By Michael Manny
GLENDALE, Ariz. – After a 2018 season that was nothing short of disastrous, the Arizona Cardinals are about to embark on a bold experiment.
In a near unprecedented move, team president Michael Bidwill and general manager Steve Keim fired Steve Wilks after one year and hired former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury has no prior professional coaching experience, and finished with a 35-40 record in six seasons at Texas Tech.
Kingsbury brings a version of the “air raid” to the NFL, a popular offense in college football that could help bring life to an offense that finished last in nearly every category in 2018. Texas Tech finished in the top five in scoring offense twice in Kingsbury’s system.
To better fit Kingsbury and the air raid, Keim and Bidwill made another risky move; giving up on second-year quarterback Josh Rosen after drafting him tenth overall one year ago. Rosen was traded to the Miami Dolphins during this year’s draft for a second-round pick and fifth-round pick in 2020.
With the number one pick in the NFL draft, the team selected another quarterback, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. Murray lit up the Big 12 Conference in 2018 en route to winning the Heisman trophy, passing for 42 touchdowns while rushing for 12 more. Murray was also selected ninth overall in the 2018 MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics.
Despite the under .500 overall record as a college head coach, Kingsbury has coached several successful NFL quarterbacks while in the ranks, including Case Keenum, Baker Mayfield, and reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Murray, at 5 feet-10 inches tall, is shorter than the typical NFL quarterback, but it’s not unprecedented for smaller quarterbacks to be successful. Baker Mayfield, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Doug Flutie are all examples of shorter quarterbacks that have found success in the NFL. Keeping the offensive line healthy and Murray protected could likely be the key.
The Cardinals revamped the wide receiver position this offseason through the draft. Massachusetts’ Andy Isabella was chosen in the second round, followed by Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler in the fourth and Fresno State’s KeeSean Johnson in the sixth.
Isabella has only caught three passes this preseason, but flashed deep threat speed on a 59-yard touchdown catch. Johnson caught seven passes for 85 yards against the Vikings in the third preseason game, and four more in the preseason finale in Denver. Butler has been placed on injured reserve with a hand injury and will be out for the season, according to Darren Urban of azcardinals.com.
The rookies will be complemented by second-year wide receiver Christian Kirk, back healthy after a season ending foot injury in 2018. Larry Fitzgerald is also back for a 16th season. Despite last season’s offensive woes, Fitzgerald still made 69 receptions and six touchdown catches. Veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree also signed to a one-year deal to further shore up the wide receiver position.
Running back David Johnson is also returning and will once again be the work horse in a ground game that should be much better with a healthy offensive line.
The defense is switching back to the 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Vance Joseph. The Cardinals finished last in rush defense in 2019, so a switch back to the 3-4 could improve those numbers.
Depth is a concern for the defense, particularly in the secondary. Perennial pro bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson is suspended the first six games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The team’s second cornerback, Robert Alford, will also miss an extended part of the season with a tibia fracture, according to NFL insider Ian Rapoport.
With Peterson and Alford out, Tramaine Brock Sr. and Byron Murphy will likely be the top two cornerbacks week one. Budda Baker, and D.J. Swearinger Sr. will be the starters at free and strong safety, respectively. This is Swearinger’s second stint with the team, previously playing in Arizona from 2015-2016.
Chandler Jones is moving back to outside linebacker after playing defensive end in 2018. Jones has had a double-digit sack season every year since being acquired from New England in 2016. Former Philadelphia Eagle linebacker Jordan Hicks signed a four-year contract in the offseason. Haason Reddick will be in the mix at linebacker, but did not play in the preseason due to a knee injury.
The defense is further bolstered by the signing of linebacker Terrell Suggs. Suggs, the NFL’s active sacks leader, has spent the last 16 years with the Baltimore Ravens. Suggs played collegiately at Arizona State University and at Hamilton High School in Chandler.
The Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury experiment begins Sept. 8 at State Farm Stadium as the Detroit Lions come to Glendale. Kickoff is at 1:25 p.m.
*Correction: Edited for correct spelling of team president Michael Bidwill’s name, which was originally identified as “Bidwell” in this story