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Second Guessing K2’s Play Calling

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There is perhaps no easier thing for armchair QBs to do in the NFL these days than to second guess Kliff Kingsbury’s play calling.

Why?

1—-Everyone (fans and pundits) seems to be doing it on a regular basis.

2—-Kingsbury consistently takes the blame himself, like he did at half-time of the Bills game in response to CBS’s question of what went wrong with the offense three times in the red zone. “it was bad play calling on my part,” Kingsbury said.

But—-

A—-By now, we Cardinals’ fans know that a principal aspect of K2’s modus operandi as a head coach is to fall on his sword to take the blame for failures and to protect his players from scrutiny.

B—-Failed plays aren’t necessarily bad calls, if they are not executed well.

C—-There are so many ways in which a play can fail, starting with one missed block or a penalty or—-and here’s a novel notion: a great play by a defender.

Of course, the irony of second guessing Kliff Kingsbury’s play calling is that he must be dialing up a few decent play calls by virtue of the fact that the Cardinals are #1 in the NFL in yards per game (425.4) with the world champion Chiefs at #2 (409.0)—-providing the Cardinals’ offense with a whopping 83.7 yard improvement per game thus far from last season (#21 @ 341.7).

But—-as we all know by now—-and no one knows and feels this more than Kliff Kingsbury—-assessing play calls and their effectiveness is like assessing a golf scorecard—-because as great as some rounds of golf can be, there is ALWAYS room for improvement. You know—-your 68 sure could have been a 66 if you didn’t miss two 5 foot birdie putts. Dang—-if only...

Coach Kingsbury has been reminding his players, the fans and himself each week that the offense is “still a work in progress” and that it’s only “scratching the surface of its true potential.” Kyler Murray and all of the offensive players agree 100% with this. Every week they lament the “missed opportunities we left on the field.”

Kingsbury’s and his players’ hunger for feeling the need to do more is what’s so encouraging about the direction of the team. The great ones—-always have a thirst for more.

But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson opined: “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

The paradox here is cunning.

For any person to dare to be great—-he or she needs to take a number of measured risks and manifest a special kind of forward thinking that others are highly apt to find unconventional.

The college Air Raid offense is so unconventional in comparison to the standard NFL offenses, that before Kliff Kingsbury ever called one play as an NFL head coach, numerous cabals in the media were already assuring football fans that Kingsbury and his offense would be abject failures. Even the Oakland Raiders in Kingsbury’s second pre-season game made it a point to come out and destroy what they called Kingsbury’s “pretty boy offense.”

But, Kingsbury was eager and ready to take the necessary risks to make his offense a success. The very first was putting the offense in the hands of a rookie 5’10” QB (whom Kingsbury now is very proudly calling 5’9”).

Risks are often going to backfire—-but—-when those who are taking the risks understand why those risks are so essential (in terms of being part of the right formula and system fit), then eventually those risks have the uncanny potential to pay off.

I mentioned on the ROTB podcast during the bye week how Kingsbury’s dialing up of more deep shots downfield, even when missed, could pay hefty dividends for the offense in other areas of their attack. The point is—-whatever a play caller does, the ultimate objective is to get the opposing defense on its heels—-and there is no better way to back a defense off than to plant seeds of doubts in their ability to defend every blade of grass on a 120 yards by 160 foot field.

The odds of plays working—-think about this—-the Cardinals ran 70 plays this past week, while the Bills ran 68. Take 70 and multiply it by 11 and that amounts to 770 individual assignments over the course of the 60 minute game. Now imagine what it takes for each of the 11 players to master the vast majority of those assignments throughout the game, versus one of the more aggressive and well coached defenses in the NFL.

The numbers are mind numbing.

No wonder why there’s always room for improvement—-and therefore, no wonder why there are always ample opportunities for armchair QBs to insist how Kingsbury screwed things up.

Yet, it would be good for armchair QBs to understand where the true blame of a failed play actually belongs.

For example, in the Dolphins’ game, you might recall that after Chase Edmonds ran for 6 yards (his longest run of the day) on a 1st down carry, the next play from the shotgun with Edmonds aligned to Kyler Murray’s left on the short side of the field, Kyler flipped the ball to Edmonds for a “quick toss sweep left”. The Dolphins were on this play like white on rice and they blew it up for a 4 yard loss.

If you recall, Kliff Kingsbury was absolutely livid on the sidelines—-it was pretty easy to read his lips.

Later on, Kingsbury would be the first one to tell you this play was his fault.

But, from the visceral way Kingsbury reacted to the play, it looked like this play was an audible by Kyler Murray—-and it looked like the lineman to the play side didn’t quite get the signal.

The 4 yard loss, set up a 3rd and long pass which went incomplete and forced Kingsbury to punt, mere minutes after thinking this was going to be a sure-fire scoring drive.

Over the past couple of days, numerous NFL pundits have expressed their disdain for Kingsbury’s decision to throw the ball three times in a row up three with 4:29 left on the clock, including CBS’s Charles Davis who called the game. He was on Arizona Sports Radio yesterday insisting that Kingsbury needed to run the ball to at least get the Bills to call a timeout or two.

A couple of hours earlier, during Kliff Kingsbury’s interview, Kingsbury adamantly defended his decision to throw the ball saying that ‘it was by design all along.” This was one fo the rare times when Kingsbury was not willing to concede that he made a mistake.

In my article yesterday, I defended Kingsbury’s decision to pass in that situation because—-look at the lack of success Kingsbury had trying to run the ball in the previous possession, when it was clear that the Bills’ defense was selling out to stop the run:

1st & 10 at ARI 2

  • (6:40 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Drake up the middle to ARZ 7 for 5 yards (M.Hyde).

2nd & 5 at ARI 7

  • (6:04 - 4th) (Shotgun) C.Edmonds up the middle to ARZ 11 for 4 yards (T.Edmunds).

3rd & 1 at ARI 11

  • (5:29 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Murray left end to ARZ 5 for -6 yards (M.Hyde).

4th & 7 at ARI 5

  • (4:47 - 4th) A.Lee punts 47 yards to BUF 48, Center-A.Brewer. A.Roberts to ARZ 42 for 10 yards (D.Foster). PENALTY on BUF-S.Neal, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at ARZ 42.

As we know, the offense has struggled on 3rd and 1s for for the past two weeks versus defenses that stacked the box and the edges to try to take away the run.

This time, Kingsbury knew he would have a very good chance to connect on some downfield passes. The problem was electing to throw short passes versus the stacked box and loaded edges when the Bills were so well trained to get their hands up.

I would be willing to bet that Kyler checked down to short passes on play calls that could have been big strikes downfield. The impulse to play conservatively with the lead is overwhelming at times.

The point is, Kingsbury was trying to get the Bills’ defense back on its heels and induce them to back off—-which, imo, is exactly what the Cardinals needed to do. But, short passes were not the way to do it, for the same reason why short runs weren’t going to do it, because all of the Bills defenders were playing up and getting their hands up and getting quickly to the ball in confined areas..

1st & 10 at ARI 41

  • (4:30 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Murray pass incomplete short left to D.Hopkins.

2nd & 10 at ARI 41

  • (4:25 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Murray pass incomplete short left to D.Hopkins (E.Oliver).

3rd & 10 at ARI 41

  • (4:23 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Murray sacked at ARZ 35 for -6 yards (T.Johnson).

4th & 16 at ARI 35

  • (3:43 - 4th) A.Lee punts 43 yards to BUF 22, Center-A.Brewer. A.Roberts to BUF 22 for no gain (C.Washington).

I firmly believe that Kingsbury’s efforts to expand the 20 yard box that so many of his plays last year were run or thrown into is the main reason why defenses are having a much harder time stopping the Cardinals this year—-and a big reason why the offense is averaging 83.7 more yards per game.

We very possibly would have seen the offense put the game away earlier in the quarter when Larry Fitzgerald was wide open over the middle, but drifted a little too far away from Kyler Murray’s passing lane. This was a play designed to back off the Bills’ defense when they were selling out on the run while desperate to get the ball back.

It’s just so confoundingly odd that the pass to Fitz wound up being an interception. But, it shouldn’t have been a deterrent to try passing downfield again.

There is a general rule that the best play callers abide by—-run the ball when the numbers favor you—-pass the ball when the numbers are stacked versus the run.

Versus the Dolphins, Kingsbury tried like mad to run the ball even though the numbers weren’t in the team’s favor.

We know and understand what Kingsbury wanted to do late in the 4th quarter versus the Dolphins. It backfired—-twice. Not only once to where to cost the team the lead, but twice to where it cost the team from retaking the lead or at least tying the game back up.

This time, Kingsbury was determined to be aggressive and to try to take what the defense was giving him. The next step is to get him and Kyler on the same page in those situations. They are learning and growing from each late game experience—-and once teams understand that Kingsbury and Murray won’t be predictable in late game situations and they are going to take advantage of taking shots downfield when they best present themselves, K2 and K1 are going to find stronger and more creative ways to finish off games.

At times being aggressive might backfire—-and we have to be willing to accept that.

But, as the saying goes—-”don’t play afraid to win.”

That takes the ultimate guts as a play caller.

Which leads us to Kingsbury’s best play call of the game, the Hail Murray Holy Hop.

First of all, Kingsbury could have tried, with 11 seconds left, to throw another 10 yard out pass to get the offense a little closer—-but the thinking here was to take one and possibly two shots (time permitting) at the Hail Murray.

Albert Breer in his MMQB column claimed that the #1 option for Murray on the play was throwing to Andy isabella up the deep middle, thinking that DeAndre Hopkins would draw a crowd.

I think that after the fact, Kingsbury would want everyone to believe that Isabella was the #1 option—-for future reference—-because I believe that the orchestration of this play was carefully designed for Kyler to buy a little time to his left so that he could throw the ball on a straight line to DeAndre Hopkins.

The problem was that D.J. Humphries got beat on the edge and slipped on his block of DE Mario Addison (which D.J. conceded on Arizona Sports Radio yesterday). As designed, Kyler was supposed to have an easier time avoiding the pressure and buying time to his left.

Yet, Mario Addison was able to get his hands on the back of Murray’s hips, but fortunately wasn’t able to get to Murray’s legs to trip him up (another advantage of being 5’9”).

The fact that Justin Pugh pulled over to the left to provide added protection and that Andy Isabella did not run a straight go route and ran toward Hopkins’ direction instead to be a position to catch a tipped pass indicate, at least to me, that this play was absolutely designed for Murray to buy time to his left in order to throw what is—-the shortest distance between two points— a straight line pass to DeAndre Hopkins who had enough time to get to the end zone and “post up.”

And when you think about the design of this play—-a straight line throw has a far better chance of being caught than a diagonal throw along the hypotenuse of a right triangle from the middle of the field—-plus what Kingsbury and Murray understood was that the pass had to have decent air on it for it to be able to drop at the best possible downward angle for Hopkins to go up and high point it.

Simple math will tell you that a diagonal throw would take longer to arrive and therefore give the defense longer time to break the pass up

When you consider the genius of what Kyler did when the play started to break down, by not only managing to get to his left so that he could throw a straight pass downfield, but by twisting his body into a position to release the ball on a straight line while moving left snd fading a little away is extraordinarily phenomenal. You can actually see by Kyler’s release how committed he was to throwing the ball on an accurate straight line with ample air on it—-a miraculous distance of 55 yards.

When we watch the play again, not only should we marvel at Kyler’s sheer athleticism and the mechanics of getting the ball perfectly on track under extreme duress—-but count the number of seconds that Murray has to wait to see on the Jumbotron behind him that Hopkins (with his back gloves inches above the Bills’ white gloves) caught the ball—-and what’s your count? My count is a quick 3 seconds max. That’s how quickly the ball was delivered on the perfect line and top angle.

In the freeze frame here, look at where Kliff Kingsbury is in relation to Kyler on the throw. Look at Kyler’s uncanny body control. You wouldn’t possibly know looking at this frame that Kyler actually had been running full speed to his left before making this throw.

Amidst all of the deserved praise for Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, have any of you heard pundits giving credit to Kliff Kingsbury for this play call and the thinking that went into its design?

I haven’t.

But, one thing we know about Coach Kingsbury, with all of the praise on Murray and Hopkins, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here’s how the game ended on 6 consecutive perfectly called and executed plays:

1st & 10 at ARI 25

  • (0:34 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Murray pass short middle to A.Isabella to ARZ 39 for 14 yards (T.Johnson).
  • (0:27 - 4th) Timeout #2 by ARZ at 00:27.

1st & 10 at ARI 39

  • (0:27 - 4th) K.Murray pass short middle to D.Hopkins to ARZ 48 for 9 yards (T.Edmunds).
  • (0:21 - 4th) Timeout #3 by ARZ at 00:21.

2nd & 1 at ARI 48

  • (0:21 - 4th) (Shotgun) K.Murray pass short right to L.Fitzgerald ran ob at BUF 43 for 9 yards (T.Johnson).
  • (0:11 - 4th) Timeout #2 by BUF at 00:11.

1st & 10 at BUF 43

  • (0:02 - 4th) DeAndre Hopkins Pass From Kyler Murray for 43 Yrds TWO-POINT CONVERSION ATTEMPT. K.Murray rushes kneels. ATTEMPT FAILS
  • Here is yet another brilliant call by Kingsbury, not to kick for the extra point because if the Bills block it and return it, this could tie the game at 32-32.
  • Then the decision to squib the kickoff—-it’s guaranteed to run out the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of the Bills’ top playmakers.

But, even as Vance Joseph said in a pre-game pep talk to his defense a few weeks ago, “I’ make all the mistakes—-you guys go out there and play fast.”

That’s the way our Cardinals’ coaches are—-criticize them all you want—-under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, it’s the players who deserve all of the credit.

But—-be sure of this—-behind the scenes there is a whole e lot of teaching and correcting going on. Like Kliff Kingsbury says, “We are a work in progress.”