It was late on Christmas night in the desert and after the final candles of Hanukkah had been lit. Unfortunately, in a lost season for the Cardinals, Santa Claus left town and the menorah ran out of oil.
Perhaps the only question now is how much time Kliff Kingsbury has left in his tenure as coach.
There is always the age-old debate about play-calling versus execution, while everyone that has read and listened to me over the years knows I usually stand on the side of execution because no matter how good a play-call might be, it takes players to do their job.
The question becomes murky, though, when it’s difficult to defend a play that not only didn’t work but resulted in a turnover that arguably turned a Cardinals victory into yet another excruciating defeat as the often dreadful Bucs remained in first place in the NFC South, despite a 7-8 record, with a 19-16 overtime win.
Let’s set the stage for a fourth quarter that began with the score tied 6-6. In a span of 3:20, the Cardinals took a 9-6 lead on a 39-yard field goal by kicker Matt Prater with 14:07 to play and then bolted ahead 16-6 when running back James Conner galloped 22 yards for a touchdown with 10:47 remaining.
That short scoring drive came after a Tampa Bay three-and-out and punt that went only 36 yards to the Cardinals 39-yard line after which punt returner Pharoh Cooper danced down the sideline for 28 yards to the Bucs 33 with the final several yards coming after he leap-frogged over some Bucs players.
After the kickoff, Tampa Bay then moved the ball from their own 33 to the Arizona 8 where it was first-and-goal. The big play in the possession was a short pass to running back Leonard Fournette on the first play that he turned into a 44-yard gain.
On third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, quarterback Tom Brady connected with rookie running back Rachaad White (Arizona State) on a scoring pass and it was again a three-point game with 8:03 remaining in regulation.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, making the first start of his career, passed for four yards to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for his only catch of the game on 10 targets. After a 9-yard pass to wide receiver Greg Dortch, who combined for 25 yards rushing and 98 yards receiving on 10 receptions, Conner looked like he was taking over again.
On first down from the Cardinals 38-yard line, he rushed for 11 yards and then gained six on a direct snap followed by three yards on second down, setting up third-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 42 with 4:53 remaining. Surely, after a timeout, it would be time for the workhorse Conner, right.
After all, for the game, he totaled 79 rushing yards on 15 carries and added 41 yards on seven receptions.
But that wasn’t the play-call. Instead, McSorley tossed a backward pass to rookie running back Keaontay Ingram, who had one touch in the game for two yards.
The ball bounced off his hands and fell to the ground where Bucs defensive lineman William Gholston recovered at the 45-yard line.
Suddenly, Brady, who had 87 yards passing at halftime with a 49.4 passer rating and 102 yards after the third quarter and a 33.3 rating in those 15 minutes, moved the Bucs from the 45 to the Cardinals 24, although the defense forced a third-down incompletion that led to a game-tying Ryan Succop 42-yard field goal.
The Cardinals went three-and-out, but then forced another Tampa Bay three-and-out and got the ball with 43 seconds remaining on their own 20-yard line.
On second down, McSorley hit Conner on a 22-yard pass play and the ball was at the 49-yard line with eight seconds left.
Would Kingsbury send Prater onto the field for a 69-yard field-goal attempt? Why not? Prater had field goals of 56 and 53 yards Sunday and hit from 50 and 55 yard against the Broncos. He has also had two career field goals of more than 60 yards.
A false start by wide receiver marquise Brown pushed them back five yards and then there was no choice but try a Hail Mary, which was intercepted short of the end zone.
In overtime, the Cardinals managed one first down, but that was it. Ominously, the Bucs started their winning drive at the TB12 and Brady calmly marched them to the 22 where Succop won the game with a 40-yard kick.
In the fourth quarter, he passed for 100 yards and a 100.1 rating and added 69 yards and a 114.6 rating in overtime. He finished with 281 yards passing and two passes intercepted by cornerback Marco Wilson for a 71.6 rating.
But back to the ill-fated third-and-1 play.
Said Kingsbury, “We’d set that up to hit a bunch of stuff downhill. They were pinching everybody in. I like how it was set up. I thought we had the play on, we just weren’t able to execute it, which is tough in that situation.”
Perhaps so, but it must be considered that the inexperienced McSorley and Ingram surely couldn’t have had much practice time with the play.
McSorley accepted responsibility, saying, “I got to put it out farther in front of him. So, that’s on me.”
Maybe so, but what about the wisdom of the call? Was he surprised by it? The quarterback said, “They obviously were keying on James and packed it all in knowing the spot he was at, so I gotta execute that better. Give Keaontay a pitch that he can just catch right in stride and go. The call was there. I just gotta execute that better.”
Had the play worked, there would have been no second-guessing.
But that is the story of this season, one where the Cardinals now sit at 4-11, tied with Denver for the third-worst record in the NFL and ahead of only the 3-12 Bears and 2-1201 Texans.
In two weeks, we will hopefully know what plans owner Michael Bidwill has for the immediate future of the franchise.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org