Kliff Kingsbury and Judgment Day

Dec 1, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury looks on during the second half against the Los Angeles Rams at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Cardinals have been a trendy playoff pick dating back to last season. With the former number one overall pick Kyler Murray entering his third season, and players such as DeAndre Hopkins, JJ Watt, Chandler Jones, and Budda Baker, this team looks ready to contend in 2021. A 6-3 start last season, including a thrilling overtime victory over the Seahawks and the Hail Murray play versus the Bills, showed the potential the Cardinals do have to go toe to toe with any team in the league. However, their late-season collapse to finish 8-8 has created questions around head coach Kliff Kingsbury. 

The Cardinals were 8-6 and still had a great chance to make the playoffs, but they looked unprepared in their final two weeks, only scoring 19 points total against the 49ers and the Rams. 2021 will be a pivotal season for Kingsbury. If the Cardinals fail to meet expectations, the chances are high that they will choose to move on from him. They have a talented young quarterback in Murray and offensive weapons around him that should let them have an explosive attack. Cashing in on Murray’s rookie deal is pivotal, so the Cardinals should not be afraid to move on from Kingsbury if they fail to be a playoff team. 

What Kliff Does Well

Kingsbury inherited the league’s worst offense in 2018. The 2018 Cardinals offense was pitiful. No matter what category you looked at, they were putrid. They averaged 14.1 points per game in a season where scoring was at an all-time high, ranked last in both pass yards and rush yards per game. This offense led them to the #1 overall pick and the ability to draft Murray. In 2019, Kingsbury worked wonders on the offense. He brought them to league average, which is an incredible jump from where they were in 2018. Under Kingsbury, Murray also won Rookie of the Year. Things looked to be heading in the right direction for the offense and the team as a whole. 

Kingsbury is also a creative play designer. There were questions over his Air Raid scheme, and if it would translate to NFL success, but Kingsbury has shown over the last few seasons that his way of running the offense is a viable method. College Air Raid schemes have gotten the stereotype of not having a run game, but Kingsbury has been able to design a run game around Murray and was in the top ten for rush yards per game this season. Credit goes to Kingsbury for having the Cardinals draft Murray a year after spending a top ten pick on Josh Rosen and then building an offense that highlights Murray’s strengths as a player. 

There have been questions surrounding the passing game, however. A lot of this has to do with the lack of talented receivers on the Cardinals, though. Outside of DeAndre Hopkins, who is arguably the best in the game, the Cardinals passing attack was devoid of talent. Christian Kirk has not lived up to his second-round draft status, and Larry Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his career. However, despite this, Kingsbury must find a way to improve on the passing game, or else it will be more of the same. 

Kliff Problems

After a successful rookie season for Murray and Kingsbury, expectations were lofty for the Cardinals. Trading for Hopkins looked to be a crucial move that would help the offense out immensely. However, the offense stayed around the same. They were still league average in points per game, with a 25.6. By more advanced stats, their offense even regressed. In 2019, the Cardinals had a 3.2% DVOA offensive efficiency rating, which was good for the 13th in the league. They regressed in 2020, dropping to a -2.2% rating, which was the 20th best in the league. This became glaringly obvious in the final two weeks of the season, where the Cardinals scored 12 versus the 49ers and following it up by putting up seven against the Rams. While Murray’s injury could be a reason, both the Rams and 49ers were also on backup quarterbacks. 

There was also a sense of repetitiveness in the playcalling in the passing game. The Cardinals relied too much on the same concepts and did not have the proper counters to defensive adjustments – especially in the second half of the season. The Cardinals also used many “catch and run” plays, hoping to beat defenses on yards after the catch. While this worked with Hopkins, who had a career-high 534 YAC, with 4.6 YAC per reception, the rest of the team could not keep up. Both Kirk and Fitzgerald had under 200 YAC each, which is not enough for this passing game to be successful. 

Murray only averaged 6.45 Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt, which was 19th in the league. This ranking puts him right above Teddy Bridgewater, Jared Goff, and Ben Roethlisberger and right below Matt Ryan. The best passing attacks in the league Green Bay, Kansas City, and Buffalo, all had quarterbacks in the top five for ANY/A. The deep passing game for the Cardinals must improve for the offense to take the next step, and so far, Kingsbury has relied too much on a dink and dunk passing game. 

Final Thoughts

Kingsbury has had a mix of good and some bad in his first two seasons as a head coach. For a 41-year-old in his first NFL coaching gig, he has not done that badly. However, the NFL is a results-oriented league, and so far, he has not delivered. The good news for him, though, is that his problems, specifically in the passing game, can be fixed. He now has two years of offensive tape to see what passing concepts have been working for his team, as well as what has not. If he can adjust his offense and take it to the next level, the Cardinals will surely be in the playoff picture and perhaps ready to make a deep run. If not, the Cardinals might be on the outside looking in and will likely move on from Kingsbury.