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Sunday’s game is a must win for Kliff Kingsbury

The second year head coach cannot afford another embarrassing loss to end the season.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I like Kliff Kingsbury.

In fact, back in January of 2019, I really liked the decision to bring him on as the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

At the time, the out of the box thinking by Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim was exactly what this dormant franchise needed. Kingsbury wasn’t a retread that had already failed at the NFL level (Mike McCarthy). He wasn’t a no name coordinator with minimal head coaching experience (Zac Taylor).

This was a guy that had a “brilliant” offensive mind and who had previously served as a head coach in a power five conference. And while his win/loss record was mediocre at best, Kingsbury consistently produced elite offensive production at Texas Tech. So even after his dismissle from his alma matter, his services were still in demand.

That was because of his offensive prowess and his ability to elevate offensive personnel.

So much so that his buddy Sean McVay offered him a gig on his coaching staff for the 2020 postseason. Patriot head coach Bill Belichick, who once upon a time drafted Kingsbury, also had interest. And how can we forget the mighty USC Trojans initially hiring him to be their next OC/(potential) head coach in waiting.

That was, of course, before he was wooed away by the Arizona Cardinals.

Bidwill and Keim attempted to hedge their bet with Kingsbury. They knew, because of the reputation of the Cardinals, that a year could go by and Kingsbury wouldn’t pick up their phone call. The team needed to “buy low” in an attempt to hit it big. Remember, the Cardinals had just come off the 2018 season in which they fielded perhaps the worst offense in modern NFL history.

They were desperate, so I can respect their approach at the time.

And still do.

Fast forward nearly two years and while Kingsbury has shown flashes of excellence with the Cardinals, something is still missing. As we head into week 17 of the NFL season, the majority of Cardinal fans and media alike view Kliff Kingsbury more like an anchor rather than a motor to the team’s success. They see the talent of players like Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, Kenyan Drake etc. and wonder why Kliff isn’t getting more from them.

Outside of Kyler Murray, who has Kliff Kingsbury elevated offensively for this franchise?

Why can someone like Kyle Shanahan produce high level offensive production from the likes of Nick Mullens and Jeff Wilson, and yet Kliff Kingsbury’s intermediate passing “attack” (35 games in) looks completely lost?

His offense, while ranking near the top in many key statistical categories, is still far too reliant on Kyler Murray’s playmaking ability.

Some will argue that the Cardinals have had a promising year two under Kingsbury, considering their 5-10-1 finish a season ago. They have already won three more games in what may very well be the toughest division in pro football. Yet, there’s an underlined feeling of dread as we approach the final Sunday of the regular season. With the playoffs on the line, Kingsbury must put together his finest coaching effort if he hopes to best his buddy McVay and the slumping LA Rams.

There’s a strong likelihood that the Rams will be without starting QB Jared Goff on Sunday, which means Arizona is gifted the chance of punching their post season ticket against yet another backup.

However the Cardinals just lost to third stringer CJ Beathard in perhaps the most uninspiring performance of the season. With the playoffs at stake, Kingsbury was promptly taken to school by Niner coaches Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh. It was an embarrassing effort that was on display for the world to see thanks to Amazon Prime.

Yet by the grace of the “football gods” Kingsbury was gifted another chance to redeem himself thanks to Seattle upending division rival LA. The Cardinals once again control their own destiny and all they have to do is (likely) defeat a quarterback who has never thrown an NFL pass.

It’s hard to describe how much the narrative on Kliff Kingsbury can change with a victory on Sunday. He’d be the first Cardinal head coach to ever defeat Sean McVay. The Cardinals would earn a post season birth for the first time since 2015. The pairing of Kliff and Kyler will have leapfrogged (per the standings) previous Super Bowl combos McVay/Goff and Shanahan/Garaoppolo (at least for a single season). The 2020 season will be deemed as a roaring success while finishing 9-7

No one will remember who was or wasn’t starting; only that the Cardinals overtook a fierce division rival in week 17 to earn a playoff birth.

That’s it. That’s all.

On the flip side, a loss to the Rams (specifically at the hands of yet another backup QB) could be completely demoralizing to Kingsbury’s chances of succeeding in the long run. Finishing 8-8, after starting the season 5-2, would undo much of the good that came from the first half of the year. Any credibility earned by his players could waiver as we enter the offseason.

Serious doubt, from the front office through the locker room, would likely emerge about Kingsbury’s ability to lead a 53 man NFL roster.

In a division that boasts three Super Bowl head coaches, Kingsbury (until proven otherwise) will always be the black sheep of the group. The Cardinals will always be at a coaching disadvantage within their six divisional games.

A loss Sunday would give Kliff Kingsbury a 3-9 record against the NFC West through two seasons.

Let me state clearly that even with a loss, I do not expect the Cardinals to fire Kliff Kingsbury come “Black Monday”. He has shown just enough to a historically patient ownership that this team is headed in the right direction. He has the support of GM Steve Keim and has done good things with Kyler Murray.

However, if the Cardinals were to suffer another embarrassing loss, I would expect major shakeups to Kingsbury’s staff.

Vance Joseph, specifically, could be let go by default although one could argue that the former Bronco head coach has done more with less with his side of the ball (in terms of personnel).

I cannot understate the stakes riding on this game Sunday against the Rams. While I expect Kyler Murray to play, he will likely be somewhat limited given his recent lower body injury suffered against the Niners. That means Kliff Kingsbury needs to unload his bag of tricks and creativity not consistenly seen since 2019.

No more horizontal pass plays. No more slow devleoping misdirection runs.

For the Cardinals to beat what is now the top rated defense in the NFL (Rams), Kingsbury needs to be aggressive with his play calling. The Cardinals need to stretch the field vertically, early and often. Perhaps the team may be best served activating much maligned WR Andy Isabella on Sunday if not for 2-3 deep shots that could catch LA off guard.

Center Mason Cole has struggled mightily over the second half of the season. Would Kingsbury have the guts to move off of Cole in favor of Lamont Gillard ahead of this week’s matchup against Aaron Donald?

Regardless, it’s time for Kliff Kingsbury to empty the offensive “clip” and go back to calling plays like he’s got nothing to lose.

His NFL head coaching career, long term, may depend on it.