murray has made an incredibly boneheaded play in his own end zone against a good team in a game the Cards wound up losing. On Christmas night, he did almost the exact same thing against the Colts. No one caught that pass, but Murray was whistled for grounding and Indy got a safety.

Good to see he learned from that mistake.

This isn't to say that Murray isn't Arizona's long-term solution at quarterback. That he won't have a long and wildly successful career. And certainly, the loss of top wideout DeAndre Hopkins played a part in Murray's drop-off in play as the season wore on.

But Murray posted a triple-digit passer rating six times before Week 8 this season. After Week 8, he did it twice. Defenses started to figure him out. Keep him from peeling off big runs to the outside and get some pressure on Murray, and he'll make mistakes.

Of course, Murray wasn't the only Cardinal who didn't play well Monday. That list is approximately 53 guys long.

And that brings up to the team's head coach.

As a whole, the Cardinals were embarrassed Monday night. They were soundly outplayed in every facet of the game, whether it was an inability to stop the run or the negative yardage the team "gained" in the first quarter.

Pro tip: Negative yardage is not good.

The Rams came out and punched Arizona in the mouth—and the Cardinals promptly crumbled.

After the game, Kingsbury said his team will use the brutal end to this season as motivation for the future.

"We gotta use this as motivation and come back stronger from this," he told reporters.

One would think the whole "late season meltdown" lesson would have been learned by Kingsbury by now.

The Action Network @ActionNetworkHQ

Kliff Kingsbury's end to the season as a head coach... Texas Tech: • '13: lost 5 of 6 • '14: lost 4 of 6 • '15: lost 4 of 6 • '16: lost 6 of 8 • '17: lost 6 of 8 • '18: lost 5 of 5 Cardinals: • '19: lost 7 of 9 • '20: lost 5 of 7 • ‘21: lost 5 of 6 https://t.co/t7e0C1rWC7

That is a staggering collection of collapses. And there is a caveat that comes with Kingsbury's time at Texas Tech: Power 5 college programs generally frontload the schedule with cupcake out-of-conference games before facing better opponents later in the season.

But that doesn't explain away that each and every season Kingsbury's teams fall apart down the stretch. In 2020, the Cardinals were 5-2 at the bye and 6-3 on November 15. They wound up 8-8 and watching a bad Bears team in the postseason. In 2021, the Cardinals were 10-2 before closing the regular season out with four losses in five games—including a beatdown at the hands of the Detroit Lions.

The Cardinals have one win since December 5, and that was over a Dallas Cowboys team that was itself exposed in the Wild Card Round.

As an NFL season progresses, opponents will adjust to what a team does well and exploit what teams do not. The past two seasons, Kingsbury (and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who deserves his share of the blame for Monday's debacle) have appeared wholly incapable of making counter-adjustments of their own. They do what works until it doesn’t and then they stop winning.

Then there's this, from the post-game presser.

Kent Somers @kentsomers

Kingsbury also said maybe guys weren’t used to playoff football.

What?

Kingsbury's job is literally to prepare his team for the upcoming game. It's why he gets the big bucks and lives in that palace we saw in the 2020 draft.

Admitting that his team wasn't ready is admitting he didn't do his job.

It's not outside the realm of reason that those divorce papers could be served soon. After opening the season on the proverbial hot seat, the slide that ended with Monday's humiliation by a division rival may have landed Kingsbury right back on the griddle.

But even if he survives another season, 2022 isn't going to start with talk of the "next step" for Kingsbury and Murray. There will be much less said and written about the Super Bowl and Arizona's hot start to 2021 than about five losses in six games to end the season, culminating in getting laughed out of SoFi Stadium.

Hopefully, we will remain skeptical about Arizona's offensive potential power couple even if there's another successful September start. Dubious that this twosome has what it takes to really even become a true NFL power couple.

Because so far, in the games that really count, we haven't seen much in the way of evidence that they do.

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