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I Got You, Coach

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, a great football game comes down to and hinges on one play.

For 4 quarters your offense can make so many outstanding plays, but in tight contests it often takes that one big game winning play to push Sisyphus’ boulder over the top of the mountain.

My last game as a high school head coach came down to one play.

For many years I had called the offensive plays, but during my last year, I felt that the best chance for my team to win was for me to coach up my young defense. Thus, I handed the offensive play calling duties over to my assistant head coach, Eddie McGuire.

On the final game of the season, my coaches, players and I knew that this would be my last game. I was told prior to the season that it would be my last year at the school because the son of the chairman of the school board, who was one of my captains on the basketball team the winter before, said to his dad after he missed a wide open layup that would have won our last regular season game versus an undefeated league champion that he missed the shot because I made him nervous. My 3 years record as the head basketball coach was 51-18, which included a league championship and a playoff run that led all the way to the New England Class C Championship game. But, I had just so happened to make the wrong player nervous.

That’s how things happen sometimes.

So, here I was—-a lame duck coach—-coaching in my last game. My young team was 2-7, but of the 7 losses, five were within a touchdown. The last game was versus 8-1 Lawrence Academy and it was at home in front of a good sized crowd.

My kids were playing their hearts out. With the score 25-21 and having the ball with 2:48 left on the clock, I asked Eddie if I could call the offensive plays for one last time, seeing as it was my last game. We had a big, talented (6-5, 240) TE named Todd Drescher who would go on to play for Northeastern University, so my first two calls were passes over the middle to Todd.

The plays were clicking and suddenly with 25 seconds left, my QB John Clarke, hit “Dresch” inside Lawrence’s 10 yard line and it looked like Todd scored on the play, only the refs said he was inches short. So in the mayhem, “Clarkie,” as I called him, rushed the offense to the line and spiked the ball with 2 seconds left.

2nd and goal from the 1 inch line with 2 second left—-with a chance to beat Lawrence Academy for the first time in over 10 years—-and a chance to leave the school a winner.

Clarkie came running over (we were out of timeouts) and I told him to sneak the ball in. I will never forget the smile on his face. Those are the kinds of smiles that every coach coaches for.

Off the snap, Clarkie surged over the goaline like he was jet propelled. We were going berserk on the sidelines!

The ball, however, was being hosted high in the air by the Lawrence nose tackle.

A fumble on the center/QB exchange—-the very fundamental every football coach starts teaching and drilling the first day of training camp.

I felt so bad for Clarkie and my players, most of whom were crying in the locker room afterward.

I told them how proud I was of them. I told them that in my heart they will always be winners. My football coaching career had ended, but even though we had lost the game, I knew how privileged I was, as always, to be surrounded by such gutsy and admirable kids.

I thought of this one play a lot yesterday—-because I truly was feeling bad for Kliff Kingsbury, a coach I think the world of—-because I certainly know the feeling of how a team can do so many great things in a game and still lose the game on one fateful play of decision. How often do you see a 49 yard FG that’s splitting the uprights fall short of the crossbar?

When I heard that a national writer was suggesting that the Cardinals “should explore firing” Kliff Kingsbury for the decisions he made in the loss to the Dolphins, I became irate.

If you haven’t read this article by Jeremy Cuff, you might want to give it a quick read,

Not only do I admire Kliff Kingsbury as a coach, I think he is a person of enviable integrity.

Yes, i voiced my opinion that Kliff shouldn’t have been so conservative at the end of both halfs. But, man, Coach dialed up 31 points and 422 yards on a Dolphins’ defense that is one of the best in the NFL and, imo, is the best defense the Cardinals have played this season.

No one—-i repeat—-no one—-is more frustrated with what transpired in the 4th quarter of the Dolphins game than Kliff Kingsbury, save perhaps his captain catalyst, Kyler Murray and his kicker, Zane Gonzalez.

No one is being more truthful with regard to the mistakes he and the team made—-no one.

Same with his young QB who played nearly a perfect game and yet still felt like he and the team “laid an egg.”

Week after week we are being treated to a special brand of offensive football. This offense, as superb as it has been this season, is still in its infancy.

Imagine that.

To suggest that the Cardinals should explore firing Kliff Kingsbury after the inroads he’s made as a head coach and play caller, is an egregious injustice and a grossly negligent misunderstanding of Kingsbury’s role in the Cardinals’ newfound success.

If more pundits and fans would understand all of the hard work that goes into crafting, coordinating and choreographing a world class offense, they would have a profound affinity for Kliff Kingsbury’s extraordinary gifts as a play caller and gutsy decision maker.

The truth is—-a coach can often make the perfect call—-and it can backfire. And, as every coach understands, all of the armchair QBs in the football universe can tell you how wrong you were to make that call.

The fact is—-Kliiff Kingsbury’s Cardinals are profiting from a weekly plethora of great play calls this season—-bringing what was by far the worst NFL offense in 2018 to being a the #1 NFL offense in yards per game (422) at the half-way point of the 2020 season, plus the Cardinals have the best point differential in the NFC at +54.

What Kliff Kingsbury bring to the Cardinals’ organization is more than just an ingeniously creative command of X’s and O’s—-it’s his indefatigable work ethic, his passion for discovering new ideas in order to try to stay ahead of the current trends—-and his exemplary self-discipline. How many coaches are in the building each day at 4:30 AM? How many coaches are having their teams practice in the mornings so that they stand a better chance to win when they travel for east coast games?

As devastating as it must have been for Kliff Kingsbury to be fired by his beloved alma mater, Texas Tech, after going 35-40 in 6 years as head coach, it was ironically the best thing that could have ever happened for him. At Texas Tech, he may never have had the chance to recruit enough 4 and 5 star defensive players because of the intense recruiting competition in the Big 12 and other power 5 conferences. In the NFL, Kingsbury has a much better chance to build a good, strong defense through free agency and the NFL Draft, given the time to do so.

Can you imagine how it must feel for him to hear from the get-go of his appointment as head coach with Cardinals how he doesn’t deserve the job? How his “pretty boy” offense is going to fall flat on its face in the NFL? So when Kingsbury pounds the ball (even more times than we fans would like)—-just remember that Kingsbury is proving a point—-his dawgs get after it—-they are hard-hat grinders—-there is not a “pretty boy” among them. It also manifests Kingsbury’s eager ability to work closely with his assistant coaches, especially as hard as he is working with Sean Kugler, the offensive line coach.

I know what it feels like to be fired from a job where I was giving it my all—-where I had developed great relationships with my players and students.

Yet, honestly, as devastated and humiliated as I was to get fired, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, because I wound up at Foxborough High School where I would spend the last 21 years of my teaching career and the last few years of my 21 year basketball coaching career—-which would have ended in a 2 point state semi-final tournament loss, were it not for this play:

The young man who swished this 67 foot shot, Pat Smith, was the unsung hero on this team all year long—-was our best defender, best screener, best diver on the floor for loses ball, best rebounder—-this amazing play happened because Pat Smith and the team never quit—-at this point with 2 seconds left the Canton fans were understandably cheering “it’s all over, it’s all over.”

Just as Kliff is learning about his extraordinary QB Kyler Murray, there are some things that coaches cannot coach. Great players make coaches look extra smart.

What I value about Kliff Kingsbury is his fighting spirit. He will never quit on his players or on his self-assuredness that he will learn and grow from his mistakes, just as he believes his players will from their own. Kliff’s, Kyler’s and Budda’s fighting spirit are at the heart of this team’s resurgence.

Beyond that, it is easy to sense how much the players enjoy playing for Kliff. He keeps things real, creative and interesting—-but most importantly, K2 treats every player with utmost respect. That’s a lesson he learned from his dad who was his head coach when Kliff was an All-State QB for the New Braunfels Unicorns.

At the end of the day, pundits and fans don't really have to criticize Kliff Kingsbury, because no one is more self-critical and eager to learn from missed opportunities than he.

To echo your QB, I got you, Coach.

As they say in my generation, “keep on keepin’ on.”