Arizona Cardinals late-season slump a disturbing trend for Kliff Kingsbury

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Running back Chase Edmonds stood at the lectern under State Farm Stadium after the Arizona Cardinals' demoralizing loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night and struggled to find the right words to describe his frustration with how his team has played of late.

Arizona had just lost its third straight game in what's become an all-too-familiar fashion this time of the season. Self-inflicted mistakes riddled the Cardinals' 60 minutes of football on Christmas night: Penalties, botched snaps, missed kicks and ineffectiveness in the red zone. For the second straight season, the Cardinals are in the middle of a disastrous late-season slump -- something that's become a modus operandi for coach Kliff Kingsbury throughout his head-coaching career.

His teams have tailed off in each of his nine seasons as head coach, dating back to 2013, his first season at Texas Tech. Thus far into Kingsbury's third season in Arizona, the Cardinals are 15-5-1 in Games 1 through 7 and 8-18 the rest of the season. At Texas Tech, the Red Raiders were 27-15 in Games 1 through 7 and 8-25 thereafter. Overall, that's 42-20-1 in Games 1 through 7 and 16-43 after. And in all of his nine seasons, his teams had a worse record in the second half of the season than in the first.

After the Cardinals' fifth loss in their past eight games, Edmonds took a few seconds to gather his thoughts. But he kept coming back to the same thing.

"It is frustrating," he started. "I'm trying to find the right words to say. It is frustrating right now, and that's kind of where I'll say leaders got to lead, we brought in some of these veteran leaders and right now is the most pivotal time that we need them."

There isn't much time for the Cardinals (10-5) to fix their issues with just two games left, but with a playoff berth secured and at least one postseason game guaranteed, the question that's hovering over the Cardinals these days is this: How do they fix it?

"That's what we've got to figure out," Kingsbury said. "I don't have an answer to that, but it's untimely penalties, the snaps hitting the ground, missed kicks. I mean, it's just things that we had done well all year, but we're not doing well."

Arizona spent the offseason and training camp focused on ridding themselves of those self-inflicted mistakes, which quarterback Kyler Murray was openly frustrated about late last season and into the early part of the offseason.

As Kingsbury pointed out, they weren't happening early in the season when the Cardinals started 7-0, sat atop the NFC and led the NFC West. To Kingsbury, the solution sits in the locker room and coach's office. To the players, the solution is staring them in the face.

"We just got to look ourselves in the mirror, stop making these mistakes, because that game was very winnable," Murray said of the game against the Colts. "Good teams don't do that, and right now, we're not doing what we need to do."

ESPN NFL analyst Mike Tannenbaum, the former New York Jets general manager, believes the Cardinals will be feared in the playoffs because of what they're capable of doing but they need to gain confidence to get to that point. That, he said, starts with stacking first downs and going from there.

When an event like a slump has happened in the past and starts to happen again, the brain makes a connection between the two, said Dr. Megan Cannon, a sports psychologist based in Allentown, Pennsylvania. When that connection is initiated, the brain can start to say, "Well if that happened last season, it's going to happen this season, and the slumps can happen, and then it can become almost this like perpetuating cycle."

Going back to the process is the key to getting out of the slump, Cannon said. The more teams focus on outcomes, she said, the worse they play because of the pressure of winning.

"What can be impactful is really, for that team or organization or any athlete on an individual level to take that step back, and we're not focusing on the outcome of the game," Cannon said. "We're not even focusing maybe on the winning the first half or things like that, but it's focusing on those more process-oriented factors, where even from play-to-play from down-to-down, it's those things going back to the basics the things that those athletes what got them there in the first place."

Arizona has an extra day this week to prepare for the Dallas Cowboys (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox), but it'll take more than just another day to fix Arizona's issues.

"I think we got to just get more disciplined, we got to pay more attention to detail and guys got to really lock in for these last two week," Edmonds said. "I know it's easy to just say that but it's crunch time right now. These last two weeks are so pivotal. I think guys just got to find a way to do something extra, every single day in the facility, outside the facility, find a way to become a better football player."

Help is on the way. Arizona will have center Rodney Hudson back from the COVID-19 protocol this week, so Arizona's center-to-quarterback exchange, which led to a safety on Saturday night, is expected to improve.

"It's too tough of a league to waste plays like that and turn it over," Kingsbury said. "It's something we've got to shore up."

That's not the only thing needing help. The Cardinals' production in the red zone has dropped from 68.8% in the first seven games to 53.8% in the last eight.

But even with everything that's happened, cornerback Antonio Hamilton said the Cardinals are not in "panic mode."

"To be in the playoffs with two games left is an accomplishment, we understand that," Kingsbury said. "But we know we've got to improve a lot and play better football. We've got to stop hurting ourselves in these games before we even think about taking the next step."