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2020 Arizona Cardinals: Could Penalties Cost Their Season?

2020 Arizona Cardinals

The 2020 Arizona Cardinals team is good. So good, in fact, that ESPN ranks them as the top offense in the NFL. Kyler Murray is a real contender for MVP, DeAndre Hopkins is making Bill O’Brien look a fool and Vance Joseph’s defense is a far cry from the squad that finished last in the NFL rankings in 2019.

Yet, as the NFL approaches Week 12, the Cardinals sit third in the NFC West, disappointing given that they entered the previous week in pole position in the division. When the Cardinals win, critics laud them as the top offense. However, losses bring the unwelcome reminder the 2020 Arizona Cardinals are also the most penalized team in the league. The Cardinals lead the league in both total penalties (94) and accepted penalties per game (7.9).

The loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday Night Football was a game marred and defined by penalties. 115 yards, conceded on both sides of the ball, was a season-high for the team. That the Cardinals could perform so poorly and still be in with a shot at the game in the fourth quarter is a testament to the quality of the roster. However, key penalties snatched the game away and, if the Cardinals don’t improve, the same may happen to the season.

How Penalties Cost the Arizona Cardinals in Seattle

On Thursday night, officials called 10 penalties against Arizona. Penalties are a part of the game and few teams go an entire game with at least one. However the stats, although damning in themselves, don’t tell the full story. Fundamentally, two key penalties decided the Week 10 matchup against the Seahawks.

The first of these, called on Dre Kirkpatrick, bordered on the absurd. Having stopped Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense on third and seven, a scuffle broke out between the two teams. At the center was a confrontation between Kirkpatrick and Seahawks star receiver D.K. Metcalf. It is unclear what exactly Kirkpatrick said or did following the play, although officials considered his actions to be taunting. Taunting, considered a personal foul by the NFL, resulted in a 15-yard penalty and a subsequent first down for the Seahawks. Capitalizing on the error, the Seahawks took the lead on the ensuing drive with a touchdown.

The second penalty, committed by veteran guard J.R. Sweezy, was similarly as costly. Backed up by an intentional grounding call on quarterback Kyler Murray, Sweezy was guilty of holding inside of his own end zone. By rule, the play resulted in a safety, giving the Seahawks both two points and the ball. Back-to-back offensive penalties effectively killed any chance that the Cardinals had of rescuing the game.

How Has the Organization Responded?

The issue has been a notable topic in the media this week. In response, head coach Kliff Kingsbury and other notable leaders within the Cardinals have recognized the role that penalties are playing in their season. “It’s something we have to be better at”, said Kingsbury, adding that false start penalties in an empty stadium something that the team considers unacceptable: “the pre-snap penalties, the personal foul penalty, you can’t have those and expect to win week in and week out”.

Elsewhere, star safety Budda Baker noted that improving ‘situational awareness’ and ‘remaining composed in those situations’, in relation to the Kirkpatrick penalty, will be fundamental if the team is to make the post-season. This acknowledgment from inside the locker room indicates that the issue is at the forefront of the team. Perhaps Cardinals fans can hope that this spells an improvement on the horizon.

The Playoff Picture

Thursday’s loss to Seattle was costly in several ways. Not only did the Cardinals concede their superior record, which has since also been eclipsed by the Los Angeles Rams, but the Cardinals also lost their perfect 2-0 record in the division. Although buoyed by their Week 1 win against the San Francisco 49ers, whose season has been derailed due to injury, the Cardinals still have to face the division-leading Rams twice in Week 13 and Week 17. That division record could be crucial in defining the standings heading into the playoffs.

Currently, the Cardinals sit at the seven-seed in the NFC, on the edge of falling out of the playoff picture. Arizona’s best showings of the season, against the Seahawks in Week 7 and the Buffalo Bills in Week 10, coincided with the team’s best disciplinary performances, giving up only 40 penalty yards in each. Ultimately, the Cardinals’ games against the best opposition, against likely playoff contenders, will be defined by penalties. The question is not ‘Can the Cardinals beat other teams?’ but rather ‘Can the Cardinals stop beating themselves?’. Tightening up these penalties should see the Cardinals reach the post-season for the first time since 2015.

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