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Green in the desert: A look back at previous 1st-year coach/rookie starting QB combos (Part 2)

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Cardinals fans are excited about the start of the Kingsbury/Murray era in the desert, but starting the season with both a rookie head coach and starting QB is relatively rare. How have previous inexperienced coach/QB combos fared? (Part 2 of 2.)

NFL: Arizona Cardinals-Rookie Minicamp
Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray come to the desert with a lot of potential—but a dearth of experience.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we began our look back on the nine previous 1st-year head coach/rookie starting QB duos. Today, we finish with the final five teams, as well as some final observations.

We pick things up in 2011 with a certain mobile QB who shattered NFL records in his first season.

2011 Carolina Panthers

By the end of 2010, John Fox had worn out his welcome in Carolina as the team plummeted from 12-4 in 2008 all the way to 2-14 in that 2010 season. Unsurprisingly, QB play was a major factor, as Matt Moore and 2nd-round rookie Jimmy Clausen helped combine for a team 9:21 TD:INT ratio and 4.3 YPA. But the defense—Fox’s forte—also fell to the bottom half of the league. Fox was let go, Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was hired (if you’re keeping track, every single new coach thus far has had a defensive background), and the team used the #1 overall pick on Auburn QB Cam Newton.

While team success would have to wait—although the Panthers did improve to 6-10, they wouldn’t make the playoffs until Newton’s third season—individual success was immediate. Newton set several records—most passing yards in a debut (against the Cardinals of all teams), most rookie passing and QB rushing yards, and most rushing TDs by any QB. Unfortunately, the defense was a sieve—a big problem in a division with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. But the seeds for a Super Bowl contender were planted with the Rivera/Newton pairing.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Panthers team?

A lot, potentially. The Panthers designed an offense around their dynamic rookie QB’s strengths, letting Newton air it out (500+ passing attempts) while letting him run it 7-8 times a game. Do those numbers sound reasonable for Murray? I think so. Does that mean Murray will also pass for 4,000+ yards and run for 14 TDs? Of course not, as we don’t have anyone like Steve Smith in his prime (79/1394/7 TDs), and Murray isn’t built to withstand all those goal line carries. But nobody expected Newton to do what he did, so the potential for Murray to shock the world is there, too.

2012 Miami Dolphins

An 0-7 start to the 2011 season sealed coach Tony Sparano’s fate, as he was fired in December with the team languishing at 4-9, with future Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles taking over for the final three games (going 2-1). The team fielded a strong defense (#6 in scoring, #15 in yards), but the anemic offense—with former Panthers backup Matt Moore at the helm—led to the ‘Fins bringing in hotshot offensive guru Joe Philbin from the Packers (the first offensive hire on this list!). They then selected converted WR Ryan Tannehill from Texas A&M at #8 overall in the draft, with the thinking that Philbin could mold the physically gifted but raw QB like he did in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers.

That plan never really came to fruition, neither in 2012 or in subsequent seasons. Philbin let Tannehill throw it 30 times a game, but the results were uninspiring: 58.3 completion %, 12:13 TD:INT ratio, 6.8 YPA. The team did improve to 7-9 IN 2012, and to 8-8 the next season, but the ‘Fins would not post a winning record in Philbin’s 3+ years with the team, and Tannehill never became more than a league-average QB. Philbin was fired after a 1-3 start in 2015. Tannehill lasted another few seasons as Miami’s starter, but his tenure came to an end this offseason; he’s now a backup in Tennessee.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Dolphins team?

Offensive success doesn’t always translate. Philbin enjoyed great success as the Packers OC, finishing with a top-10 offense in each of his five seasons on the job, but the Dolphins finished with an offense in the top half of the league just once during his reign. Of course, Philbin didn’t have Rodgers in Miami, but he couldn’t get the job done with Tannehill. Can Kingsbury recreate the offensive success he had at Texas Tech with Patrick Mahomes II here in the desert with Kyler Murray?

2012 Indianapolis Colts

The 2011 Colts were supposed to be a Super Bowl contender led by head coach Jim Caldwell and future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning. But Manning was never able to recover from offseason neck surgery and wound up missing the entire season. The 2-14 season that resulted magnified the flaws in the team that Manning had been able to mask when healthy: namely, a weak running game and porous defense. Caldwell’s inability to get more than 2 wins out of Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky (ouch), and Curtis Painter led to his firing, and the team released Manning as well once it became clear that their next franchise QB would be Stanford’s Andrew Luck, the presumptive #1 overall pick. And for the second year in a row, the Ravens’ DC earned a head gig—this time it was Chuck Pagano. Most pundits predicted a short rebuild, but this Colts team exceeded all expectations.

In that 2012 draft, the Colts added weapons like T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen, and Coby Fleener to go alongside Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne. They put the ball in their rookie QB’s hands immediately, as he attempted 627 passes in breaking Cam Newton’s 1-year-old record for most passing yards by a QB (4,374). The rushing attack and defense were still relative weaknesses, but, like Manning before him, Luck was able to mask those flaws as the Colts went 11-5 to earn a wild card berth. They fell to Pagano’s old team, but the Colts would make the playoffs in each of the next three seasons until shoulder issues cost Luck parts of two seasons. But the Colts returned to the playoffs this last season and seem ripe for a Super Bowl run in the near future.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Colts team?

Sometimes the bad times are worth it. Although the Arians/Palmer Cardinals did not have the same type of success as the Manning Colts, it was still among the franchise’s most successful periods before the wheels fell off after both retired following the 2017 season. And, like the Colts, the team’s struggles led to getting the #1 pick in the draft. Will Murray prove to be a franchise cornerstone like Luck?

2013 Buffalo Bills

The Bills are a bit of an anomaly on this list. When the team fired 3rd-year head coach Chan Gailey and replaced him with Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone, they had a starting quarterback in place in Ryan“Did You Know He Went to Harvard?” Fitzpatrick, who had been the starter for four solid, if not spectacular, seasons. But the team wanted to renegotiate his contract; he refused to take a pay cut and was released before the draft. On draft day, the Bills traded back and took the top QB prospect available, Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, in what would be one of the worst QB drafts in recent memory.

Unsurprisingly, the Marrone/Manuel combo did not take the NFL by storm. Although the Bills’ offensive and defensive rankings improved modestly from 2012, they equaled their 6-10 record, extending their playoff drought to 14 seasons. Manuel missed six games and was ineffective even when he played (58.5 completion %, 11:9 TD:INT ratio, 6.4 YPA). He would only start seven more games over the next three seasons—but he outlasted Marrone, who bolted after the next season (a 9-7 effort but no playoffs) under strange circumstances and became the Jaguars’ assistant head coach. He would later be promoted to head coach, a position he still holds today, if somewhat tenuously. Manuel is now retired.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Bills team?

Hopefully nothing. Although there are some parallels between Marrone and Kingsbury being hired from mid-tier college programs, Kingsbury doesn’t seem likely to bail after two seasons (although tell that to USC fans…). Additionally, Murray is a far better QB prospect than Manuel was, and much more ready to start immediately. The Bills also had to deal with the death of longtime owner Ralph Wilson after the 2014 season. The situation with these Bills teams seems much more chaotic than what the Cardinals are going through, so hopefully this situation will have no bearing on what happens in the desert in 2019.

2016 Philadelphia Eagles

Perhaps the closest comparison to the Cardinals’ hiring of Kliff Kingsbury was the Eagles’ hiring of Oregon coach Chip Kelly in 2013. Kelly also presided over prolific offenses as a college coach—although it should be noted that Kelly was a far more successful college coach than Kingsbury, leading the Ducks to four BCS bowls in a row, including a national title game appearance. However, Kelly’s desire for front office power led to his demise and he was fired toward the end of the 2015 season after making a series of questionable roster moves, including trading Nick Foles for Sam Bradford (that sentence is even funnier in 2019). Replacing Kelly and Bradford were former Eagles player and assistant Doug Pederson and #2 overall pick Carson Wentz out of North Dakota State. Pederson was well regarded at the time, and scouts loved Wentz, but no one was predicting that they’d be a Super Bowl team the very next season (with Foles back in the fold).

The 2016 season was one for growth, as the team realized Wentz was a better option than Bradford in training camp and traded him to the Vikings for a 1st-rounder(!). Pederson turned the offense over to Wentz, who threw the ball 600+ times in his rookie year. His numbers weren’t exactly eye-popping, but they were solid for a rookie (3,782 yards, 62.4 completion %, 16:14 TD:INT ratio, 6.2 YPA). The Eagles started a surprising 3-0 in 2016 but faded down the stretch, finishing 7-9. But the next season, Wentz was the leading MVP candidate when he went down with a torn ACL, setting the stage for Foles’s Super Bowl glory.

What can the Cardinals learn from this Eagles team?

These things take time. It took the Wentz and the rest of the Eagles offense a year to fully learn Pederson’s system. Their offense regressed slightly back toward the middle of the pack from Kelly’s last season to Pederson’s first, but in Year 2 under Pederson, they fielded one of the best offenses in the league. So Cardinals fans should be patient if Kingsbury and Murray don’t provide fireworks right away. Those should come in Year 2.

Final Thoughts

The 2019 Arizona Cardinals will be the 10th team since 2000 to enter Week 1 with a 1st-year head coach and rookie starting QB. Here are my main takeaways from this look at the previous nine teams:

  • The average team on this list improved by 3 wins from the previous season. That would put the Cardinals at 6-10 in 2019, which seems like a reasonable baseline expectation for the team.
  • Of the nine coach/QB combos, four made the playoffs in their first season. More compellingly, three eventually made Super Bowl appearances, and two won it—Harbaugh and Flacco in 2012 and Pederson and Wentz in 2017.
  • Most of the immediate success stories were teams that largely took the ball out of their rookie QB’s hands and relied on a strong running game and, ideally, a strong defense. The 2008 Falcons, 2008 Ravens, and 2009 Jets rode this approach to the playoffs. This doesn’t seem to be a viable approach for the Cardinals given the offensive line situation and the system Kingsbury wants to run.
  • The other team on this list to make the playoffs was the 2012 Indianapolis Colts, who basically plugged a generational talent in at QB (Luck) to replace another one (Manning). Although the Cardinals are sky-high on Murray, I don’t think anyone would argue that he’s quite as good a prospect as Luck. So I’m not sure how instructive that Colts season would be for the Redbirds.
  • Tannehill and Manuel were clearly lesser prospects than Murray given the scouting reports at the time and their eventual draft positions. I don’t think there’s a ton to take away from their first seasons.
  • Of all the quarterbacks on this list, the two that resemble Murray the most seem to be Newton and Wentz—high draft picks who were expected to throw a ton in their first seasons. Newton’s mobility especially makes him an apt comparison (although not his size), although Wentz isn’t exactly immobile either (at least before his ACL injury). Both of those QBs finished short of .500 in their rookie seasons, but quickly established themselves among the best at the position—although it must be said that they both have prototypical QB size/stature. Could Murray follow a similar career trajectory despite his height/size disadvantages?

Regardless of how the season turns out, the 2019 Arizona Cardinals will be a fascinating team to watch. Success or failure, the entire NFL will have its eyes on the Redbirds this season. Maybe this green duo in the desert will wither and die on the vine—or perhaps it will bloom into something truly special.