Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury will enter Year 3 on the hot seat

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The improvement was modest but evident this season for the Arizona Cardinals.

They went from five wins in 2019, Kliff Kingsbury's first season as head coach, to eight in the oddest of seasons, 2020. And that was without organized team activities or minicamp or preseason games. Just a lot of virtual meetings and a late-starting training camp to prepare for a season unlike any other.

While eight wins was a step in the right direction, it wasn't enough for the Cardinals to get to the playoffs, a pursuit that ended on the final Sunday of the regular season against the Los Angeles Rams.

And after the Cardinals lost six of their final nine games, Kingsbury will enter next season on the proverbial hot seat.

The refrain was the same over the past few weeks: too many self-inflicted mistakes, too many games they should've won. The Cardinals led the league in penalties and lost four games to teams with sub-.500 records.

"I know we're a playoff team," quarterback Kyler Murray said. "I know what we're capable of but, again, that's just something that kept holding us back all year was hurting ourselves. And it came back to bite us, for sure."

Kingsbury was hired to kickstart a foundering offense, and, for the most part, he has. Arizona's offense finished sixth in total offense in 2020 after finishing 21st in 2019 and 32nd in 2018.

When it was firing on all cylinders, the Arizona offense was arguably the best in the league, nearly impossible to defend with the likes of Murray at quarterback and DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver. But inexplicably the offense would go flat and often that came against Arizona's rivals in the NFC West.

And, that, mostly falls on Kingsbury's shoulders. He was hired so the Cardinals could compete against the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers but the Cardinals finished 2-4 in the division this year.

When the Cardinals selected Murray with the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 to pair with the newly-hired Kingsbury it was with the intent of reaching the postseason. There's no shame in not getting there yet because of where they started, but the Cardinals also can't afford to waste time while Murray is on a rookie contract.

Which puts the pressure on next season. If the Cardinals don't go to the playoffs next season -- barring a major injury to one of its key playmakers -- then Kingsbury may not be in Arizona after 2021.

The question that owner Michael Bidwill will have to ask himself is this: How long will he wait for Kingsbury to figure it out?

To some, the 2020 season was a success. It saw more wins than the year before and the Cards were a playoff contender. But once they started the season 5-2, expectations for Kingsbury's second season were erased and rewritten. The playoffs were the only thing that mattered starting Oct. 26, the Monday after the Cardinals beat the Seattle Seahawks on national TV and headed into their bye.

At that point, Arizona had 67.2% chance of making the playoffs according to the Football Power Index. And that's when the season fell apart.

Defenses started to figure out Murray and Kingsbury didn't have a counter. Then Murray got hurt. Arizona nose-dived from a playoff lock to fighting for their postseason life in Week 17.

The Cardinals have winning pieces to build around. They have one of the best receivers in football. They have one of the best quarterbacks in football. They have one of the best pass-rushers in football. They have one of the best safeties in football.

The Cardinals have a window to win now. If they can't get to the playoffs next season, they run the risk of that window starting to shut. How long can they wait? How long will they wait?

"We've made strides and that's in the right direction," Kingsbury said. "We have to continue to get pieces around Kyler, continue to build it the right way, but a couple games here or there, we're right where we're wanting to be.

"We just have to learn from these and keep moving forward."

Kingsbury will be on the hot seat in 2021 and if he wastes another year with Murray, he'll be out of a job in 2022.