Did the Cardinals just become the Cardinals again?

Washington Football Team v Arizona Cardinals

If I plucked you out of 2018, put you in the DeLorean and told you the 2020 Cardinals were on the road for an East Coast game, with a height-impaired second-year quarterback and an experience-impaired head coach (fit with a total record of 42-52-1), and I saved you all the preseason hype, the Good Morning Football grovel-fests, and Michael Vick naming Kyler Murray as his favorite NFL quarterback, you’d probably predict a strikingly similar game script to what we saw yesterday.

Kyler Murray missed a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald high on the third play of the game, a play that would’ve picked up at least 30-yards and put the Cardinals in field goal position. Missing high is Murray’s vice. That opening drive stalled, and the ensuing punt was tipped, leaving the Panthers with opportune field position. Carolina took advantage, overcoming dropped passes, two offensive penalties and a 4th-and-2 on their way to a 7-0 lead. That’s pretty much how the day went. Chandler Jones was a non-factor. Carolina’s wide receivers ate Arizona’s secondary’s lunch. Kyler Murray threw for just 4.3 yards per pass.

By most metrics, Arizona’s offense has moved into the lower-third-tier of the NFL. Kyler Murray looks stuck. Most alarming is Kliff Kingsbury’s plateau as a play-caller.

Right now, Keim’s hiring of the former Red Raider feels like driving through a McDonald’s in pursuit of a great cheeseburger. Those first two bites are admittedly delicious. McDonald’s has spent decades honing in on the perfect salt-sugar-fat ratio. But, the longer you hold that thing, and god forbid you have the lights on in your car, the less appealing it gets. If Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are Thoroughbreds, Kliff Kingsbury is more of a Dartmoor Pony. And, that’s probably what your 2018 self would’ve predicted, given Kingsbury’s background.

The high water mark set by Arizona’s defense - bolstered by free agents, a high draft pick and two clunky opposing offenses to start the season - is beginning to set a glaring contrast on what has become a middling unit over its past two games. Both the Lions and Panthers scored above their season averages against the Cardinals, with the Panthers scoring a season-high 31 points. Its two stars are playing like stars. Patrick Peterson was burned repeatedly by D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. Chandler Jones went sack-less for the third game in a row, this time against a second-year left tackle playing in just his sixth game. Yet, a defense allowing just 23 points per game after a quarter of the season would be considered a blessing by 2018 you.

The Cardinals were shocked this week by cluster injuries at safety. Their top three - Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson and Chris Banjo - all sat for Sunday’s game. That’s a real excuse in most divisions. But, in the NFC West, it’s a hard sell. The 49ers beat the Giants by 27 last week without their starting quarterback, running backs, wide receiver, tight end, defensive end and cornerback. Coaching matters more at the NFL level than any other in football, and Kliff Kingsbury and Vance Joseph are trying to co-pilot their way through the most well-coached division in recent memory. 2018 you would’ve half-believed that, only you hadn’t yet seen the rise of Kyle Shanahan to the top of that heap yet.

2018 you was starting to fall back into the malaise of Cardinals mediocrity, weren’t you? If someone had told you about Steve Keim’s harebrained idea to bring in a head coach, quarterback combination comprised of traits we’ve never really seen work in the NFL - Air Raid acumen and diminutive stature - you’d have rolled your eyes, right? Only, what followed 2019’s offseason moves created a refreshing level of buy-in. The eye-rolling stopped, and there was even cheerleading. I caught heat from fans for predicting the Cardinals would win only seven games in 2020. Kyler Murray was touted as an MVP candidate. Steve Keim was considered an early favorite for GM of the Year. Many thought the Cardinals could start 5-0.

And then, the Cardinals became the Cardinals again. Or did they? The Jets are up next.

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