No team entered the 2023 season with lower expectations than the Arizona Cardinals. Vegas put the over-under on their win total at a paltry 4.5, and with a 3-10 record, they’re tracking pretty close to that mark. And no wonder: the team only won four games in 2022, and with quarterback Kyler Murray tearing ligaments in Week 14, he figured to miss much of the 2023 campaign as well.
Murray arrived as the #1 overall pick in 2019, joined at the hip with head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who jumped from college to the NFL. After posting a 13-18-1 record in their first two seasons together, an 11-6 playoff run in 2021 prompted big extensions for both coach and quarterback. But after last year’s disaster, Kingsbury got his walking papers, while Murray’s future remains up in the air.
Murray recently returned, and while his numbers don’t impress, the team has won two of his first four starts, perhaps taking them out of the running for the draft’s top quarterbacks. The 2023 season feels like year zero in a multi-year rebuilding effort; where can Arizona go from here?
Owner: Michael Bidwill
General Manager: Monti Ossenfort
Head Coach: Jonathan Gannon
Charles Bidwill Sr., Michael Bidwill’s grandfather, bought the Chicago Cardinals in 1932, and the team has been in the family ever since, with Bill Bidwill taking over as sole owner in 1972 and Michael inheriting the team after his father’s death in 2019.
The Cardinals, whether in Chicago, St. Louis, or Arizona, haven’t won a championship since 1947. They fell just short of winning Super Bowl XLIII after an improbable playoff run from a 9-7 regular season, and they had three straight 10-win seasons under Bruce Arians about a decade back, but mostly it’s been a lot of losing. The Bidwills certainly seem like part of the problem. The NFLPA ranked the team 31st in player accommodations and former front office executive Terry McDonough accused Bidwill of orchestrating a burner phone scheme during then-general-manager Steve Keim’s suspension in 2018.
You can’t fire the owner, unfortunately. Keim and Kingsbury both got their walking papers after that down 2022 season. Bidwill brought in longtime New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans scout Monti Ossenfort to run the front office, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon to coach. With 2023 basically a reset year, it’s difficult to judge the duo so far.
Boy, there’s not a whole lot. Second-year tight end Trey McBride has emerged as the team’s leading receiver, fifth in receiving yards among all tight ends leaguewide after 11 weeks. Right guard Will Hernandez rates as one of the game’s better interior offensive linemen per Pro Football Focus, and 2023 draftees Paris Johnson and Michael Wilson are already making contributions at right tackle and wide receiver, respectively.
The defense, like the offense, has had plenty of struggles, allowing the third-most points in the NFL through 11 weeks. Versatile, undersized safety Budda Baker shines on the unit. For 2023, Arizona moved 2021 first-round linebacker Zaven Collins to more of a pass rush role, with mixed results. As on the offensive side, plenty of rookies are playing roles, with cornerbacks Garrett Williams and Kei’Trel Clark, edge rusher B.J. Ojulari, and defensive lineman Dante Stills all getting plenty of snaps, with typical rookie ups and downs.
Murray remains the X factor, a player talented enough to win Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, make Pro Bowl appearances in 2020 and 2021, and earn a massive contract extension. Almost immediately after signing that deal, things began to turn south, between Murray's disappointing 2022, his ACL tear, and reports raising questions about his work ethic. Still just 26, he should be the face of the franchise and a building block for years to come. But his future is a mystery.
Where do I start? The offensive line has not played well outside of Hernandez, though Johnson should improve. Wide receiver Marquise Brown hasn’t lived up to the first-round pick the Cardinals traded for him, and he’s a free agent after the year. The defense has needs throughout, but especially in the secondary, where Clark, undrafted rookie Starling Thomas V, and Marco Wilson all rank among the bottom 20 cornerbacks per Pro Football Focus. But really, Arizona could use help anywhere and everywhere on the roster.
Perhaps including at quarterback. Will Ossenfort and Gannon consider quarterback a need, or count Murray as a building block? How they categorize Murray will dictate a lot of how this offseason goes.
Consistent with the “year zero” theme, the Cardinals are taking more than $66 million in dead money on the salary cap, with the biggest charges going to departed receiver DeAndre Hopkins and recently-released Zach Ertz. They will still manage to roll more than $11 million to the 2024 cap, where they rank in the league’s top 10 in projected space per Over the Cap.
I’ve written a lot of bad news in this article; so here’s some good news: Arizona probably has the most draft capital in the entire league heading into the 2024 draft. They picked up Houston’s first and third on draft day 2023, trading back from the third pick. They added another third from Tennessee and currently have five picks on day three after several smaller deals. They need a ton of help, but at least they have the draft ammo to get some.
If the team elects to move on from Murray, he becomes an asset they can use to fetch draft capital in trade. Arizona would eat about $46 million in dead money from Murray’s accelerated signing bonus, but would offload $35.3 million in guaranteed 2024 salary. The acquiring team would inherit a five-year, $197 million contract with little guaranteed money after that 2024 hit. It’s hard to assess Murray’s value around the league amid his injury and work ethic questions, but a day two pick seems likely, and a first-rounder isn’t out of the question.
Prognosis and Plan
Nothing would help the Cardinals more than Bidwill selling the team. But assuming that’s off the table, he needs to re-assess the way he does business, investing more in support and accommodations and staying hands-off when it comes to football decisions.
Ossenfort and Gannon’s first order of business is deciding Murray’s future. As of this writing, the Cardinals have the third pick in the 2024 draft, a tough spot in a draft with two standout quarterbacks (Caleb Williams and Drake Maye). That would seem to point towards Murray sticking around. But the braintrust running things in Arizona nowadays, other than Bidwill, had nothing to do with the Murray selection and has nothing invested in the quarterback. If Ossenfort and Gannon view him differently than Keim and Kingsbury did, they might be better off getting draft capital and cap relief than sticking with a passer that they’re not sold on. Trading Murray might leave 2024 looking similar to 2023.
The Cardinals have needs everywhere. It’s tempting to use that as an opportunity to just assemble talent or draft “best player available,” but that’s a ticket to a disjointed, random roster. Ossenfort and Gannon must set a vision for what kind of team they want to be and what players fit into that vision. They can then work to acquire those players and begin building a roster. One thing’s for sure: there’s a long way to go.