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Not rookies anymore: What to expect from Kliff and Kyler in Year 2

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Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray both enter their second season in the NFL in 2020. Let’s take a look at some previous rookie coach/QB duos to figure out what we can expect from the Cardinals this season.

NFL: Preseason-Los Angeles Chargers at Arizona Cardinals
What does Year 2 hold for Kliff and Kyler?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the schedule release earlier this month, the season predictions are starting to roll in. What do local and national analysts and observers think about Kliff Kingsbury, Kyler Murray, and the Cardinals’ chances in 2020?

So most have us between 7 and 9 wins. But there are also a lot of fans who have us in the 10-11 range (or even 12-13!). That seems like a lot to ask for a team that is just one season removed from a 3-13 record and is going into Year 2 of a rebuild with a 2nd-year head coach and QB.

Can this team flirt with double-digit wins in 2020? How much improvement can we expect in Year 2 of the Kliff and Kyler show? Let’s see what history has to say about this team’s chances.

Previous Rookie Coach/QB Duos

Last offseason, I wrote a two-part article about the nine instances of a team starting Week 1 with a rookie head coach and QB. How did those teams fare? Here’s a quick refresher.

1st-Year Head Coach/Rookie QB Duos (since 2000)

Year Team Coach QB Previous Record 1st-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? #1 Pick?
Year Team Coach QB Previous Record 1st-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? #1 Pick?
2008 Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith Matt Ryan 4-12 11-5 7 Y Y
2008 Baltimore Ravens John Harbaugh Joe Flacco 5-11 11-5 6 Y N
2009 Detroit Lions Jim Schwartz Matthew Stafford 0-16 2-14 2 N Y
2009 New York Jets Rex Ryan Mark Sanchez 9-7 9-7 0 Y N
2011 Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera Cam Newton 2-14 6-10 4 N Y
2012 Miami Dolphins Joe Philbin Ryan Tannehill 6-10 7-9 1 N N
2012 Indianapolis Colts Chuck Pagano Andrew Luck 2-14 11-5 9 Y Y
2013 Buffalo Bills Doug Marrone E.J. Manuel 6-10 6-10 0 N N
2016 Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson Carson Wentz 7-9 7-9 0 N N
Total 41-103 (0.285) 70-74 (0.486) 3.2 W/yr

The average team in the table above was 5-11 (0.285) before the rookie coach/QB took over, and they were about an 8-8 (0.486) team on average in Year 1, a 3-game improvement. How does that compare to what the Cardinals did last year? The 2018 Cardinals were 3-13, and they improved to 5-10-1 with Kliff and Kyler running the show in 2019—a 2.5-game improvement, which is in line with what previous teams, if a bit short (ties are weird).

So how did these teams do in Year 2 with their coach/QB duo? Let’s find out.

1st-Year Head Coach/Rookie QB Duos – Year 2

Year Team Coach QB 1st-Year Record 2nd-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? #1 Pick?
Year Team Coach QB 1st-Year Record 2nd-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? #1 Pick?
2009 Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith Matt Ryan 11-5 9-7 -2 N Y
2009 Baltimore Ravens John Harbaugh Joe Flacco 11-5 9-7 -2 Y N
2010 Detroit Lions Jim Schwartz Matthew Stafford 2-14 6-10 4 N Y
2010 New York Jets Rex Ryan Mark Sanchez 9-7 11-5 2 Y N
2012 Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera Cam Newton 6-10 7-9 1 N Y
2013 Miami Dolphins Joe Philbin Ryan Tannehill 7-9 7-9 0 N N
2013 Indianapolis Colts Chuck Pagano Andrew Luck 11-5 11-5 0 Y Y
2014 Buffalo Bills Doug Marrone E.J. Manuel 6-10 9-7 3 N N
2017 Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson Carson Wentz 7-9 13-3 4 Y N
Total 70-74 (0.486) 82-62 (0.569) 1.1 W/yr

These teams went from 8-8 (0.486) on average to about 9-7 (0.569)—a modest 1-game improvement. That would put the Cardinals at 6-9-1 this season. Let’s assume no ties and round up a bit—7-9. That’s on the low end of the predictions we’ve seen so far and right where Mike Clay has us. Given this precedent, it might not be wise to expect a 3-4 game improvement in Year 2—or to get to double-digit wins and make the playoffs.

Speaking of playoffs, four of these teams made the playoffs. Of those four, the Harbaugh/Flacco Ravens, Ryan/Sanchez Jets, and Super Bowl–winning Pederson/Wentz Eagles boasted a top-5 scoring defense—something the 2020 Cardinals are almost certainly going to lack. The Pagano/Luck Colts team—who also made the playoffs the previous year—were above average on both offense and defense. That is to say, each team had a seemingly more complete roster than the Cardinals do right now. So I’m not sure playoffs are in the, ahem, cards for Kliff and Kyler in 2020.

But what about Year 3? Let’s see how each of these teams did in their third season with their coach/QB duo.

1st-Year Head Coach/Rookie QB Duos – Year 3

Year Team Coach QB 2nd-Year Record 3rd-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? #1 Pick?
Year Team Coach QB 2nd-Year Record 3rd-Year Record Win Differential Playoffs? #1 Pick?
2010 Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith Matt Ryan 9-7 13-3 4 Y Y
2010 Baltimore Ravens John Harbaugh Joe Flacco 9-7 12-4 3 Y N
2011 Detroit Lions Jim Schwartz Matthew Stafford 6-10 10-6 4 Y Y
2011 New York Jets Rex Ryan Mark Sanchez 11-5 11-5 0 N N
2013 Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera Cam Newton 7-9 12-4 5 Y Y
2014 Miami Dolphins Joe Philbin Ryan Tannehill 7-9 8-8 1 N N
2014 Indianapolis Colts Chuck Pagano Andrew Luck 11-5 11-5 0 Y Y
2015 Buffalo Bills* Doug Marrone E.J. Manuel 9-7 9-7 0 N N
2018 Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson Carson Wentz 13-3 9-7 -4 Y N
Total 82-62 (0.569) 95-49 (0.660) 1.3 W/yr
* The Marrone/Manuel duo came apart in Buffalo after the 2014 season. Marrone bizarrely resigned (to be replaced by Rex Ryan), while Manuel played sparingly after being replaced by Tyrod Taylor.

Here’s where we see things start to pay off. These teams went from an average record of 9-7 (0.569) in Year 2 all the way up to 11-5 (0.660) in Year 3, with each team finishing .500 or better. That’s an average improvement of 6 games from Year 1 to Year 3, which would put next season’s Cardinals right at 9-7 and, likely, in the thick of the playoff chase, just like 6/9 of these teams—and with the Sanchize Jets just missing out at 11-5. These teams won divisions, challenged for MVPs, made playoff runs. Let’s hope the Cardinals can follow in their footsteps next season.

Final Thoughts

So what can we take away from this dive through the history books? The positive trajectory of these teams is heartening—from an average of 5 wins in Year 1 to 11 wins by Year 3. As is the fact that two of these teams won Super Bowls (the Eagles and Ravens a few years later), while the Panthers and Falcons (albeit with a different coach) both eventually made it to the big game. The Jets and Colts made conference title games in this timeframe, while the Lions made it to the Wild Card round in Year 3. Only the consistently moribund Dolphins and Bills failed to make the postseason, stymied as always by the Patriots.

These duos have also won plenty of hardware—I count two league MVPs (and Wentz would have won a third if he didn’t get hurt), four Coach of the Year wins, two Lombardi trophies, and one Super Bowl MVP, as well as a handful of other awards (OROY, Comeback Player of the Year, etc.). Kyler already has the OROY. Can he and Kliff add to this pile of hardware in the coming seasons?

Looking at the individual teams, it’s tough to tell when (if) the biggest improvement will come. Four teams (the Falcons, Ravens, Dolphins, and Colts) all had their biggest jump in Year 1. Four had theirs in Year 2 (the Lions, Jets, Bills, and Eagles), with just one in Year 3 (the Panthers, although the Lions also improved another four games).

And some of these cases are more instructive than others. You can probably throw out the Dolphins and Bills duos—both QBs were taken much later in the first round than Kyler was, and neither ever became a franchise QB (although the Titans are currently paying Tannehill like one).

The Ravens and Colts both had playoff-caliber rosters when their duos came aboard—very much not the case with the Cardinals. And the Jets and Eagles had powerhouse defenses, which the Redbirds decidedly do not.

That leaves three teams who share notable similarities with the Cardinals—the Falcons, Lions, and Panthers, all of whom were 4-12 or worse the year before they got their coach/QB duo—a similar level of ineptitude as the 2018 Cardinals (3-13). But the Falcons made their big jump in Year 1, improving by an incredible 9 wins. Kliff and Kyler weren’t able to work that kind of magic last year.

That leaves the Lions and Panthers, whose stories are eerily similar to the Cardinals—both got the #1 pick after absolutely disastrous seasons (0-16 for the Lions, 2-14 for the Panthers) and began their rebuild with a rookie coach and #1 overall pick QB. Neither made the playoffs in Year 2—their rosters were in too bad a shape for that—but both made the playoffs in Year 3.

I think the Kliff and Kyler Cardinals will take a similar trajectory. Making the playoffs this year would be a pleasant surprise, but I’m not going to hold my breath. But in 2021, playoffs shouldn’t be a hope—playoffs should be the expectation.