CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It took less than an hour or so for the Cardinals game against the Panthers on Sunday to become a shrugfest, the kind of event in which you have no good answer when the person next to you asks "why are we still watching?"
It was that bad, at least on offense. There’s a temptation to say the first half of Sunday’s game set offensive football back a decade, but the Cardinals were working that way-back machine in their first three games, too. They hadn't led in regulation this season.
Combined, the team gained 262 yards in the first half, were 3 of 14 on third downs, 0-3 on fourth downs, committed three turnovers and accounted for one touchdown. That came on a poor throw by Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray that linebacker Frankie Luvu returned 33 yards.
It was 10-3 Panthers at halftime, and it was debatable which offense led by a Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma — Murray's Cardinals or Baker Mayfield's Panthers — looked worse.
Something did not have to give, but it did. The Cardinals improved in the second half. Not right away. The half started with Murray visibly upset about the team taking another timeout with the play clock dwindling. But eventually.
The running game started to click. Murray had more to throw and look beyond the hood ornaments a few yards away and to the horizon. And for the first time this season, the Cardinals offense looked competent, and occasionally, dangerous.
The Cardinals ended their offensive constipation by scoring 23 points in the second half to win, 26-16. The victory evened their record at 2-2 and broke a six-game losing streak to Carolina.
Those are no small things. The goal during receiver DeAndre Hopkins' six-game suspension was to survive, and so far that's been accomplished. The Cardinals are .500 in a league that's up to its chinstrap in mediocrity.
But they need to improve. They did in the second half. The question now is if they can sustain it.
"It's all of us, coaches and players, we've got to figure it out," coach Kliff Kingsbury said Sunday. And the Sunday before that. And the Sunday before that. And the Sunday before that.
"We've got to find a way to settle in early. Call better plays and execute at a higher level."
Kingsbury contributed to the Cardinals troubles in the first half. In the first quarter, the Cardinals faced fourth-and-1 from the Panthers 10-yard line. Three runs by Darrel Williams and Eno Benjamin gained 25 yards on that possession, but on fourth down Kingsbury decided handing it to receiver Rondale Moore on an end around was a good idea.
He lost 4 yards because no one blocked the outside linebacker. Later, Kingsbury decided again to go for it on fourth down, and center Rodney Hudson snapped it over Murray's head. Less risky would have been to put Murray under Center, as the Cardinals appear to be doing more this season.
Like Kingsbury said, it's play calling and execution.
The second half didn't start much better. The Cardinals were forced to call timeout after their first play because the play clock was dwindling. Murray was shown voicing his displeasure. It's the kind of body language Cardinals fans could identify with, because they were probably doing something similar at home.
"Just trying to get on the ball and go," Murray said. "They're one of those teams, they struggle with tempo. You let them get in their double Bear package and do the things they want to do, exotic looks and stuff like that. We allowed them to do what they wanted to do the majority of the first half."
Asked about the FOX broadcast showing Murray appearing to yell at him, Kingsbury said "I was just seeing after the game what he wanted to eat. If we should bring him something separate or just kind of go with the standard team meal."
Jokes aside, the Cardinals offense is smart enough to know Sunday's game was won: with defense. The Panthers have one thing going for them on offense, running back Christian McCaffrey. A team with a better offense, which is almost everyone, likely would have beaten the Cardinals They wouldn't have allowed the Cardinals to hang around while the offense went through the first half trying, and failing, to find traction.
At least the Cardinals found their footing, finally, in the second half. They converted 4 of 6 third downs, gained 201 yards and scored 23 points, although the defense twice set them up with short fields via an interception and a stop on third down.
"Defense played a hell of a game," said Murray, who repeated "hell of a game" twice more. "Had our backs all day. We finally kicked in gear in the second half, found our rhythm."
Until then, we didn't know if this offense had any rhythm, or if it knew how to find it. Watching that offense through 4 1/2 games was like listening to an elementary school band concert. They looked like a bunch of disjointed parts.
In four games, the Cardinals have been outscored by 50 points in the first half. Improvement in the second half had been confined to the fourth quarter and overtime against the Raiders.
That changed on Sunday and might be the most important development on a dreary, bizarre day that began with defensive linemen J.J. Watt tweeting that he had his heart shocked back into rhythm Thursday, included another awful start on offense and ended with a victory to put the Cardinals at 2-2 for the season.
The key offensively, Kingsbury said, was sticking to the game plan in the second half, not going to "11 personnel" (one back, one tight end) all the time and not feeling a sense of panic that the game was slipping away.
The defense was responsible for that, as well as the Panthers awful offense. Both allowed the Cardinals offense to find itself for the first time this season. Will they build upon it, or shrug it off?
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Cardinals finish a strange Sunday with a victory, and perhaps answers.