After six years as the head coach at Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury was fired at the end of a 5-7 season. But his brief unemployment only set up Kingsbury for a better job.
According to FOX Sports’ Peter Schrager, Kingsbury is finalizing a deal with the Arizona Cardinals to be their new head coach. That’s quite the tumble up the coaching ladder for a coach who was fired in November, and accepted another prestigious job in December.
In early December, Kingsbury was announced as the new offensive coordinator of the USC Trojans:
OFFICIAL: Kliff Kingsbury is USC’s new offensive coordinator! #FightOn pic.twitter.com/ydZLqDbOpz— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) December 5, 2018
It was a big coup for USC, because there was no shortage of teams vying for Kingsbury’s services. But even after joining the Trojans, Kingsbury received NFL interest. Those opportunities were shut down by USC, but that may have cost them their coordinator before he ever coached in a game.
I’m hearing Kliff Kingsbury is interviewing with NFL teams, which likely means he has resigned as USC offensive coordinator. USC was blocking him from interviewing foe NFL head coaching openings— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) January 7, 2019
This was a storm that’s been brewing since just about the day Kingsbury joined USC. Back in December, Jay Glazer said there were NFL teams taking a close look at his contract to see if they could lure him before he really gets started in Los Angeles.
As the end of the season approaches, @jayglazer has updates on the available coaches out there. pic.twitter.com/iqM4gTrqFk— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 16, 2018
The 39-year-old is a former Texas Tech quarterback under Mike Leach who had a brief NFL career before rising through the coaching ranks as an offensive coordinator at Houston and Texas A&M. At the latter, he helped Johnny Manziel win the Heisman Trophy.
At Texas Tech, Kingsbury again coached up a high-octane offense — led for a while by Patrick Mahomes — but the defense could never keep up.
Once he was no longer a head coach, just about every football team was licking their chops at the idea of Kingsbury running its offense.
The Cardinals weren’t the only NFL team interested
Three days after he was fired by Texas Tech, Kingsbury already reportedly had two “firm offers” to join an NFL coaching staff:
The phone of former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury has been ringing off the hook from NFL teams, including two that have given him firm offers. College offense has infiltrated the NFL and Kingsbury's superb knowledge of it is in high demand.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) November 27, 2018
The list of teams that were connected to Kingsbury included the Rams, Patriots, Jets, and Cardinals. The first two on that list have coaches in no danger of losing their job any time soon.
Before he joined USC, the Rams’ Sean McVay was ready to bring Kingsbury on for the end of the season and the playoffs:
As I just said on FOX, there’s significant NFL interest in former Texas Tech HC Kliff Kingsbury. Rams HC Sean McVay reached out to Kingsbury last week and discussed having Kingsbury come aboard for this stretch run in an offensive assistant/consultant role. @NFLonFOX @gmfb— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) December 2, 2018
For the Patriots, it’d likely be as a replacement for Josh McDaniels — the team’s offensive coordinator who is considered a top head coaching candidate this offseason.
But the interest shown by the Cardinals and Jets was more significant. Each team has a head coaching vacancy after firing Steve Wilks and Todd Bowles, respectively.
Kliff Kingsbury is expected to begin interviewing for NFL HC jobs, as @JayGlazer reported, after USC initially blocked him from doing so. Cardinals and Jets wanted to talk to him, and Kingsbury is square in the HC mix.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 7, 2019
The Arizona Cardinals and Kliff Kingsbury were said to have a strong mutual interest in each other, per league sources, but they had been prevented from talking. Not now. Jets also are likely to want to talk to Kingsbury.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 7, 2019
Why was Kingsbury in such high demand?
Points. Sweet, delicious points.
The Texas Tech offense averaged 37.8 points in his 75 games as head coach. He helped Manziel turn Texas A&M into an offensive juggernaut, and then did the same at Texas Tech with Mahomes, Davis Webb, and Nic Shimonek.
No era was more prolific than Mahomes’ two years at the helm. Texas Tech averaged 45.1 points per game in 2015 and 43.7 points in 2016.
In 2018, true freshman Alan Bowman took over at quarterback for Texas Tech early in the season after junior McLane Carter suffered an ankle injury. Then Bowman suffered a collapsed lung and was replaced by sophomore Jeff Duffey. Despite those injuries, Texas Tech is still 26th in the offensive S&P+ ratings.
The problem in Lubbock is — and always has been — defense.
Texas Tech is 91st in the defensive S&P+ ratings this season and never finished higher than 83rd during Kingsbury’s tenure. The team consistently scored more than 30 points in losses.
Most famously, there was the time Mahomes had 819 combined passing and rushing yards, but Texas Tech still lost to a Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma team, 66-59, in October 2016.
The consistent defensive letdowns kept Texas Tech stuck in neutral and eventually led to Kingsbury’s firing. But what if he was in charge of nothing but offense?
Like Lane Kiffin’s three-year stint at Alabama (oh god, what if Alabama hired Kingsbury?), similarly making Kingsbury an offensive coordinator while someone else is in charge of keeping teams off the scoreboard just makes too much sense.
Kingsbury has developed several NFL quarterbacks
Before landing the head coaching job at Texas Tech, Kingsbury was a finalist for the Broyles Award in 2012, recognizing the top assistant coach in the nation. That honor came because Kingsbury helped redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy in a Texas A&M offense that averaged 44.5 points per game.
Before he joined Texas A&M, Kingsbury spent four seasons as an assistant at Houston. There, he helped develop Case Keenum and was co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Houston averaged 49.3 points in 2011.
Both Mahomes and Manziel ended up being first-round picks in the NFL, and Keenum has been a starter for the Rams, Vikings, and Broncos, despite going undrafted.
That’s an impressive list of protégés for someone who’s only a decade into his coaching career.
It’s not perfect, though. When he arrived at Texas Tech in 2013, he had a pair of freshman quarterbacks: Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield. Both transferred, and Mayfield went on to become a Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma and No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
“When I got hurt, there was no communication between me and my coach,” Mayfield told ESPN. “When I got healthy, I didn’t know why I wasn’t playing right away. At that time, we were losing a couple games in a row. I was still clueless as to why I wasn’t playing. That was really frustrating for me because I started the first five games and we won. So, I just didn’t really know exactly what he was thinking or what the situation was.”
Webb’s transfer happened after Mahomes supplanted him as the starter. Webb was eventually drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Giants, but waived a year later. He’s now a member of the Jets.
At USC, Kingsbury was to be tasked with the development of J.T. Daniels, a 6’3, 200-pound quarterback who started as a true freshman for the Trojans in 2018. He finished the year with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Now Kingsbury will groom a UCLA product instead in the Cardinals’ 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen. In his rookie season, Rosen threw 11 touchdowns with 14 interceptions.
It’s time to embrace the air raid
Mahomes put up huge numbers in Kingsbury’s offense, but there was reason to be pessimistic about his ability to continue to produce in the NFL.
At the time, there wasn’t a successful single NFL quarterback who was a product of a college air raid offense. Jared Goff had just finished a horrible rookie season and the closest thing to a success story was Nick Foles.
Since then, Goff has ascended into one of the NFL’s elite passers, Foles won the Super Bowl MVP award, and Mahomes is currently making a case as the 2018 NFL MVP. It’s air raid season.
Shotgun is an increasingly large part of an NFL team’s playbook, and spread concepts are leaking up from the college ranks to the professional ones.
One of the criticisms of the air raid offense is that it has historically been, in the words of SB Nation’s Jason Kirk, “an underdog offense, for teams that can’t just overpower or out-speed opponents.” But Kingsbury’s Texas Tech always had a bit more than that.
“Our offense is a lot more complex than the old air raid, because Coach Kingsbury, coming from the NFL, has made it more complex,” Mahomes told Bleacher Report in 2017. “And that’s why it’s so successful.”
Washington State head coach Mike Leach explained that his air raid offense aims to “throw it short to people who can score.” But Mahomes attempted 91 deep passes in his final season at Texas Tech, fifth-most in the nation. That makes Kingsbury’s offense dangerous at any level of football.
Offense is at an all-time high in the NFL and teams that aren’t thinking progressively are running the risk of getting left behind. The Cardinals are rolling the dice in a big way, but it could pay huge dividends for Rosen and the struggling Arizona offense.