For all the conflict and drama, the Arizona Cardinals still have a chance. If they beat the 49ers in Mexico City on Monday Night Football, they have three winnable games in succession. This is their last reprieve. This is the edge of their cliff.
We will also learn much about HBO’s “Hard Knocks” in the coming weeks. Or if the show should be retitled, “Soft Taps” in the name of accuracy.
That’s because Eno Benjamin was released by the team on Monday, claimed by the Houston Texans the moment he hit the street. Benjamin is a fan favorite, a former Arizona State star who runs with heart and soul, who plays with passion and purpose. He even volunteered for kickoff duties earlier in the season after an untimely injury to Matt Prater, where Eno followed his furious kickoff with a crunching tackle on special teams.
Alas, this story carries the scent of even more organizational malfeasance, the kind that has marked the past seven months.
During the offseason, head coach Kliff Kingsbury raved about Benjamin’s improvement and personal evolution. He was one of the breakout stories of training camp. Benjamin was also the team’s best running back at the time of his release.
There is speculation he took exception with his tiny role in Sunday’s triumph and argued too loudly with an assistant coach in Los Angeles. That he made things personal, and he made things about him, which is a bad mistake following a must-win performance on the road.
But there is also a larger pattern here. A pattern of inconsistency and poorly defined, ever-shifting roles on offense. Former wide receiver Andy Isabella became livid with the organization, accusing the Cardinals of “turning their back” on him. Greg Dortch apparently felt the same, a wide receiver who played 188 snaps in the first three weeks, followed by 33 snaps in the next three weeks. Dortch expressed his displeasure on social media, leading to a spike in playing time with 55 snaps in Weeks 7-8. And then dropped to seven snaps in the past two games.
As much as Dortch turned heads early in the season, his diminished role is somewhat understandable. The return of DeAndre Hopkins and the recent ascension of Rondale Moore have created a natural squeeze at the position. But AJ Green went from 37 snaps to one snap to 30 snaps in the span of three weeks, which is even more evidence of the weekly chaos, desperation and lack of coherent long-term planning.
Now, Benjamin. He starred in that must-win victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday Night Football. Yet he’s played in just 18 offensive snaps in the previous two games, and just one against the Rams. It almost feels like he was unduly punished for that illegal crackback block in Minnesota, especially on a team overflowing with mental errors and pre-snap penalties.
Benjamin might be guilty of insubordination. Maybe he said something that gave the Cardinals no other choice. But this episode represents yet another failure in communication. Just like the sour ending of Patrick Peterson’s time in Arizona, a volatile story that erupted after a loss to the Vikings, when the former Arizona star went after his former owner and general manager in a post-game barrage.
HBO chose to ignore that in their debut episode. Although we did get the shots of Michael Bidwill flying his plane and JJ Watt meditating in the rain.
By the way, there is also a budding quarterback controversy in Arizona. After Sunday’s game, Kingsbury praised Colt McCoy for “the way he led, the professionalism, there early, stayed late, the communication was through the roof. It was awesome to see.” Many heard that praise as an obvious shot at Kyler Murray and his deficiencies as a franchise quarterback.
We’ll see if HBO shows us what really went down with Benjamin and what made Arizona kick him to the curb. Surely, they have the footage. And let’s see what kind of clarity their unfettered access brings to the real vibe inside the locker room relative to these two quarterbacks and all the breakdowns in the chain of command, on a team that does not have a functioning offensive coordinator or running backs coach.
Finally, we’ll see if this football team can rally in the face of non-stop nonsense. The kind that has been following this team with frightening regularity.