The Arizona Cardinals' once-promising season has come to a grinding halt. Sure, they could still make the playoffs, but at this point it's clear they are the definition of NFL pretenders -- a team with a lot of flash but little substance.
Ultimately, the fault for that hollowness has to fall on head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has built his reputation as an offensive guru, but falls short of living up to that billing against more seasoned coaching opponents. But in his second season in the NFL, Kyler Murray's game is also showing cracks, which isn't good for a franchise who went all-in with this duo and really has no productive way out if it doesn't work.
In the Cardinals' embarrassing 20-12 loss to the now 6-9 49ers, Kingsbury made several questionable decisions that led to the ultimate result. None was more shocking than going for a fourth-and-3 on the Cardinals' 35-yard line with the score at 14-12 and over nine minutes left in the game. Murray's pass was batted down -- a major issue for the diminutive quarterback in this game and throughout the season -- and the 49ers scored two plays later, extending their lead to the final margin.
It wasn't a complete surprise to see Kingsbury go for it there. He's a gambler. But that bet was a loser from the second he made it and the play he called -- a quick slant to DeAndre Hopkins -- was as uninspiring as a middle-schooler calling up a play in the dirt of a pick-up game. It was a microcosm of his performance throughout the day.
Despite playing against a 49ers defense featuring more backups than any other unit in the NFL, the Cardinals tried to run a dink-and-dunk style of offense that never got into a rhythm. They ran at the center of the 49ers defense time after time and it resulted in 45 yards on 18 carries for Kenyan Drake. Out wide, they ran short crossing routes that resulted in minimal gains, highlighted by Hopkins' eight catch, 48-yard day. Yet even when 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh countered by playing his defense back and keeping everything in front, the Cardinals had no answer. Or more to the point, Kingsbury had no answer to beat Saleh.
For his side, Murray put up pretty solid numbers, throwing for 247 yards and rushing for 75 yards. He didn't record a touchdown and threw one interception. Those numbers aren't damning, but it does amplify the Cardinals will only go as far as he carries them. For a 5-10, 200-pound quarterback, running that often puts a lot of pressure on his body. Probably too much to maintain over the long term.
Kingsbury and Murray are in their sophomore NFL seasons, and like so many before them, they appear to have hit a sophomore slump. The timing couldn't be worse with the Cardinals clinging to a half-game lead for the final playoff spot and a showdown against the Rams looming in Week 17. They needed to win this game against the 49ers. They knew it and they couldn't do it.
After starting the year 6-3, that's hardly what anyone expected seven weeks later. But after suffering losses to more-seasoned coaching staffs like the Seahawks, Patriots, Rams, and now 49ers over the last six weeks, it's clear this team is not a true threat in the playoffs, if they make it.
Kingsbury and Murray will be back for a third year and ultimately that will dictate each's future in Arizona. But the results of this game are bad, especially for Kingsbury, and the future doesn't appear nearly as bright as it did a few weeks ago for either of them.