Cardinals continued Kliff Kingsbury's penalty-filled history in 2020

Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals finished with the most total penalties and most accepted penalties during a season in which they missed the playoffs on a tie breaker. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's not often that two penalties from a game are emblematic of an entire season, but that was the case when Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was flagged twice in a matter of minutes during the third quarter of the team's season finale.

The first flag thrown against him was for an offensive pass interference, a 10-yard penalty. Hopkins didn't like the call and started barking at the official, eventually giving him the middle finger in the process. That led to a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Arizona was down 15-7 at the time and the play that ignited Hopkins' two penalties began at the 50. By time the infractions were settled, Arizona was backed up to its 25-yard-line and faced a first-and-35. The Cardinals punted four plays later.

Arizona led the NFL in penalties during the 2020 season -- most total (131) and most accepted (113). Arizona also finished with the most offensive penalties (65) and accepted offensive penalties (61). That many mistakes can mean the difference between making and missing the playoffs and Arizona fell short of the postseason by losing a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bears.

Last week, during a radio interview, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Arizona having the most penalties in the league "won't happen again."

But coach Kliff Kingsbury's teams have a penchant for being penalized at a high rate, dating back to his years at Texas Tech.

During his six seasons as a college head coach, the Red Raiders were among the most penalized teams in the nation, finishing in the bottom five for penalties in 2013 and 2014, and in the bottom 20 in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Texas Tech ranked 107 out of 128 Division I teams in 2015.

Kingsbury's Texas Tech teams averaged between 7.08 and 9.33 penalties per game, and were docked as many as 89.17 penalty yards per game in 2014, the most in Division I. In just one of his seasons in college -- 2017 -- did the Red Raiders offense not rank in the bottom 12 of offensive penalties.

Overall in his six seasons, Texas Tech was ranked 127th out of 131 tams in total penalties, 130th in penalties per game, 130th in penalty yards per game, 129th in total penalty yards and 130th in offensive penalties.

And those trends carried over to the NFL.

In 2019, Kingsbury's first season as an NFL head coach, the Cardinals were 25th in total penalties, 28th in accepted penalties and 23rd in penalty yards. And it got worse this past season.

The Cardinals had double-digit penalties in seven games and double-digit accepted penalties in three. Twice, they were flagged for more than 100 yards -- in a season-opening win over the Washington Football Team and in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11.

Penalties played a significant role in that Seattle game. A false-start on tight end Dan Arnold in the first quarter pushed Arizona from third-and-7 to third-and-12. Left guard Justin Pugh had two penalties on the same drive, including one on third-and-2. But in the fourth quarter, with Arizona within 23-21 and 9:23 left in the game, Kyler Murray was flagged for intentional grounding on a play from the Arizona 14. It moved the Cardinals back to the 2-yard-line, and on the next play right guard J.R. Sweezy was flagged for holding in the end zone, which is an automatic safety that put Seattle up 25-21. The Seahawks went on to win 28-21.

After that game, Murray said the Cardinals were "shooting ourselves in the foot." And Kingsbury stressed the need for his players to refocus and not let that many penalties and penalty yards happen again.

"You're not going to win in this league doing that," Kingsbury said. "Especially against a quality team like Seattle. It's unacceptable to have that many and we have to clean that up."

Arizona did, for the most part. In the final six weeks, Arizona committed just 37 penalties -- 34 were accepted -- which were the 16th most during that span.

Part of Arizona's issues early in the season could be attributed to a lack of offseason and preseason reps because of the elimination of OTAs, minicamp and the preseason games.

For the season, they were penalized most on first down (47 and 41 accepted) followed by second and then third. On third-and-short, they were penalized 12 times with 11 accepted.

But the Cardinals' offense wasn't only to blame.

The defense was flagged for 45 accepted penalties and special teams for seven.

The most penalized player on the Cardinals in 2020 was cornerback Patrick Peterson with 14, of which 10 were accepted. He was flagged for defensive holding seven times with four accepted and for defensive pass interference four times. Fellow corner Dre Kirkpatrick was second with nine and seven accepted, five of which were defensive pass interferences, followed by Pugh (nine and nine), Arnold (seven and seven), Hopkins (six and five), right tackle Kelvin Beachum (six and six), left tackle D.J. Humphries (six and six) and center Mason Cole (six and six).

Humphries was flagged for a team-high six false starts, followed by five for Arnold and four each for Pugh and Cole.

Pugh led the team with four offensive holding flags.