Bruce Arians had the nickname “the Quarterback Whisperer” attached to his larger than life persona through the back-half of his career in the NFL. It’s almost ubiquitous with his image: a bearded, bespectacled man swearing on the sidelines with decades of football knowledge instructing the likes of Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.
Heck, he even titled his book with that exact moniker.
When he came to Arizona, a team without a quarterback at the helm, many believed that a master of developing young quarterbacks would elect to choose one to lead the franchise forward into an era it had never experienced. After all the so-called “QB whisperer” was guaranteed of one thing from his time in the NFL: making quarterbacks better.
Instead of that being the case, however, Arians and Keim traded for Carson Palmer, a man that BA said he would “ride off into the sunset” with.
The combination at first...seemed sluggish. Arians was getting on even the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and the team struggled to run the routes and protect their quarterback. But around 1⁄2 way through the 2013 season, it was like it clicked for Palmer and the rest of the players. The team finished on a run and at 10-6, JUST barely missed out on the playoffs.
Entering into 2014, Palmer helmed an electric offense with an Arians-style attacking defense that saw him tear an ACL, but went on to the NFC Championship game the following year. By now, all Cardinals fans know the story.
2016 was a down year and the team passed on a young quarterback in 2017, leading to Arians’ retirement.
A year after (and one head coach and first-round draft pick at quarterback later) and the team has turned to ANOTHER quarterback guru from the collegiate ranks in Kliff Kingsbury. A man who’s not thought of with the tall, sturdy pocket passers of the 2000’s but rather spright, smaller electric playmakers out of the air raid in Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel, Patrick Mahomes. And instead of keeping Josh Rosen, a quarterback that still many had seen promise in, the team took a risk and moved on to select Kyler Murray with the first overall pick of this past draft.
As luck would have it, there are two mirror images and two different stories unfolding.
The aging coach with his last team who didn’t give a bleep and did things his way BECAUSE it was his last team (until it wasn’t, anyway) and the youthful, innovative coach who’s never stepped a foot as a coach on an NFL field before this season.
You couldn’t ask for a more unlikely odd couple. The same goes as well for the last two “franchise” quarterbacks that were linked to each coach as well.
6’3, USC rocket armed Carson Palmer with his pro-concepts and ability to turn take snaps from under center, turn his back to the defense and step up in the pocket to make the throw. Compare the diminutive Kyler Murray at 5’10 who rushed for over 1,000 yards his final season and made plays in and out of structure in a totally spread system at Oklahoma.
The fact that both were Heisman winners shows you how far the game of college football has come. And it also shows their respective talents.
Because Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have an opportunity that Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer never had.
They have the ability to fail, fall down and get back up again. A luxury that frankly, the Cardinals under BA only got to do once. Exactly once, after the 2014 season.
With Arians on his last job and Palmer on what would be his last team, the ACL tear seemed to spell disaster...and yet both men put up their finest hours. Alas, that 2015 wreck of a game was possibly their last “finest” hour as far as truly making a mark on the national football league is concerned. The following season saw expectations fall short, and while Arians and Palmer gave it one more go in 2017, the window had closed and it was Blaine Gabbert taking snaps.
Arians retired, and with the team in need of a new offensive mind and franchise quarterback, the train wreck of Sam Bradford, Mike McCoy and a pitiful offensive line for Josh Rosen took them on the path to find what they’d been missing: their quarterback guru.
Except....Kliff Kingsbury isn’t REALLY a quarterback guru. Not in the sense Bruce Arians was, anyway.
Arians was a man who coached under Bear Bryant and was part of the OLD school NFL. A disciplinarian who took risks and chances and while dogmatic, was never delusional in their approach. He wasn’t going to change his ways for anyone, and it led to Palmer taking a lot of hits, to a defense that at times blitzed when they shouldn’t have and ultimately the vast knowledge led Arians to the all-time winningest record for a Cardinals head coach at 50 wins in 5 seasons. Tremendous knowledge led to tremendous results.
Kingsbury doesn’t have the same amount of time or experience. But he won’t have the same old stubbornness that many Cardinals fans critiqued Arians for either.
In that sense, he’s less of a guru sitting atop a mountain with a wealth of knowledge to answer a question. He’s more of a QB “sensei” a teacher or instructor in a martial way. Where a guru and spiritual teacher, or even a whisperer (gifted communicator to difficult people or things) might have a set of wisdom or knowledge, a sensei is something else.
A teacher & instructor who preaches balance...but in a martial form.
In martial arts, there’s a combination of discipline and flexibility that comes into play. Think of “the art of war” in adapting to meet a foe and being the one to bend, but not break.
Bruce Arians would be no such sensei. He’s a man in interviews who’d tell it like it is, bluntly and plainly, such as calling out players or saying there was a “failure in progress”. Arians needed to win and win FAST and the team had no time to slow down or it was “next man up” with the bash and bomb offense.
It’s not like that with Kingsbury. Despite having quarterback development skills, he’s almost the opposite.
Like tai chi, there’s a rhythm and a flow that seems to follow Kliff Kingsbury, a man who conceals his weapons and hides them as an assassin would his blade. Words like “we’ll see” and a “secret offense” give more of the impression of a viper ready to strike, and the bend and lulling to sleep of a cobra.
The man’s now acquired perhaps the greatest swiss army knife of quarterbacking skills that the NFL has seen in a long time...a quarterback who can beat you with his arm or strike like a viper with his legs in a flash.
And I think that’s a distinction in which...it’s a good thing that Kliff Kingsbury isn’t like Bruce Arians. Because Arians, for all his success, has a tenacity that refuses to break. It’s part of why he was hired to coach the Bucs to “whip some sense” into Jameis Winston, a veteran quarterback. It’s for sure probably his last job and Jameis’s last chance potentially.
With Kingsbury there’s no such pressure.
He improves the team and even if the record isn’t favorable if the quarterback and team develops, he’s doing his part. And really, it means that his job right now isn’t to be the guru with the answers but rather a teacher who put his student with what they need to succeed and the mentality of how to fight.
And unlike Arians, he’s not 62 years old with a 37 year old quarterback. Rather, he and his QB’s combined ages are practically HALF of the Carson/Bruce combo. Now, there’s still a deadline of a sort (the rookie quarterback contract window is one that some teams have used for Super Bowl appearances after all) but unlike the 2018 season in which Steve Wilks inheirited a win now team with “lose now” talent...Kingsbury’s been given a blank slate.
So as Cards Camp opens today, watch what Kingsbury does. He’s not wound tight like Arians, he’s not stressed and he’s never overly firm cross or yelling. He has time to teach and correct and the players seem to understand the expectations aren’t lowered but rather it’s an approach of growing together alongside the coach & his staff.
Kliff isn’t a yeller by any stretch of the imagination. Because he doesn’t have to be.
And Kyler Murray, much like his coach, isn’t fazed by anything either, from his freshman year of high school to playing Alabama to throwing passes to Larry Fitzgerald as the #1 overall pick.
They have time, and can learn and grow together. And maybe like Arians and Palmer...the relationship they have can define the Arizona Cardinals’ identity moving forward to give the state of Arizona a rallying cry.
But unlike Arians and Palmer, that war doesn’t have to be fought on an epic scale for the fate of the team anytime soon; the old generals with their last hurrah on the field.
Rather it’ll be about learning and growth through mistakes (and there will be many) but they’re ones that the Cardinals can afford to make. Now maybe Arizona surprises and comes out fast and strong with early results. But even if they don’t, fans shouldn’t panic about their team.
Because ultimately each small skirmish K1 and K2 learn from will be what set them up for the greatest success in the long run.