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Take the Reins with Both Hands Coach

In the comment section of my post-game article (SF 20 ARI 12: Pasted by Home Guests), since61 asked me this question and so I thought I would share these thoughts with all of you so that you can add your thoughts and answers. Here is his question:

Mitch, what do you mean by “Kliff Kingsbury needs to grasp the reins of this offense and he has to stop trying to make his assistant coaches happy”?

61, from what I understand and/or sense, Steve Keim, after helping Kliff hire an experienced NFL staff, suggested to Kliff that he incorporate NFL offensive concepts into his Texas Tech Air Raid.

I believe that when Kliff’s Air Raid (10 personnel) was slow getting out of the gates last year and Sean Kugler and the OL implored Kliff to play more 12 personnel to make a stronger commitment to the run, that’s when Kliff handed over one of the two reins the offense to Kugler. The running plays are primarily Kugler’s.

Kliff’s offensive assistants have often said how much they appreciate how he respects and incorporates their feedback. There is no question in my mind that Kliff is trying to please all of the coaches and all of the players---but there is only one ball---and the hardest part of trying to please everyone is that, in the process, Kingsbury’s NFL offense has morphed into a ground and pound, dink and dunk, chuck and duck—-which in the game versus the 49ers, didn’t please anyone.

I believe that every DC and HC the Cardinals have played against this season is elated when they see Kyler Murray hand the ball off to Kenyan Drake or Chae Edmonds or when Kliff has Kyler throw RB and WR screens into their stacked boxes. What they fear most is Kyler threatening the length of the field with both his arm and his legs. But, because of the way the offense has morphed and trended, defenses have been able to load up to defend what, the vast majority of the time, is essentially a 20 yard long and 53 1/3 yard wide rectangle of field.

What concerns me most about Steve Keim is that he seems to miss the boat time and time again with regard to drafting players who actually fit the current offense and/or the 34 defense. If he had encouraged Kliff to go with his Air Raid instincts and not be so afraid about bringing a new, wide-open air attack to the NFL, then there would and should be much more of a speed and RAC element to the skill positions. Instead, the speediest WR, Andy isabella, has been inactive for the past 3 weeks and the other WRs aren’t consistently fast enough to put defenses on their heels---nor are they the kind of RAC threats that defenses lose sleep over. The two players they fear are Murray and DeAndre Hopkins (particularly on fades and mesh crossers). Number three is the versatility of RB Chase Edmonds.

Both Isabella and Hakeem Butler made sense before the morphing of the offense, because in college they were highly productive, speedy RAC stars. Instead, Keim brought in master WR technician Jerry Sullivan who has his own ideas about NFL WRs and, by virtue of his pedigree, is always going to be especially tough on rookies. There is a dynamic in the WR coaching room between Sullivan, David Raih and Spencer Whipple that is not clicking---because none of the younger WRs are getting any better or more confident—-and none of them have been given more clearly defined roles. Maybe KeeSean Johnson is starting to find his mojo a little---but he gets so few targets it’s hard for him or anyone to know. In a true Air Raid, by now, he could be one of the stars.

It was symbolic that Kenyan Drake played hardball with Keim on signing a new contract to the point where Keim felt he had to give him the transition tag at an extravagant $8.7M---and then---it’s just as symbolic that Drake spent the off-season adding weight. There is no question, Drake is slower afoot this year. His appeal last year was in hitting the holes fast---but the reason why he put on the weight was knowing how Kugler was going to ground and pound him between the tackles.

Of course, the profound irony here is that David Johnson, once he got his money, did the same thing. He put on weight and subsequently lost the edge he had in quickness that garnered him the $13M a year that Steve Keim gratuitously awarded him in the first place.

In contrast, look at the way Jeff Wilson Jr, ran for the 49ers versus the Cardinals—-like he was shot out of a cannon. He put up 204 total yards on 22 touches. In SF, Kyle Shanahan keeps a stable of fast, explosive RBs---because when one goes out, as Raheem Mostert did last week, another fast, explosive RB takes his place. Plus, they had veterans Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman behind Wilson in Week 16.

Over on the Cardinals’ side, the Cardinals had the slower version of Kenyan Drake (who, by the way has never been considered a lead power RB, not even at Alabama---yet to Drake’s credit he’s been rugged and tough, but one could readily argue that this really isn’t his style of play or style of offense)---then when Chase Edmonds was injured (now two years in a row in a secondary role)---the Cardinals turned to D.J. Foster. Foster, to his credit, seemed to pick up a 1st down on his one touch in the game, but did not get a favorable spot---thus his line reads 1 carry for 0 yards (0.0 ave.).

Keim drafted a RB in Eno Benjamin, but obviously Eno is not a good fit for the current offense—-at least to warrant being activated. So, again, this is case where it appears that Steve Keim didn’t draft the right kind of player for the system. Keim signed Jonathan Ward as a college free agent, whom the coaches have said they like---but even he hasn’t gotten a touch in the offense, not with Foster (a good STs player, but another questionable fit for the system) ahead of him.

Then there is the issue of the OL---they are much more talented as pass protectors than run blockers---and yet the Cardinals are trying to play a steady diet of ground and pound—-which of late has become more of a ground and flounder. Every team for weeks have known how to stuff the basic running plays —- with no perceivable adjustments or improvements from Kugler.

The tight ends---there is one very good run blocker in Maxx Williams---but, for 12 personnel you need two. Darrell Daniels has been far too inconsistent. Dan Arnold is the top receiving TE, but he is currently having trouble pulling passes down from a crowd and holding onto the football on RACs.

The point is—-right now no one really knows where this offense is heading.

This is why I am imploring Kliff Kingsbury, with one regular season game left, to open the dang thing up. Instead of trying to use 4 downs to gain 10 yards---try to use 2 downs to gain 10 yards. Back off the defense by reminding them that the field is 100 yards long —- not 20 yards.

Run the offense the fast and furious way that you envision it, Coach.

Take the reins and run this horse down this backstretch on a furious gallop toward the roses!

It may be too late —- the pattern has been to “keep doing what we do” —- and it seems that there really aren’t many perceivable new wrinkles from week to week (although we are seeing Kyler Murray under center a little more, which is a good thing) —- nor does it seem that Kingsbury and Kugler cater the game plans specifically to each opponent —- or that they try to exploit mismatches when the opponents lose key starters during the game.

What is also mystifying is how conservative and repetitive Kingsbury is as a play caller in continuing to dial up dives and screens that haven’t worked, which often lead to a number of 3rd and shorts and then 4th and shorts (with a number of avoidable penalties sprinkled in) —- and, conversely, how bold and liberal he is at going for it on 4th downs

Kingsbury says he relies on analytics on those 4th down decisions —- but it’s hard to imagine any analytic that would favor Kingsbury going for a 4th and 2 from his own 35 yard line down by 2 points with 9:04 left in the game.

Maybe, at this point, Kingsbury was sick and tired of seeing RB Jeff Wilson gash the Cardinals’ defense. By then Wilson had amassed over 100 yards rushing, and then, right on cue, on the first play following the Cardinals failure to convert the 4th and 2, Wilson bolted 34 yards down to the 1 yard line which led to an easy C.J. Beathard 1 yard TD pass to FB Kyle Juszczyk, because the 49ers know that Vance Jospeh’s defense rarely if ever covers RBs anywhere on the field, let alone in the red zone. After all, Wilson scored their 1st TD of the game on a simple circle pass over the middle that he romped in from 21 yards untouched —- on the very same play that Raheem Mostert took for a 76 yard TD on Week 1 —-again, completely untouched. And, even worse, it was the very same play Joseph had NFL sack leader Chandler Jones try to defend while leaving the middle of the field open (Cover 0 blitz) when the Cardinals were ahead of the 49ers late in the 4th quarter at their crib last year.

At least what Kingsbury has to his credit that Joseph does not is the fact that the veterans on K2’s side of the ball are playing hard and are having productive years. Per PFF: Hopkins (88.9), Humphries (88.0), Beachum (69.5), Williams (67.9), Pugh (67.4)—-whereas the key veteran staters that VJ has been leaning on are floundering: Peterson (54.3), Kirkpatrick (51.8), Hicks (49.0), Campbell (45.8), Blackson (42.6).

When veteran players don’t play hard —- that’s usually a clear indication that they have little regard and respect for the coaches.

This discrepancy is compounded by the fact that the defensive coaches don’t hold the veterans accountable —- otherwise they would be sitting on the end of the bench watching younger, hungrier, more aggressive players try to pick up the slack.

As much as Kliff Kingsbury deserves credit for moving the team in the right direction with Kyler Murray earning a Pro Bowl nod in year 2 and the team at 8-7, and despite some agonizing losses, he still has the team right in the thick of the playoff race in Week 17.

However, Kingsbury is not evoking much clarity or confidence in his redundantly self-effacing and by now, annoyingly opaque press conferences. While, on the one hand, it is a noble gesture to keep falling on his own sword for the players, on the other hand, it has come to the point where he sounds weak and far too awed by the other teams’ mojo.

It’s still very telling that two weeks ago Steve Keim said on Doug and Wolf that going into the Eagles’ game the Cardinals had to “try to match the Eagles’ energy.” That is about as passive-aggressive a statement as one will find from a GM whose team should have all of the incentive in the world to OUTMATCH the opponents’ energy.

One week later, Kingsbury spoke in awe of the 49ers’ “energy” and superior execution.

No wonder.

Plus, after every loss, Kingsbury claims that the team had “a good week of practice” and lauds “the veteran leadership in the locker room.”

How teams perform on a weekly basis has everything to do with their practice intensity and daily habits, where the veteran leaders are expected to lead the way and set the tone.

Right now one has to question both the Cardinals’ practice habits and their veteran leadership.

Thus, this week, of all weeks, in yet another week full of distractions because of New Year’s eve on Thursday and New Year’s day on Friday, the Cardinals’ practice intensity and veteran leadership are of paramount importance.

If there ever was a time for Kliff Kingsbury to grab hold of the reins with both hands, this is the time. Otherwise, what we are apt to hear after the game on Sunday is another reiteration of “you have to give their coaches and players a ton of credit.”

On the other hand, how sweet it would feel to hear Kingsbury say Sunday evening, “you have to give our coaches and players a ton of credit.”

I hope I answered the question to your satisfaction, since61. Thank you, my friend and fellow long-time Birdganger.

P.S. you and Laguna Pat and the other ROTB old timers would be happy to know that a good friend of mine named Paul, after listening to me on the NESN Patriots Podcast here in Boston talk about my love for Larry Wilson and how Larry Wilson, at first sight in 1963, turned me into a life-long Cardinals fan, gave me this for Christmas:

I dang near cried. Paul and his awesome wife, Nicole, drove 40 minutes to come give it to me. Larry Wilson, HOF FS, was a player who lived every single day of his NFL career by this creed:

Thank you, J.J.

Thank you, Larry Wilson.

Thank you, Paul and Nicole.