Kyler Murray had a chance to lead his team to a playoff win and make a significant leap forward in his standing among NFL quarterbacks Monday night.
He did the opposite.
The Cardinals quarterback struggled from start to finish, leading just one effective scoring drive all night and finishing with a passing line of 19 of 34 for 137 yards, two interceptions and a 40.9 passer rating in Arizona's 34-11 NFC Wild Card Game loss to the Rams. The Cardinals exited the postseason quietly, landing on the opposite end of a success scale they once dominated earlier this season.
"It's disappointing that we didn't make it a game and come out and play the football we know we're capable of playing, that's really the most disappointing part," Murray told reporters following the loss. "Losing is one thing, but when you don't even make it competitive, it's another thing.
"I put a lot on my shoulders, put a lot on myself and to dream of this moment and then be in the playoffs, the first game of the playoffs and then to play the way I did, to play the way we did, it's, like I said, disappointing."
All the good mojo the Cardinals had accumulated for themselves early in the season was wasted in four quarters. Truly, it was the end of a process that began weeks ago, which included a lopsided loss to the lowly Detroit Lions.
Make that two straight seasons in which Kliff Kingsbury's squad repeatedly failed down the stretch. The only difference this time around: Their final disappointment came in the postseason, an outing J.J. Watt characterized as "embarrassing".
"It was a massive failure, from what we were capable of doing, to what we showed we can do, to today," Watt said Monday night. "There is no other way to describe it."
Murray was in agreement with Watt's assessment.
"Yeah, I mean, I agree," the QB said. "I play to win the Super Bowl. That's the goal, that's the mission is to win a Super Bowl, not to make it to the playoffs or go to the second round. The goal is to win the Super Bowl, we fell short of that. So, yes, I agree."
Watt joined the Cardinals via free agency with the purpose of pursuing a title. He and the Cardinals fell well short of that mark, and Murray, Kingsbury and the Cardinals' brass must now answer for their latest face-plant, which reeked of a lack of preparation that showed in Arizona's failure to execute.
Kingsbury didn't have much to say about what is now a trend for his Cardinals.
"We just got to keep looking at it," the coach said. "Keep trying to find new ways to improve later on in the season, whatever that may be. That's definitely a priority this offseason."
The Cardinals have little issue with starting regular seasons positively. Arizona won its first seven games in 2021 and was the last remaining undefeated team in the NFL before falling to the Green Bay Packers in heartbreaking fashion on the prime-time stage. Still, the Cardinals' play in the first two months of the season was convincing enough to lead many to tab them as their favorite to win the NFC title.
In hindsight, such an expectation was foolish.
The national audience ended up being an indicator of disappointment for these Cardinals, who lost all three prime-time contests in which they played in the regular season. Murray was similarly underwhelming in such contests, completing 64.8% of his passes for 902 yards and a 1-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the three games. It was only fitting their season came to an embarrassing end in the prime-time viewing window on Monday night.
The Cardinals proved to be talented enough to play with the league's best, but lacked the experience to handle the biggest moments. They also didn't get many breaks from the injury bug, which knocked out Watt for a large portion of the season before he was surprisingly able to make it back to play in the wild-card affair. DeAndre Hopkins was also lost to injury and did not return for the postseason contest, leaving Murray without a key target.
Another important contributor -- A.J. Green -- failed to make a difference Monday night, seeing three targets and catching none of them (though one required a review to be deemed an incomplete pass). Instead, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of similarly inexperienced players like Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore and Eno Benjamin. Meanwhile, veteran tight end (and in-season acquisition) Zach Ertz didn't play much of a role, catching three passes for 21 yards.
None of these playmakers had much of a chance to make a difference when viewing the game in total.
Murray's hesitancy to throw early and his struggles to place passes accurately undercut Arizona's hopes, and an early deficit eliminated any chance of executing a balanced attack. Benjamin, Chase Edmonds and James Conner combined for 16 carries on the night. Murray only ran twice himself, picking up a grand total of six yards.
"I haven't thought about the future or anything like that," Murray said. "Trying to soak all this in. There's a lot of emotions. Proud of the team. Proud of the way we fought.
"It's unfortunate we didn't play our best tonight."
Simply put, Arizona's offense didn't work Monday night, and it hasn't worked well enough in the latter portions of the last two seasons to make the Cardinals a legitimate contender. Instead, they're September and October darlings that prove to be as tough as tin cans in December and January.
That must change next season, or it will mean a change is coming. For now, Kingsbury and Co. will have plenty of time to find an explanation. They'll need to turn that into an action plan in 2022.