This was supposed to be the Kyler Murray breakout season. After the previous Year 2 superstar leaps from Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, many believed 2020 would be Murray’s turn to take that leap.
While an immediate jump to MVP-level production might have been a stretch, the end result was supposed to be better than the current version of the Arizona Cardinals offense. Maybe the end result will be, but through four weeks the Cardinals are 25th in offensive DVOA, 22nd in yards per drive, and 20th in points per drive.
After two impressive wins over San Francisco and Washington to start the season, the Cardinals looked poised to ride an easy schedule to an impressive record to open the season. But the offense sputtered against defenses from Detroit and Carolina, units that had not posed much trouble for previous opponents. Arizona now heads into Week 5 at a rather disappointing 2-2.
Murray has certainly flashed. He’s 13th in QBR, thanks to his rushing. Murray’s been electric there. He’s rushed 32 times for 265 yards (8.9 yards per carry) with four touchdowns, the same number of scores on the ground he had last season. 15 of those rushes and 108 yards, along with three touchdowns, have come on designed runs including option keepers. Another 17 carries and 157 yards have come when Murray has taken off on his own. Cardinals offensive highlights have almost exclusively been Murray using his legs and while that has set a stable floor for the offense, it hasn’t been enough to completely lift it up.
Passing success has been a different story. He’s just 22nd in passing EPA among 27 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, per Sports Info Solutions, though he’s 15th in the percentage of pass attempts that produce positive EPA (53.6%). Right now, the Arizona offense is set up to take advantage of what the defense is giving but not exactly dominate it.
The addition of DeAndre Hopkins was supposed to be a big boost to the passing offense and in many ways it has been. Hopkins is third in the league in targets (46), leads the league in receptions (39), and is fourth in receiving yards (397). But with all of those standard stats, Hopkins ranks just 13th in receiving EPA per SIS.
Hopkins’s addition to the offense has been less of a restructure of Arizona’s scheme last year and more of a separate ancillary piece. Hopkins often lines up to the left of the formation as an isolated receiver while the rest of the formation and personnel changes.
Consider how Arizona spread the ball around last season and where the Cardinals found success…
…and compare that to what those charts look like in 2020.
A typical passing progression for Arizona this season has been to identify if Hopkins has a one-on-one matchup. If yes, throw there. If no, hope something from a trips look on the other side of the field opens up.
This isn’t to say the Cardinals have a Hopkins problem. Relying on a star wide receiver to get things done should not be seen as a poor philosophy. There were some thoughts the loss of Hopkins in Houston would help open some things up for the Texans’ passing game, and we’ve seen how that’s gone. Instead, the Cardinals mostly have an everyone else problem.
The other wide receivers on the team haven’t been able to create consistent separation on their own and Kenyan Drake has been a non-factor in the passing game. There is a lack of playmakers on the field outside of Murray and Hopkins, which has led to a noticeable lack of big plays.
Arizona has consistently been stuck between the offense it wants to be and the offense it has to be given the current personnel.
Last year, the Cardinals shifted to a more 12 personnel-heavy offense in the second half of the season — a successful and positive sign for an in-season adjustment from a first-year NFL head coach. Arizona continued on that path this season with 30% of their offensive snaps coming with two tight ends on the field, tied with the Cleveland Browns for the second-highest rate in the league behind the Philadelphia Eagles (52%).
To date, the 12 personnel look has been the Cardinals’ most effective passing formation.
Arizona Cardinals by personnel, 2020
|Personnel||Frequency||Pass EPA/Att||Pass Positive%||Rush EPA/Att||Rush Positve%|
Still, there’s only so much that can be done when Dan Arnold and Darrell Daniels are on the field so often. The big disappointment is how the Cardinals haven’t been able to take advantage of spreading the defense out with four wide receivers in 10 personnel — the initial expected calling card for the Kliff Kinsgubry offense. The limited passing game there has taken away from how often the Cardinals can spread to run, where they’ve been highly successful though on a small sample of just 12 rushing attempts from 10.
The running game is an overall concern. Last year’s No. 2 rushing offense by DVOA is now just 14th through four weeks of the season and much that can be attributed to Murray.
All of that together have combined for a serious lack of explosive plays and the inability to create big gains has been a hindrance for the offense. So far this season, Murray has thrown 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage on 10.4% of his attempts, per SIS, just below his already low rate of 11% from 2019.
Last season, so much of Arizona’s Horizontal Raid (h/t Rich Hribar) offense was built around saving Murray from a poor offensive line. The Cardinals used more screens than any other team in the league last season as part of the defense mechanism. That isn’t really the case this year. Arizona’s offensive line is currently fifth in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, which measures how often the line holds its blocks for at least 2.5 seconds after the snap.
This season, Murray’s average depth of target is just below league average at 7.7 yards per NFL Next Gen Stats but his average completion is coming just 4.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which is tied for the seventh-lowest. In 2019, Murray’s average depth of target was just 7.1 yards but his average completion was at 5.1 yards. Murray’s 9.3 yards per completion is currently the lowest figure among quarterbacks in 2020. None of those numbers were what was expected of a quarterback with one of the strongest arms in the league.
Last year’s screen’s worked for the most part… or they were at least effective enough to keep the offense moving. The Cardinals were one of few teams to have positive EPA on wide receiver screens (0.15 EPA per attempt and 55.4% positive play rate) but that hasn’t been the case this season. Arizona again leads the league in wide receiver screens and while the production is technically positive, the EPA (0.05 EPA per play) the success rate has significantly dipped to 43.8%.
Screens on early downs haven’t helped, either. Murray has thrown the fifth-most screens on first and second down this season and the Cardinals are averaging just 2.8 yards per attempt on those plays. Only Cason Wentz and Ryan Fitzpatrick (both 2.0) have lower YPA figures among 17 quarterbacks with at least 10 early down screen attempts, per SIS. This is a playcalling issue that can be fixed by just not doing it as often.
At least when Murray did throw deep last season, it was generally successful. But the production on those deep throws has been even more troubling. Murray has dropped significantly in on-target rate, completion percentage, and EPA on throws of at least 20 air yards.
Kyler Murray deep passing, 2019-2020
This is another place where scheme and personnel have combined for underwhelming results. There are few times when receivers are getting sprung open downfield and fewer when the receivers are doing it themselves. The list of targets and production on these downfield throws from a receiving standpoint isn’t very promising.
Cardinals deep targets, 2020
Hopkins isn’t a deep threat, per se, but it’s a red flag that just two of his targets have been beyond 20 yards. Christian Kirk and KeeSean Johnson have both struggled to consistently separate deep. Kirk’s lone deep catch wasn’t so much as getting open deep as it was continuing to run downfield after Murray was forced to leave the pocket and extend the play.
The best option might be more Andy Isabella, which the Cardinals have started to figure out. Isabella played just 17% of the offensive snaps in Week 1 and 18% in Week 2 but that has grown to 40% in Week 3 and 42% in Week 4. He was also the target on Arizona’s best-designed deep shot of the season — a 54-yard catch to start a drive in Week 2 against Washington on a play that included jet motion and play-action to hold the defense.
Arizona’s offense isn’t broken by any stretch, but it’s not nearly living up to expectations. For the Cardinals to turn this around, another round of adjustments will be needed by Kingsbury. A few more passes beyond the line of scrimmage on early downs could help. That’ll make some of those deep passes come from a position of strength rather than desperately trying to pick up yards after they fail to do so on first and second downs. The Kyler Murray leap isn’t out of the question but a little help from others wouldn’t hurt.