This was how the Arizona Cardinals scored their first touchdown of the season:
There is a lot to keep track of there: the inverted wishbone backfield formation, the double play-action, and the zone blocking to the right as the right guard pulls to the left, all of which put the defense on its heels. It also made it easy for quarterback Kyler Murray to flip the ball to running back Chase Edmonds, whose speed and body control did the rest.
It was a glimpse of the sort of innovative play-calling head coach Kliff Kingsbury brought with him from the college ranks when he was hired last year, and the Cardinals overcame an early 10-point deficit to take down defending NFC champions the San Francisco 49ers 24-20 in an all-important division game on the road.
It's easy to get ahead of one's skis after Week 1, but it's also hard not to notice the Cardinals might be onto something here.
Kingsbury took on a reclamation project last year, and the organization drafted Murray with the No. 1 overall pick to help him do it - a mulligan just one year after the Cardinals had already selected quarterback Josh Rosen 10th overall. Kingsbury promised to bring the field-stretching dynamic of the Air Raid offense, which involves using four or five receivers to create spacing and playing with a quick tempo.
And while the Cardinals only improved from 3-13 in 2018 to 5-10-1 last year, there were reasons for optimism as the season progressed. Many of them had to do with Kingsbury's willingness to adapt by not forcing the four-wideout set or a consistently frenetic pace.
The Cardinals began 2019 with a tie and three losses in their first four games, a stretch in which they deployed four or more receivers on 61% of their plays - something no other team in the league had done more than 12% of the time in the same span, according to The Ringer's Danny Kelly. The Cardinals also used lots of no-huddle (41%) and played fast, with a seconds-per-snap rate of 24.9 that ranked first in the league, per Establish the Run's Pat Thorman.
The rest of the way, the Cardinals went 5-7 and were more nuanced, even as they stayed true to the basic Air Raid concepts. Their seconds-per-snap rate slowed to 27.2 (eighth-fastest), and their plays-per game average fell from 71.5 in the first four weeks (second) to 61.0 (25th), per Thorman. Kelly noted that their deployment of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three wideouts) jumped to 40% and their use of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two wideouts) rose to 28%. Meanwhile, their four-wide usage rate dropped to 22%.
Still, though: No team used four or more wideouts more than 10% in the last 12 weeks, according to analyst Warren Sharp's database. By the end of the season, Arizona's usage of four-plus receivers was still nearly four times higher than any other team (31% vs. 8% for the Seahawks and Jaguars).
Another factor that distinguished the Cardinals after Week 4 was their willingness to run the ball, even when using a spread set. Thorman calculated that their neutral-situation pass rate (plays in the first three quarters of one-score games) fell to 56% from 69%. While those spread concepts sacrificed protection, they also opened up running lanes: By the end of the year, Arizona ranked second in rushing DVOA, a result aided by a midseason trade for running back Kenyan Drake, who's playing this season on the transition tag.
Murray finished 21st in both QB DYAR and QB DVOA, and he was sacked a league-high 48 times. But by the end of the season, his performance was strong enough to earn him the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award. All told, the 2019 Arizona offense made the third-largest year-over-year improvement since 1986, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac. This was a successful work in progress.
Fast-forward to 2020. The Cardinals pulled off a heist by trading running back David Johnson, a second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick for wideout DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick. This gave Murray, who relied heavily on Christian Kirk and an aging Larry Fitzgerald, a playmaking target. The addition of Hopkins paid immediate dividends against a San Francisco defense that had been among the NFL's best last season. Hopkins had 14 catches on 16 targets for 151 yards, including this backbreaker that set up Drake's game-winning TD with 5:03 to play:
If you're wondering how Hopkins could be left that open in a spot like that, it's because of the play design. Hopkins and tight end Dan Arnold ran what's known as a mesh concept by crossing the field close to each other, with wideout Kirk streaking upfield behind Arnold. The object is to drag defenders into a tight window in which one of them may get rubbed out of the play, but the Niners flat-out lost Hopkins.
By drawing up lots of crossing routes and quick throws, Kingsbury tends to put Murray into situations in which he can make easy throws. Murray attempted just two passes of 20 or more air yards on Sunday, per PFF, and his time to throw was 2.42 seconds, the fourth-fastest in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Murray saw pressure on just 23.5% of his dropbacks, according to PFF, versus 29.5% last year.
Murray took so many sacks last season in part because he tried to extend plays. In another encouraging sign for the Cardinals on Sunday, he took what the defense gave him and didn't hesitate to run when there was an opening. He rushed for a team-high 91 yards, including this 22-yard TD scamper early in the fourth quarter:
On the Cardinals' first possession of the second half, Murray also jetted 25 yards to pick up a first down on third-and-17, and he followed that two plays later with an 8-yard scramble after a penalty. The possession ended with a missed field goal, but you get the idea.
That kind of quick-thinking rushing element, rather than a reliance on making plays with his arm, will allow Murray to progress this season. And having Hopkins in the fold as a surefire top target gives Kingsbury lots to work with, too.
It's one game, so it's tempting to get carried away, especially with the NFC West shaping up to be the NFL's best division. With upcoming home games against Washington and the Lions before visits to the Panthers and Jets, the early schedule gives Arizona a chance to rack up some wins before it encounters the remainder of the division gauntlet. There's a long way to go and much can happen, but it's plain to see the Cardinals have the foundational elements in place to compete for their first trip to the playoffs in five years.
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.