On November 25, Kliff Kingsbury was fired by Texas Tech after going 35-40 in five years as the Red Raiders’ head coach. Fewer than two months later, he’d worked his way into a top job in the NFL.
The Arizona Cardinals have finalized a deal to make Kingsbury their new head coach. The former quarterback will replace Steve Wilks, who was fired after one 3-13 season in Arizona. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Kingsbury’s deal with the Cardinals is a four-year contract with a team option for a fifth.
Cardinals are giving new HC Kliff Kingsbury a four-year deal, with a team option for a fifth year, per league source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 8, 2019
The Cardinals (I’m sorry, “Kardinals”) confirmed the news not longafter.
Kingsbury was a sought-after candidate despite his struggles in the college ranks. He was hired as Southern California’s offensive coordinator back in December, and despite the university’s attempts to retain him, still worked his way into a handful of coaching interviews this winter. Now the Cardinals are hoping he can have a Sean McVay-type rise after watching the young Rams coach roast them in each of the past two seasons.
Kingsbury will have his work cut out for him in Arizona
Wilks’ lone year in Glendale saw him produce a borderline unwatchable three-win season. The Cardinals ranked dead last in the league in both yards gained and points scored, racking up just 14.1 points per game in 2018. Part of that was thanks to the struggles of rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, but a lack of playmakers certainly didn’t help.
Hiring Kingsbury brings a head coach with an innate understanding of the spread offense to Arizona’s underwhelming attack. The former Red Raider quarterback struggled in several different facets as a college coach, but scoring points wasn’t one of them. Texas Tech was a top-10 scoring offense in two of his five seasons on the sideline and fell outside the top 31 just once — way back in his first season as head coach.
He’s also got a penchant for developing quarterbacks. He was responsible for Patrick Mahomes’ rise from three-star prospect into top 10 draft pick. Kingsbury also worked with future NFL passers Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield (briefly) in Lubbock. Turning two quarterbacks into pros in five years is an accomplishment anywhere — the fact Kingsbury did it at one of the Big 12’s least attractive programs is borderline incredible.
That track record helped convince Arizona he was the right guy to push Rosen to the peak of his potential. Rosen completed just 55 percent of his passes as a rookie, threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11), and averaged only 5.8 yards per attempt, but many of those struggles can be attributed to a low-octane group of targets led by a 35-year-old Larry Fitzgerald and a group of little-known wide receivers behind him.
Hiring Kingsbury suggests the club is invested in upgrading that unit. After all, that’s the blueprint the Rams and Bears have followed to build playoff teams.
Kingsbury’s hiring is the latest in a trend that favors young, QB-developing offensive minds
Los Angeles’s hiring of Sean McVay and his immediate success with the Rams has ignited a trend the Cardinals are hoping to ride back to the postseason. Teams are more willing than ever to gamble on young, offensively-inclined coaches with limited resumes at the NFL level.
We’ve seen it with McVay, who surrounded former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff with receiving talent and watched him develop into an MVP candidate. We’ve also seen it in Chicago, where former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy gave Mitchell Trubisky the tools he needed to thrive and wound up delivering the franchise’s first NFC North title since 2010 in the process. That’s the deep ball the Packers are hoping to connect on in 2019 as well after hiring Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur to take Mike McCarthy’s old spot in Green Bay.
And if you weren’t convinced McVay’s success influenced Kingsbury’s hiring, well...
The Cardinals press release announcing Kingsbury made sure to include that he’s friends with Sean McVay. pic.twitter.com/oEqGfkgWdT— Kyle Bonagura (@BonaguraESPN) January 8, 2019
Kingsbury is a different animal than the budding offensive minds who were promoted before him, however. While he spent time in the NFL as a backup quarterback, he’s never been a coach in any capacity in the pros. He’s only got slightly more than a decade of coaching experience under his belt, and he never won more than eight games in a season on the sideline in Lubbock.
But that was in Lubbock, where it’s traditionally been difficult for anyone but Mike Leach to win big. The Red Raiders have only had one 10+ win season since 1976, and while Kingsbury’s experience there was disappointing, it’s difficult to lay the blame of his sub-.500 record directly at his feet.
The Cardinals needed to make a bold move after crashing and burning with their Wilks hire, and Kingsbury certainly qualifies as bold. Arizona hasn’t developed a legitimate home grown starting quarterback since Jake Plummer. Kingsbury’s ability to spread out the offense and play to his passer’s biggest strengths was all the Cardinals’ brass needed to see to decide he was the right man for the job.
So will he be the next link in the NFL’s growing chain of young, spread offense-style saviors who led their teams to success? Or will he be the same guy who struggled to make the best of a tough situation at Texas Tech?