It’s been a constant topic throughout the 2021 offseason and the chatter has reached epic proportions with the season set to begin.
It’s been said most everywhere as pundits voice their opinion about the prospects for the Cardinals. You know what I’m talking about. The notion that the Cardinals must qualify for the playoffs for head coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim to keep their jobs with the team in 2022.
Sorry to say, alarmists, that won’t be heard here. Can’t we have some nuance, please?
Surely, the home stretch of the 2020 season was dismal after the Cardinals were 6-3 and appeared headed to the post-season. But then, quarterback Kyler Murray injured his shoulder, and the offense went into a funk with too many penalties and missteps.
And in the season finale against the Rams, needing a win to finish second in the toughest division in the NFL, Murray injured his leg early in a game the Cardinals were already playing without wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald (groin) and Christian Kirk (COVID). The starters at the position in addition to DeAndre Hopkins were KeeSean Johnson and Trent Sherfield, and they’re not on even the roster anymore.
Those aren’t excuses; they are facts.
While the 8-8 finish was exasperating given the earlier success, doesn’t the fact they were even playing for a postseason spot count for something on a team that the year before earned the first overall pick in the draft and entered 2019 with its third head coach in three seasons?
I say it does. It also doesn’t mean Kingsbury and Keim should get a pass if many of the same issues rear their ugly heads this season and the record plummets.
But suppose they don’t? Suppose this team improves even more, plays cleaner football, yet still is on the outside looking in when we hit mid-January because the other teams in the division or conference were simply better?
Would that justify kicking Keim and/or Kingsbury out the door and starting over? Again? So they could have their fourth head coach in six seasons? Talk about a recipe for disaster.
It wouldn’t make sense, especially with quarterback Kyler Murray entering an offseason where the organization has to make a choice about his fifth-year option and potentially enter serious discussions about a contract extension. Bringing in a new system for Murray and the offense to learn would not be the smartest decision to make.
Meanwhile, the degree of difficulty in the NFC West isn’t a mere excuse. It’s reality.
If the Cardinals were in the NFC East, they would be picked by many to win the division. In the NFC North and NFC South, they would be seen as a likely second-place team and no worse than third.
The NFC West is a gauntlet, where the Cardinals were 2-4 in 2020 and got to 8-8 by winning all four of their games against the NFC East.
This season, a 2-4 division record means having to be 7-4 just to reach 9-8. The math is daunting, but not impossible.
Still, it’s hard to win a game in the NFL, much less be one of 14 teams in the playoffs.
Consider the case of the Detroit Lions, a team that was 9-7 in 2017 but failed to advance to the postseason. Head coach Jim Caldwell, who had led the bedraggled franchise to two playoff appearances in his four seasons, was fired and the Lions are a disastrous 14-33-1 in the last three seasons.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford was so disgruntled by the constant rebuilding that he asked out when there was another coaching and general manager change after a 5-11 record last season.
Also consider that in the last five years, there have been 12 teams with winning records whose seasons ended after Week 17: One was 10-6 (Miami in 2020), one was 9-6-1, eight were 9-7 and two were 8-7-1.
But often times, the knee-jerk reaction that takes place when a team doesn’t achieve the desired result ends up being far worse than the alternative.
Surely, deep down, Cardinals fans understand that dynamic.
It’s always important to remember: Be careful what you wish for.