The 2020 Cardinals relied on Murray’s sandlot tactics and 115 receptions by All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to generate most of their offense, especially after Kingsbury ran low on fresh ideas. But so far this season, eight different skill-position players have generated at least 100 yards from scrimmage. Thanks to upgrades at skill positions, better play calling and more experience, Murray operates much more efficiently from the pocket than he did last season.
On defense, former All-Pro lineman Chandler Jones has returned to form after an injury-marred 2020 season; Watt’s presence has also helped a bit. Cornerback Byron Murphy has intercepted three passes this season after picking off just one in his first two seasons. And linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the eighth overall pick in the 2020 draft who could not find a role as a rookie, is beginning to thrive as an all-purpose pass rusher, coverage defender and run-stuffer.
Most revealingly, the Cardinals rushed for 216 yards and allowed three sacks against the Rams despite the absences of starting offensive linemen Kelvin Beachum and Justin Murray. Veteran center Rodney Hudson did not generate Watt-level headlines when the Cardinals traded for him in March, but he has become a stabilizing influence on a once-shaky unit.
With their lack of playoff pedigree and a roster and coaching staff that do not quite fit the mold, the Cardinals still look like shaggy misfits among the top N.F.C. contenders. Oddsmakers give them steep +1600 odds to win the Super Bowl, while the Rams team they just beat are at +800 and the Buccaneers, who barely escaped Brady’s return to New England with their dignity intact, are at +500.
Analytics, on the other hand, are blind to such preconceptions. Football Outsiders’ simulation-based playoff odds give the Cardinals a 43.7 percent chance of winning the tightly contested N.F.C. West, while the Rams’ chances stand at just 24.7 percent. (The Buccaneers have the best Super Bowl odds among N.F.C. teams because even the laws of mathematics grovel before Brady).
In many ways, the 2021 Cardinals resemble the early 2010s Seahawks, who tossed away the team-building manuals and staked their fortunes upon the too-small Russell Wilson, the too-collegiate Pete Carroll, some square-peg athletes like Richard Sherman and game plans and philosophies that aren’t supposed to work in the N.F.L.
Those Seahawks won one Super Bowl, reached another and settled in as perennial contenders. After a false start in 2020, the Cardinals may be following the same path.