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In another tale of two halves, failures on third and fourth down, inconsistency in officiating (that’s something we’ve never seen before), plus a critical coaching decision sent the Cardinals home with a 21-16 loss to the Texans in Houston that can only be described as frustrating.
That’s the word quarterback Kyler Murray used seven times in his postgame press conference after showing exhilarating flashes of what he’s capable of while also reminding all of us this was his second game with a new offense on the road in a loud environment.
Truth be known, the Cardinals were fortunate to have been in the game at halftime. After Murray hit a streaking wide receiver Rondale Moore for a 48-yard touchdown on the third play of the game, the Texans outscored the Cardinals 21-3 during the remainder of the first half.
Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud put on a passing clinic in part because he was rarely pressured and had time to find his targets.
The Texans totaled 333 yards in the first two quarters with Stroud passing for 259 yards and running back Devin Singletary slashing for 84 yards on 16 carries. Houston converted six of its seven third downs in the half.
Only a fourth-and-2 stop at the Cardinals’ 15-yard line and an end-zone interception by safety Jalen Thompson kept the score from being a lot worse.
As the second half began, it looked like the Texans were ready to pick up where they left off. There was 21-yard run by Singletary on third-and-1 and a third-and-17 completion to Tank Dell for 18 yards to the Arizona 34-yard line.
However, Singletary was dropped for a three-yard loss on second-and-8, which was followed by an odd swing pass to backup Mike Boone, which gained only five yards. Kicker Matt Ammendola, who broke the Cardinals’ hearts with a missed field goal last season against the Eagles and hit the game-winner for the Texans last week, promptly missed on a 48-yard attempt.
The Cardinals pounced. On the ensuing 62-yard touchdown drive, there were nine running plays with three by Murray. Those included the final 10 yards on a 9-yard run to the 1-yard line and a touchdown on a run with 2:52 remaining in the third quarter that not many other quarterbacks could pull off.
Coach Jonathan Gannon opted to go for two to cut the lead to three, but another Murray run was stopped just short of the goal line.
Did that make decision make sense? Perhaps. But not in the context of what occurred later. Bear with me until we get there.
The tide seemed to be turning the Cardinals way when Stroud tripped on first down and was sacked for a loss of 10 yards. Three plays later, the Texans punted for their first time in the game.
That possession for Houston was the first of four in which they gained only 42 yards on 15 plays, with two ending on Stroud interceptions. He entered the game with only two picks in nine games and had three on Sunday. In the second half, the Texans gained 86 yards and had four first downs while Stroud passed for 77 yards and Singletary gained 28.
It also began a stretch of three Cardinals possessions that all ended with fourth-down fails. For the game, the Cardinals were 3-for-10 on third down and 1-for-4 on fourth.
On the first, wide receiver Greg Dortch had catches for 10 and 17 yards and on second-and-13 from the Texans 33-yard line, tight end Elijah Higgins went low for a Murray pass and advanced to the 13-yard line. However, replay review overturned the call when it was questionable whether there was indisputable visual evidence that it was incomplete.
After a 10-yard gain, Gannon made the inexplicable decision to go for a first down on fourth-and-3, rather than send kicker Matt Prater out for a 41-yard field goal that would have cut the deficit to two points. Dortch was at the line to gain, but came back to catch the ball and was stopped a yard short of the first down.
Obviously, a first down doesn’t guarantee that it would lead to a touchdown. That makes it difficult to justify Gannon trying two-point conversion to get within three points and then eschewing a field goal that would have cut Houston’s lead to less than three points.
It came back to haunt them.
On Houston’s next possession, a punt was ruled to have hit Cardinals cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. with the Texans recovering. Somehow, the replay review failed to find indisputable visual evidence that it had hit a Texans player instead of Hamilton. Not mentioned by the TV crew was that the review didn’t have to rule that it hit a Houston player, only that it didn’t hit Hamilton, which seemed clear on the replays shown. That play, coupled with the reversal on the Higgins “non-catch,” was contradictory to the indisputable visual evidence standard.
Four plays later, Cardinals linebacker Krys Barnes intercepted Stroud and the result was better field position that it would have been after the punt. However, things might have been very different had the Higgins play stood.
Four plays after the Barnes interception, on fourth-and-4 from the Houston 45-yard line, Murray threw low and behind tight end Trey McBride on a throw that wobbled out of his hand.
Murray said afterward, “It’s on me. Bad feet. Just missed a throw.”
On Houston’s next possession, Hamilton intercepted Stroud giving the Cardinals another chance with 4:58 to play. Starting at their own 19, Murray connected with wide receiver Hollywood Brown for 13 yards on third-and-12 and then Dortch for 31 to the Texans 39-yard line.
They reached the 29-yard line on the next two plays, only to see running back James Conner dropped for a 5-yard loss on a pass play. After a 7-yard pass to tight end Geoff Swaim, the game ended on incomplete passes on third- and fourth-and-8 when the Texans brought the house to pressure Murray.
However, as soon as the Cardinals reached the 29-yard line, it was impossible to overlook the fact that the decision to not kick a field goal earlier was preventing the Cardinals from potentially taking the lead on another field goal.
The reasons for frustration were everywhere.
As Murray said, when asked what parts of his performance were playing in his head, “I had a couple. Just miscommunication or a missed throw here and there. We did some good, but there are no moral victories when it comes to what we were doing. Just frustrating. Frustrating.
“Just feel like, offensively myself, feel like had enough chances to win the game. Let the team down. That’s how I feel.”
Asked about the offensive line and pressure on Murray, Gannon said, “I’ve got to watch the tape. He seemed a little under duress at times, but that’s all 11. It’s not just the [line]. Just work on continuing to improve in pass protection and the run game and everything like that. I actually thought we ran it pretty well. A couple got knocked back there, and that’s a credit to them. That’s a hard front to block.”
When it was noted that it was his second game in a new offense with limited practice time and the first road game, Murray said, “Obviously, they got loud [on] third downs here and there, which made it a little tough to communicate. But we got to be better in and out of the huddle. Again, I put that on us. We knew what it was going to be coming in here. Obviously, the Houston Texans are playing good football. They feel good about what they got going on more so now than they have in the recent past. We knew the type of crowd it was going to be. They were hyped. We’ve got to be better at communicating.
“I’m sure this one is going to sting watching it because there were a lot of plays to be made, a lot of things we probably wish we would’ve done differently. I know there will be for me. No, the standard is the standard, it’s just frustrating. It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating. I felt like the defense; I know for sure they gave us enough opportunities to go win the game, and we didn’t make it happen.
Noting the deficit at halftime, Gannon said, “We got back into the game, but it was just too much to overcome. Gave ourselves a chance to win. Didn’t get it done.”
It actually wasn’t that much to overcome, especially after the score became 21-16. But it was true they didn’t get it done and Gannon was a part of it, even though we’ll never know what would have happened had the decision been made to kick the field goal.
Finally, Murray was able to accept and believe that despite the disappointment and frustration, improvement is coming.
“I feel like it wasn’t as clean offensively,” he admitted. “That allows us to grow. I think there were maybe more negatives for us as an offense, so it’s going to be a good learning lesson for us to go back and watch and learn from those things. But, obviously I told you during the week, just trying to take a step each and every week we step out there. I feel like we made some strides today, but again, we lost.”
After the game, Murray and Stroud chatted. Asked about that, Murray said, “Win or lose, I was hoping to be able to talk to him just because he’s a young guy and I’m happy to see what he’s doing. But just to be able to share that moment, obviously, it’s cool. Wish we would’ve won the game, but I’m happy to see the success he’s having.”
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD
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