Arizona Cardinals 2021 Team Study

Part 32 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 31 here: Seattle Seahawks.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (red and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Cardinals started 2021 on a heater, winning their first seven games. These weren’t fluky wins either for the most part. They were playing solid football on both sides of the ball. Kyler Murray and Kliff Kinsgbury found a way to get the ball in the hands of the many offensive playmakers, essentially spreading the field and just dropping the ball in whichever direction had the most space. This opened up running lanes that both James Conner and Chase Edmonds capitalized on. Kyler was accurate and took advantage of the straightforward concepts that made life easy for him.

He also made some absolutely mind-blowing plays on third and long during this stretch. His agility and mobility in the pocket created time when he needed it, and with several tenacious receivers downfield he would often eventually find someone open to chuck the ball to. Their offense on early downs was okay, but these bail-out plays swung games. They weren’t isolated plays either; he did it several times. This led to the Cardinals finishing 1st in the NFL in DVOA on third or fourth down and long.

But once again, Kyler did not excel as a traditional pocket passer. He wasn’t imposing his will on defenses with a well-run offensive scheme built around diagnosing defenses, progressing through route concepts, and capitalizing on mistakes. Instead, he seemed to always be on his back foot or scrambling around if the initial pass wasn’t there. His almost magical ability to convert in these situations kept the team afloat.

An offense that relies on the quarterback making these kinds of plays is bound to experience some regression when those plays don’t pan out. Later in the season, particularly without DeAndre Hopkins, opposing defenses did a better job of closing on the short throws that Kyler thrived on early in the season. This led to more third-and-longs, and – surprise – Kyler was unable to repeat the same kind of magic he displayed earlier in the season.

He also suffered an injury that lingered for weeks. He has a small frame and takes a lot of hits, so this kind of injury feels almost inevitable. His absence disrupted the offense, although Colt McCoy showed flashes at times and was, overall, a competent backup. The team never really got back on track after his injury and the season ended with an embarrassing blowout loss in the playoffs, where Kyler and Kliff had no answers for the Rams defense.

On one hand, the offense is capable of beating any defense on any given Sunday. The Cardinals seem to play their best offensive football against the best teams. Setting aside the playoff loss, they put up 37 points on the Rams (3rd in Def. Adj. Eff.), 37 points on the Browns (5th), and 31 points on the 49ers (6th). On the other hand, relying on big plays and not being able to just line up and win on routes once again made them less effective against the worst defenses. For the second season in a row, they lost to the Lions, this time 30-12. It’s really tough to rely on a gimmicky or gadgety offense like the Cardinals to just take care of business against a weaker defense. So the week-to-week ceiling is high for this offense, but the season-long ceiling is limited by their ability to win consistently.

After struggling without Hopkins late last year, they will open up 2022 with Hopkins suspended for six games. They also lost Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds, who were both underrated pieces of this offensive tapestry. An underrated Marquise Brown should be an excellent fit for this offense and I expect him to be heavily involved (and highly productive) early on. They also will need Rondale Moore to elevate his game in year two after showing flashes as a rookie.

After last season’s collapse, I don’t think the house is on fire. I still anticipate this team to compete with the best of them when Kyler is healthy. But Kliff’s poor coaching and the gimmicky nature of the offense indicates that the ceiling has arguably been reached for this team. That’s why they face a tough decision with Kyler’s extension. How much can they sink into a potentially injury-prone quarterback who has likely peaked as a player? In the meantime, expect another inconsistent season from this offense with high highs and low lows.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (red and black) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The Cardinals handed me my biggest season-long betting loss in 2021, as I bet them to win fewer than 8.5 games and they managed to win 11. This surprise stemmed primarily from a defense that shocked me. Chandler Jones, Budda Baker, Markus Golden, and J.J. Watt heralded a defense of overachievers who tackled aggressively and played cohesively. They finished in the top-6 in EPA/play allowed against both the run and the pass, creating big plays throughout the season.

Yet I graded them as only the 14th-best defense. This type of gap between pure stats and my Effectiveness Ratings typically indicates an over-reliance on big plays, especially ones that rely on variance going their way. This is borne out in the numbers. Despite giving up the 5th-highest yards per carry, they allowed the 3rd-lowest EPA/play against the run. That’s a crazy gap.

Turnovers, which have a huge impact on EPA, are not all created equal. A lot of interceptions are created by great defensive play, starting with pressuring the quarterback and finishing with solid coverage on the backend. Quarterback fumbles are somewhat more predictive, because quarterbacks who get sacked and pressured frequently are typically more likely to fumble the ball. But skill player fumbles are almost entirely random. And the Cardinals led the NFL (tied) for most fumbles recovered, many of which were skill player fumbles.

They blitzed at a high rate and wanted to create that disruption. But against teams that were able to take time in the pocket while avoiding pressure, this hyper-aggressive approach fell flat. They didn’t have elite coverage or consistency. Demonstrating this split, Chart A shows the Cardinals’ defensive Adj. Eff. Rating in each game ranked by the opponent’s average time in the pocket on the season. The Cardinals performed better against teams that spent less time in the pocket because quick plays played into their defensive strengths.

Chart A

Defensive Adjusted Rating per game against each opponent ranked by its season-long average time in the pocket.

They were also very strong on high-leverage third and fourth downs. This is not necessarily unsustainable, but if they cannot keep up the pressure then they are susceptible to a notable drop-off here. With Chandler Jones moving to Las Vegas, and J.J. Watt coming off injury in his age-33 season, any optimism for the Cardinals to continue their defensive success must be tempered. I would anticipate continued aggression, which could have a positive outcome against bad offenses but may expose them against sound offenses that can handle pressure well.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Cardinals: Even though I’m low on the Cardinals, the market is arguably lower. Unfortunately, Murray has played much better overall with Hopkins on the field than without him so I don’t think there is much value trying to cash in early. But if they underperform and people start writing the team off, they make good underdogs.

When to fade the Cardinals: Most of my angles for fading the Cardinals are baked into the market already. But sometimes bettors will overestimate how much of a “sure thing” this team is against a vanilla defense, particularly if the team’s offense has a good offensive line.

Evaluating the off-season: Losing Chandler Jones likely hurts. And rolling out Marquise Brown as the #1 wide receiver for six weeks might make for a tough start. This team needed to put the final pieces together as Murray’s rookie contract expires, but I don’t think they meaningfully upgraded.

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