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Cardinals season mercifully ends and wait begins to see if the hammer falls

Howard Balzer Avatar
January 9, 2023

And now we wait.

The mind-numbing 2022 season is finally over and we’ll hopefully know within the next 24 hours what Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill will do next.

Sunday’s 38-13 loss to the 49ers was predictable. The out-manned Cardinals battled in the first half and were trailing 14-13 after a late second-quarter touchdown.

However, the 49ers quickly marched down the field and increased their lead to 21-13 on a touchdown with 1:01 remaining. The rout was essentially on when San Francisco scored on the first possession of the second half. Quarterback Brock Purdy completed a 21-yard pass to running back Christian McCaffrey on third-and-17 and two plays later running back Elijah Mitchell scampered 37 yards, setting up his second touchdown run of the game.

It came against a defense playing with numerous backups. Overall, the Cardinals had so many injured players inactive that they played with two fewer players than usual.

Left tackle Josh Jones added to the injury carnage on the offensive line when he departed the game in the third quarter with a knee injury, while quarterback David Blough suffered a concussion.

It’s almost hard to remember that the Cardinals took an early 6-0 lead on a trick play that resulted in a 77-yard touchdown pass from Blough to wide receiver A.J. Green. After that play, the Cardinals gained only 175 yards on 48 plays (3.6 average) for the remainder of the game.

The second half wasn’t much different than the final two quarters of the Week 11 game against the 49ers in Mexico City. The 49ers led 17-10 at halftime and outscored the Cardinals 21-0 in the second half. Today, it was 17-0 in the second half and might have been 21-0 had linebacker Cameron Thomas not sacked 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy on a third-and-4 play from the 6-yard line. Instead, kicker Robbie Gould booted a 27-yard field goal.

The Cardinals were 4-6 entering the Mexico City game after defeating the Rams the week before. The trip featured the firing of offensive line coach Sean Kugler and the loss was the beginning of the seven-game winning streak.

The 49ers were 3-4 at one point this season when the Cardinals were also 3-4, but that San Francisco win was the third of their current 10-game winning streak and they head to the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

Virtually the only thing worth watching was the final game of defensive end J.J. Watt’s career. He didn’t disappoint, registering 2.0 sacks to give him 12.5 for the season to go with five tackles, three of which were for loss in the running game, two quarterback hits and a pass defensed.

As Watt said after the game in his final press conference as a player, “I know I still can (play). I’m choosing not to.”

Watt, by the way, will officially remain under contract with the Cardinals until after June 1. His two-year contract originally had two void years in 2023 and 2024. However, that would have triggered a $7.2 million cap charge for the remaining signing bonus proration.

He now has a base salary in 2023 of $1.165 million, which is the league minimum for a player with at least 10 accrued seasons. Watt will officially retire after June 1, so until then his cap charge will be $3.565 million, which includes the base salary and $2.4 million of the signing bonus.

After June 1, the salary will disappear and there will be a dead cap charge of $2.4 million with the remaining $4.8 million counting against the cap in 2024.

Naturally, as we all hit our pillows tonight, we wonder what will happen Monday. The club’s media department sent an advisory that coach Kliff Kingsbury will be available at 2 p.m. Does that mean anything? Who knows? Social media and sports-talk shows will be debating that until then, unless an announcement occurs earlier. Five years ago, the Cardinals announced on their Twitter account at 9:10 a.m. that then-coach Steve Wilks had been fired. He was scheduled to meet with the media later that day.

It’s also notable that there will be player availability beginning at 8:30 a.m., which coincidentally (?) could be before anything is announced, especially if it’s bad news for Kingsbury.

Then, there’s this: If there is a firing in the offing, might Bidwill wait to reveal anything until after the Hard Knocks cameras leave? It’s difficult to imagine wanting that to be a part of the finale Wednesday night. Or maybe not. After all, while many debated how having the cameras around could help the team, the unfortunate reality is that since the show debuted on Nov. 9, the Cardinals won one game! That’s the definition of Hard Knocks.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill has been churning for weeks with various reports from unidentified sources.

The Broncos have reportedly received permission from the Saints to talk to former coach Sean Payton, but the league has mandated that he can’t be interviewed until Jan. 17. That’s because Payton resigned while he was under contract and remains property of the Saints. They will be angling for compensation from whatever team eventually decides to hire him in this cycle, if anyone does.

One report said the Saints are expecting the Cardinals to ask permission to interview Payton, but what does that actually mean? I’m expecting it to be sunny tomorrow, but it might not be.

No one knows if Kyler Murray is the skill set at quarterback Payton wants to coach. Murray has had six injuries in four seasons with five to his legs. There are coaches and personnel executives that don’t believe that style is sustainable over time. There were those on the high level of the Ravens personnel group that weren’t in favor of drafting Lamar Jackson in 2018, the year before Murray entered the league. Jackson has been injured at the end of each of the last two seasons.

There could be another conundrum for Bidwill if he decides to move on from coach Kliff Kingsbury and pursues first-time head coaches.

In recent years, while there have been successes, there have also been several that lasted only one or two seasons. Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was one, lasting only two years (2017-18) with the Broncos, largely because he didn’t have a competent quarterback.

The Cardinals do have Murray, but likely won’t have him until at least October and perhaps November. First, how many coaches will support that style of quarterbacking? Second, knowing they are on a short leash, what is the attraction of implementing a new offensive system that Murray likely won’t be able to begin practicing until at least October?

Bidwill also has to decide the direction of the front office. With general manager Steve Keim on medical leave, all signs seem to be pointing to Keim being out of the picture.

Player personnel director Quentin Harris and pro personnel director Adrian Wilson have been sharing the general manager duties since Keim stepped away and there have been rumblings that Bidwill might move forward with that arrangement.

Questions about how that will work, especially when it comes to final decisions on free agents or draft choices, can be dealt with. In the short term, it would seem likely that Harris and Wilson have had Bidwill’s ear regarding their thoughts on Kingsbury.

They were both players and certainly understand the historic realities of what Kingsbury and the coaching staff experienced during the entire 2022 calendar year.

Sunday, the Cardinals played with three expected starters on offense (Marquise Brown, Kelvin Beachum and Will Hernandez) and four on defense (Watt, Isaiah Simmons, Markus Golden and Jalen Thompson). Simple arithmetic tells you there were 15 backups pushed into starting roles.

They also know that the three seasons of improvement shouldn’t be ignored and that the finish to the 2021 season was actually the beginning of a long stretch of bad luck and injuries that carried over into this year.

We’ll never know what this season would have looked like with at least most of their expected starters playing, but even with the attrition, the Cardinals were mostly competitive. That’s a tribute to the coaching staff. No one can accurately claim the coaches lost the locker room.

They lost six games by one score or less and another three by nine or 10 points. Two games were lost by one point in the final seconds and another two by three points, with one of those in overtime.

Their 13 losses were to seven playoff teams, nine if the Seahawks qualify. That would count Seattle and San Francisco twice. The combined record of the 11 teams (again counting the Seahawks and 49ers twice) is 128-93 (57.9 percent). When the final overall strength of schedules are computed after the Sunday night game, the Cardinals will likely be among the top 10 toughest.

Clearly, there are those that believe Bidwill, who has historically promoted from within, should go outside the organization for a new general manager. That wouldn’t necessarily be a wrong move.

But that hire also likely would be someone that hasn’t had a top job. Only Bidwill knows what truly goes on behind closed doors with those he closest to. Many don’t trust him to make good decisions, which makes whatever he does so critical for the organization.

One of the biggest questions is whether he worries about perceived business ramifications and will make changes to pacify a vocal and negative portion of the fan base that is disgruntled.

Of course, he probably wonders how large that vocal group really is and whether many of the others understand and sympathize with what transpired. There are ticket buyers in the thousands and between 300,000 and 350,000 people in the area that watch games on Fox on a regular basis. It’s fair to presume a rather large majority aren’t on Twitter or other social media.

The truth is, there are a good number of young players that have shown growth.

Kingsbury said afterward, “I like some of these young core players. There’s no doubt there’s a good nucleus of young players. But there are a lot of areas that we have to improve upon. It’s one of those seasons where there’s no hiding from where it was at and areas that were revealed that we have to get better at. Sometimes that can be a blessing in disguise if you’re able to take those signs and improve moving forward.”

Obviously, he doesn’t know whether he will be around to be a part of it. That’s up to Bidwill, who has to ignore the noise and simply do what he believes is the smart move.

And then deal with the consequences.

2023 opponents

The Cardinals finished last in the NFC West and that determined three games on their 2023 schedule.

There are, of course, six games against the other NFC West teams. The two divisions they are matched up with are the NFC East and AFC North.

That results in home games against Dallas, the N.Y. Giants, Baltimore and Cincinnati. On the road, it’s Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

The fourth-place games are against teams in the NFC North (at Chicago), NFC South (home against Atlanta) and the AFC South (at Houston). The one against the Texans is the 17th game that was added beginning in 2021.

The Cardinals have eight home games and nine on the road and will have two preseason games at home and one on the road.

Dates and times will be announced in May.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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