If you happen to be a fan of the Cardinals and you’ve seen the 2022 schedule, there’s no doubt you’re sweating to see how the team responds during the second half of the season after back-to-back collapses down the stretch.
Arizona has the NFL’s second-toughest strength of schedule in the league and three of the final four games come on the road, including difficult dates at the Broncos and 49ers. The lone home game during that span, meanwhile, is a colossal Christmas night matchup against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
If you happen to be Kliff Kingsbury, you have other problems as well. Not only does the fourth-year Cardinals head coach have to navigate the back half of that tricky schedule, but he has to find a way to keep his team afloat for the season’s first six games when they will be without their best wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.
On May 2, it was learned Hopkins will be suspended without pay for violating the league’s Performance Enhancing Drugs Policy and won’t be allowed to return until Arizona’s Week 7 game. That’s now going to be a Thursday night home date against the Saints, meaning Hopkins will have a short week to try and get up to speed for his season debut.
Since he must stay completely away from the team once the season starts, Hopkins will only have three days to get reacclimated with Kingsbury, quarterback Kyler Murray and the rest of his teammates. For a coach who openly admitted he didn’t do enough to adjust to Hopkins’ absence last season when the wideout missed seven games, including the final four and the NFC Wild Card game, Kingsbury can’t be thrilled.
“Yeah, learn from that, obviously,” Kingsbury said in his first public comments about Hopkins’ suspension. “The addition of (wide receiver) Marquise (Brown) will help. He’s obviously a dynamic playmaker and we just have to play better as an offense.
“It’s unfortunate that (Hopkins) won’t be available, but I’ll be excited when we get him back. We struggled the second half of the season and when we get him back, I think that will be a real shot in the arm for the back half and I know we’ll get his best.”
Asked for his reaction to learning of the suspension, Kingsbury said, “He spoke on it. We’re all disappointed for him. He’s a great competitor. We’ll just be fired up when he gets back.”
Kingsbury didn’t sound too concerned about the fact Hopkins will only have a few days to get ready for the Saints once he is cleared to return to the team.
“He’ll be ready,” Kingsbury said. “Third year in the system. Everybody on a Thursday night game, it’s a couple walk-throughs so everybody’s kind of facing that same scenario. He’ll be revved up for that one, I’m sure.”
While Hopkins is out, everyone else will have to step up their game. That especially holds true for “Hollywood” Brown, whom the Cardinals acquired from the Ravens along with a third-round pick in exchange for Arizona’s first-rounder this year, the 27th selection overall.
“Yeah, we’re going to see where he fits, I think, first and foremost,” Kingsbury said. “We like what we have with A.J. (Green) coming back, Rondale (Moore), (tight end) Zach Ertz, and now Hollywood. We’ve just got to figure out where he fits best with that type of speed, whether it’s inside, outside. He played both in Baltimore and it’s dangerous. He was behind people a bunch last year and we have to find ways to maximize them.”
Something else that will help the Cardinals overcome the loss of Hopkins for the first month and a half of the season would be the ability to rely a lot more on the running game. It was clicking at times with James Conner getting the brunt of the workload, but expect the team to squeeze even more out of him to start the season.
“We’ve got to be better at it,” Kingsbury said. “We didn’t run the ball great late last year when we needed to and when you look at those teams that made a run, they were able to still sustain the run, especially when you lose a top player like that (Hopkins). So, we’ve got to be able to establish that early.”
As for the schedule, which was released on Thursday, Kingsbury joked about what a thrill it is to open at home against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Sept. 11.
“Yeah, I was really thankful to the schedule makers for giving us a young quarterback that hasn’t quite found his way in the league just yet and still trying to figure it out,” he said sarcastically about Mahomes, whom he coached in college at Texas Tech. “No, it’ll be fun. He sent me like little eye emojis before it even came out, so he’ll be revved up and we’ll definitely have some Texas Tech fans tuned in for that one, I’m sure.”
Kingsbury had more to say about the Cardinals’ schedule, including this:
“It’s awesome. You can’t ask, to me, for a better set up when you look at some of those games. The first one, you get a team like the Chiefs to see where you’re at. Play Bill Belichick on Monday night, play Tom Brady on Christmas. There’s some big-time games. We go to Mexico City to play a rival. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
“AFC West, lining up with them this year, getting (the Broncos and) Russell (Wilson) is a challenge, but anytime you look at an NFL schedule it’s not like you can go down and pick out a bunch of wins. They’re all tough and everybody is kind of facing the same deal.”