Monday night’s wild-card game between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams is the most important event of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray era.
It has been six years since the Arizona Cardinals have been involved in the playoffs. Back in January of 2016, the Carson Palmer-led Cardinals beat the Green Bay Packers in overtime with impressive performances from both Palmer and the legendary Larry Fitzgerald.
After the divisional round victory, the 2016 Cards were buried by the Carolina Panthers to the tune of 49-15 in the NFC Championship. That was the bitter taste of playoff defeat that has hung over the franchise for years and was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the Bruce Arians era in the desert.
Now, in the third year of head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray, the Cardinals are back in the playoffs, set to take on the divisional rival Los Angeles Rams inside SoFi Stadium next Monday.
When Arizona owner Michael Bidwill and general manager Steve Keim took the plunge and committed to hiring a controversial coach from the college ranks and moving on from former first-round pick Josh Rosen after only one season, they knew they were taking a risk.
During the past two offseasons, Keim has aggressively pursued impactful trades and free agents while having his typical mixed success in the draft. The additions of DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, Rodney Hudson, A.J. Green, James Conner, and others reinvigorated a roster that was bottom of the stack in 2018.
Draftees like Isaiah Simmons and Byron Murphy have steadily grown into more prominent roles and the jury is still out on recent picks such as Zaven Collins and Rondale Moore, who have shown flashes of great potential.
2021 was supposed to be an “all-in” season for the Arizona Cardinals
After the rebuild period of 2016-2019, this season’s Cardinals team was built for success. A 7-0 start to the year seemed to bear out the risks that Bidwill and Keim had taken.
Unfortunately, a third straight season of second-half struggles has thrown shadows on what is still a historic finish for Arizona. Although finishing with a better-than-respectable 11-6 record, going 2-4 since their bye week has raised a number of legitimate concerns about the team.
Even with the almost inexplicable late-season collapse, the Cardinals have a fantastic opportunity in front of them. A victory in the wild card bout in LA would go a long way toward vindicating the decisions this organization made in 2019.
Kingsbury has gone 24-24-1 as head coach and play-caller since his arrival. It almost seems like fate that with a completely even record, he now has the opportunity to break through and win the first playoff game for this franchise in six years.
Murray has shown that when confident and healthy, he more than deserves to be ranked among the elite at the position. In only three seasons, he has broken a multitude of franchise and NFL records and he has shown improvement in each successive campaign.
Whether fair or not, Kingsbury and Murray are linked and the success of the entire team largely hinges on the abilities of these two individuals.
The Cardinals front office put together a team capable of contending. They went “all-in”, and with the hopeful return of a key piece like Watt and the availability of touchdown magnet James Conner, they have most of what they need to be successful on Monday.
What the team and the NFL needs to see most of all is Kingsbury and Murray on the same page and in their zone. If that happens and the underdog Cards secure a win, the comfort level with this pairing should only continue to grow.
No coach will be fired or quarterback not re-signed if they lose, but for the sake of the franchise and the faith they put into two untested entities three years ago they really, really need to win.
Doing so would start a new era of Cardinals football. One that is dedicated and accustomed to winning rather than losing and instilling hope in their fans that year after year, “this could be the one.”