Has Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury reached his ceiling?

Stephen A.: Kingsbury 'never deserved' Cardinals job (2:25)

Stephen A. Smith says coach Kliff Kingsbury was not good enough for the Cardinals vs. the Rams in their NFC wild-card matchup. (2:25)

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- First, the good news.

Kliff Kingsbury has taken an Arizona Cardinals team that won just three games in 2018 -- bad enough to have the worst record in football and result in the firing of then-coach Steve Wilks -- to year-over-year improvements in each of his three seasons as head coach. He won five games in 2019, eight games in 2020 and 11 games in 2021. For a franchise that's been mired in mediocrity for more than the 100 years it has been in the NFL, this is no small feat.

Kingsbury, 42, should be applauded for what he's done in Arizona as the fourth coach in Cardinals' history to improve his record in three consecutive years.

Annual improvement is a rarity in the NFL. For the Cardinals, hiring Kingsbury as a first-time NFL coach paid off quickly: It got them to the playoffs this year for the first time since 2015 -- and just the sixth time since they moved to Arizona in 1988.

Now, the bad news.

In doing so, Kingsbury may have reached his ceiling as an NFL head coach.

This season the Cardinals had all the pieces to make a run deep in the playoffs, potentially as far as the Super Bowl. But those hopes were dashed Monday night at SoFi Stadium, the same building that will house Super Bowl LVI. They lost in an embarrassing manner, 34-11 to the Los Angeles Rams. That game capped another late-season tailspin for Kingsbury in what's becoming an all-too familiar scene for Cardinals fans. Arizona lost five of its final six games after starting 7-0. It finished 4-7.

This isn't the first time a Kingsbury-coached team has fallen off in the second half of a season. It's actually the ninth consecutive time. As much as Ray-Ban sunglasses and stylish haircuts have come to define Kingsbury, so have second-half slumps.

It's happened in each season he's been a head coach, starting in 2013, his first season at Texas Tech. Last season, Arizona started 5-2 and finished 3-6, missing the playoffs in the process after losing two win-and-you're-in games. In 2018, Arizona lost seven of its last nine to finish 5-10-1.

The first seven games have been the line of demarcation for Kingsbury. In three seasons with Arizona, he is 15-5-1 in Games 1 through 7 but 9-19 the rest of the season. At Texas Tech, he was 27-15 in Games 1 through 7 and 8-25 after that.

Great teams, championship-caliber teams, get better and stronger as seasons continue. Kingsbury's don't. They go the other way. Arizona's collapses under Kingsbury have looked similar. An injury to All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins exacerbated an offensive drop off filled with costly penalties, missed kicks and mental errors.

Kingsbury chalked up Monday's loss to "crucial mistakes at the wrong time," adding, "I'm not sure if we were pressing or not accustomed to be in that position, whatever it was. We got to look at it this offseason to figure out how we get better down the stretch."

Later, though, he said: "We just got to keep looking at it, keep trying to find new ways to improve later on in the season, whatever that may be. It's definitely a priority this offseason."

The Cardinals have most likely wasted quarterback Kyler Murray's rookie contract now that he's eligible to sign an extension having completed his third season. With how much quarterback contracts have inflated in recent years, the window to win for teams with young quarterbacks keeps shrinking. They surround them with a lot of talent -- some expensive, some not -- and try to squeeze out a championship, or at least a few playoff runs. None of that happened in Arizona in the past three years and now Murray will most likely gets his pay day soon.

There's always the chance that the Cardinals decline to extend Murray after this year, pick up his fifth-year option this offseason and then wait and see. There's both a risk and reward to that. The risk is that Murray may not be happy with that decision and the Cards could be creating a rift in their relationship with Murray. The reward is that Arizona would buy itself another year or two to see how Murray can develop and grow before backing up a Brinks truck.

A deep run this year would've likely secured a contract in the neighborhood of Buffalo's Josh Allen's. Last summer -- following his third year in the league -- Allen received a six-year extension worth $258 million, with $150 million guaranteed, which came out to an average of $43 million per year.

A large deal for Murray will trickle down to the rest of the roster in some way, regardless of how creative the Cardinals are with cap numbers. The time for Arizona to win on the cheap has likely passed.

This year, though, was more than just losing games in the second half of the season. It was squandered opportunities. The Cardinals either had or shared the best record in the NFC through Week 14, and they were in first place in the NFC West until Week 15. A week later, the Rams claimed the top spot and never looked back.

Kingsbury brought the Cardinals to the brink only to see it slip away. In some ways, that was a blessing in disguise. Arizona was 8-1 on the road but just 3-5 at home, a phenomenon that neither Kingsbury nor players could explain.

Yes, injuries -- including major ones to J.J. Watt and Hopkins -- nagged at the Cardinals all season. Losing Hopkins changed the offense and not having Watt altered Arizona's interior defense. But offensively, at least, Kingsbury didn't seem to adapt. The Cardinals scored 225 points in their first seven games, an average of 32.1, compared to 224 in their final 10, an average of 22.4. Injuries will happen, and if a coach can only win with a full complement of players, his team likely won't be hoisting a Lombardi trophy.

A Monday night audience saw the Cardinals' season end with, as Watt put it, a "massive failure."

Murray didn't think the Cardinals put up much of a fight against the Rams.

"[We] prepare all week, all season to be where we are, and then the game wasn't competitive at all," Murray said. "It's disappointing that we didn't make it a game and come out and play football we know we're capable of playing, and that's really the most disappointing part.

"Losing is one thing but when you don't even make it competitive, it's another thing. So, disappointing."