The key to any good reality series is drama. Turmoil. Dysfunction.
In that sense, the Arizona Cardinals make for great television.
The 4-8 Cardinals are reeling as they prepare to host the Patriots on Monday night. A season that began with Super Bowl expectations is essentially over with five games to go. The star quarterback signed a big contract yet is having the worst season of his career. The coach is taking questions about his job security and is the No. 2 coach to get fired next, per the betting sites.
And the Cardinals’ issues are being broadcast to the world. The Cardinals signed up for an in-season edition of HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” with a run of nine episodes airing each Wednesday from November through the end of the regular season. Even a whitewashed, sanitized version of a reality show (the team has final say on what makes the show) has put some of the Cardinals’ turbulence on display.
Through four episodes — the series took a break last week as the Cardinals had a bye — the show has featured three crippling losses, a defender embarrassed for not making an effort on a touchdown, and an assistant coach fired for a groping incident in Mexico City.
Or, as coach Kliff Kingsbury called it in the third episode, “Dumb [expletive] off the field, effort on the field.”
“I think nobody really thought [the season] was going to go this way,” quarterback Kyler Murray said recently. “But everything happens for a reason and like I said, one game at a time. This thing’s still alive.”
Technically, that’s true. But the Cardinals are in 12th place in the NFC, three games out of the final wild-card spot. It’s a massively disappointing season for a team that started 10-2 last year and had hoped to make a Super Bowl push this year.
The Cardinals are 1-6 at State Farm Stadium, site of Monday’s game. They rank just 22nd in offensive points per game (19.3). Their defense allows the most points in the NFL (26.2 per game).
Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, has been at the center of the dysfunction. He’s 23rd in the NFL in passer rating (87.1), and his 6.06 yards per attempt rank last out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks.
Murray is still dynamic as a runner, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt and 41.5 rushing yards per game. But he seems to have regressed significantly as a passer in his fourth season. He missed two games with an ankle sprain and is just 3-7 as the starter.
Murray certainly has taken his share of criticism. It began in March when Larry Fitzgerald’s father called Murray “spoiled,” lending credence to the rumor that Fitzgerald retired after the 2020 season because he didn’t want to play with Murray.
The criticism continued in July, but this was created by the team. The Cardinals gave Murray a five-year, $230 million contract but included a “homework clause” that revealed an issue with Murray’s study habits (and “Call of Duty” habits). In October, LeSean McCoy called Murray’s game “trash,” and last week Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said, “Kyler Murray don’t care about nobody but Kyler Murray.”
Murray said the criticism is part of the deal.
“Obviously, our season hasn’t gone the way we’ve wanted to, so [criticism] comes a little heavier,” Murray said. “Last year when we were winning, people weren’t saying the stuff that they’re saying, but it is what it is.”
But the Cardinals’ turmoil goes beyond Murray. In May, they suffered the death of cornerback Jeff Gladney in a car accident. In August, running backs coach James Saxon was placed on leave after being charged with domestic battery. In November, offensive line coach Sean Kugler was fired after allegedly groping a woman the night before the game against the 49ers in Mexico City. Offensive assistant Don Shumpert was also dismissed for undisclosed reasons earlier this year.
Because of injury and suspension, receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown didn’t play a game together until Week 12, and tight end Zach Ertz suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 10.
“Hard Knocks” hasn’t shown much, but the show still drives the point home — nothing about this season is going as planned.
“It’s certainly not ideal for a team and focus and things of that nature,” Kingsbury said. “They want to make sure by the end of this thing we can look ourselves in the mirror and say we reached our potential, and we all feel like our best football’s out in front of us.”
The Cardinals hopefully used their bye week productively. Based on the last two episodes of “Hard Knocks,” the Cardinals look like a broken team. They were embarrassed, 38-10, by the 49ers on national television, a loss that essentially ended their playoff hopes. Seventh-year cornerback Antonio Hamilton went viral for the wrong reason — giving up on a play and making a “business decision” not to tackle 49ers tight end George Kittle on a touchdown. “Hard Knocks” showed several angles of the play and discussed the aftermath of it thoroughly, perhaps a sign that the Cardinals wanted Hamilton to be held more accountable publicly.
"This is embarrassing for the Arizona Cardinals ... Antonio Hamilton doesn't come up after all the tackles he made last week and even *try* to make an attempt on George Kittle... They're a losing football team, and they're playing like one on that play."- Troy Aikman 🏈 #MNF pic.twitter.com/ahpDHvcPRv— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 22, 2022
The Cardinals actually did a nice job of regrouping before their next game, shaking off a short week of rest to start strong against the Chargers two weeks ago. But they couldn’t protect a 10-0 lead in the second quarter or a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter, and the Chargers won, 25-24, with a touchdown and 2-point conversion with 15 seconds left.
It was the worst way for the Cardinals to head into their bye, but Kingsbury tried to remain positive.
“That type of game, that type of loss when you play that hard and have moments where you look really good, you’ve got to build off that somehow and be better in these last five weeks,” Kingsbury said.
Another layer of drama for “Hard Knocks” is you never know which episode may be Kingsbury’s last. Most gambling sites have Kingsbury listed as the second-most likely coach to be fired next, after the Broncos’ Nathaniel Hackett.
This was supposed to be the year the Cardinals competed for the Super Bowl, after improving from 5-10-1 to 8-8 to 11-6 in Kingsbury’s first three seasons.
Instead, the weight of everything — off-field distractions, injuries to star players, and struggles from the quarterback — has wrecked the season. But it does make for compelling TV.
“They’re all a challenge, but this one has been unique,” Kingsbury said. “You go through it as a coach, and this year just happens to be unique in that things continue to happen that really don’t have much to do with football.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.