I woke up yesterday morning and clicked on a recent article penned by an Arizona radio show host about his skepticism of the Cardinals’ draft selections and Steve Keim’s edict to the coaches that new MIKE LB Zaven Collins and new slot WR Rondale Moore should play and play often this season.
Well, bah freaking humbug.
There were times last season where the Cardinals failed to make swift-enough in-game adjustments or apt weekly changes to their personnel, but, after the season, which Kliff Kingsbury said “did not turn out anything like the way we expected”, everything about last season’s disappointments is still sticking in the GM’s and HC’s craws.
That’s a very good thing.
Upon reflection and a thoroughly honest assessment of what has been holding the team and the organization back, Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury have made a number of organizational adjustments in order to take the team in a whole new and more exciting direction.
The Cardinals’ off-season adjustments started with the coaching staff. Thus, today I would like to offer my thoughts and some hunches as to what the dynamics are within Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching staff in this his 3td season as head coach.
2021 Coaching Changes/Thoughts
- QB Coach Tom Clements retired. While Brett Favre’s and Aaron Rodgers’ former QB coach and OC may have been a very positive and knowledgeable presence in the meetings and practices on a daily basis, it’s mind-boggling as to why he wasn’t on the sidelines conducting coverage studies on tablets with Kyler Murray between series, particularly in light of the fact that the HC/OC was too busy coaching the games and didn't have much time to spend with his QB between series.
- To my recollection, as a fan, I never felt Clements’ presence. I don't recall him ever being interviewed by the media —- in fact, when several media members were pounding on the table for Kingsbury to hire an experience NFL OC, it was curious that they didn’t seem to know that Kingsbury already had one on his staff in Tom Clements.
- Perhaps, Clements was up in the booth on game days and lending his insights to Kliff via the headset. But, one thing Clements didn’t appear to be doing during the games was calling down to Kyler Murray —- how often did you see Kyler Murray wearing a headset on the sidelines between series?
- My theory is —- having experienced this as a high school QB and high school head coach —- Kyler was taught how to play football by his dad Kevin. Kevin is a former college QB at Texas A&M who for years has been a high school coach and QB clinician. I think that it is a good bet that Kevin has always suggested to Kyler that he listen to one voice, which typically would be his head coach or offensive coordinator.
- In Arizona, Kliff Kingsbury is both. He is the one voice, and was hired to be the one voice. You see —- everyone is a armchair QB, every coach has opinions, every player has suggestions —- even as a high school QB who was the passing QB on a wishbone team, which meant that I only got in the games on third and longs or late in lopsided contests where we were losing and needed to rally, but for those of you who have played QB, you know how everyone wants to get in your ear. Even parents after the game want to offer their opinions and insights. It gets insane.
- It wouldn’t surprise me if Kyler, who likely has always embraced and heeded his dad’s suggestion that he only listen to one voice, asked Kliff to be his one voice, just as Lincoln Riley was his one voice at Oklahoma. If that is the case, then it wouldn’t surprise me if a number of coaches, especially the QB coach Tom Clements, may have been turned off by this.
- There have been rumors that Larry Fitzgerald was frustrated that Kyler wasn’t all that eager to listen to his advice. But, that too would fall in line with the “one voice” theory. Kyler doesn’t mean to insult or alienate anyone, especially a legendary Hall of Fame caliber WR—- but it seems that the “one voice” philosophy has become so ingrained in him by now that he cannot change.
- Honestly, i do not think that’s a bad thing at all. I think the “one voice” philosophy is very wise, particularly for Kyler Murray.
- Kyler is the ultimate gamester on the football field, at the chessboard and behind his video game screens. He relishes the control and the autonomy —- and as such he has evolved as an extraordinary escape artist, who more often than not finds creative way to adapt and adjust to new challenges.
- As a high school head coach I cannot tell you the number of times I had to ask parents to stop coaching their kids before, during and after games. And when I did, my plea was that the best scenario for the player and the team is that their son listen to one voice so as not to get addled by mixed messages.
- Some fans and media personas were highly critical of Kyler’s play last season, but, his career path thus far has been impressive. After being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, he followed that up by passing for close to 4,000 yards and 26 TD while rushing for over 800 yards and 11 TDs in his sophomore season. His numbers are even more impressive when one considers the injury to his throwing shoulder. Kyler conceded the injury forced him to take a longer than normal windup and thus slowed his delivery.
- All one has to do is look back at his second half performance versus Alabama in the 2018 FBS semi-finals. In the first half, it was clear that Kyler was having a very difficult time adjusting to Alabama’s speed and constant pressure to the point of being overwhelmed. But, he never succumbed to it. He found a way to fight back in that second half. That innate ability, creativity and resiliency says all one needs to know about Kyler Murray as a competitor.
- Cam Turner is now the QB coach. He was Tom Clements’ assistant QB coach the past two years. In addition, Cam was an assistant QB coach for Cam Newton when he was with the Panthers. It appears that he and Kyler have a good relationship.
- WR Coach David Raih was relieved of his duties and was quickly appointed OC at Vanderbilt. Curiously, Raih was the one coach on Kliff’s staff whom Kliff had coached with before (Kliff hired him at Texas Tech) and Raih was the coach always right by Kliff’s side on the sidelines. The letting go of David Raih, which couldn't have been easy for Kliff, was essentially a removal of the only offensive coach on Kliff’s staff who has ties to the Air Raid offense.
- But the truth is, the younger WRs (Kirk, Sherfield, Isabella and Johnson) weren’t developing as quickly as was hoped and expected. Kliff recently said that he feels confident that the younger WRs are going to make strong contributions when called on this season, especially now that Rondale Moore has been thrown in to mix.
- Perhaps there was a philosophical coaching difference between Raih and veteran offensive assistant Jerry Sullivan, whose specialty has always been coaching WRs. Seeing as it appears that Sullivan is still on the staff, why then wasn’t he appointed WR coach?
- Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury turned instead to former Jets’ WRC and long-time NFL star Shawn Jefferson. Jefferson now inherits a WR unit that includes DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, KeeSean Johnson and Rondale Moore.
- On a side note, it was interesting to see that with Terrace Marshall still on the board at #49, the Cardinals selected Rondale Moore instead. Jerry Sullivan had coached Terrace Marshall at LSU when Marshall was a freshman. Obviously, Rondale Moore is a “Z” or ‘F” WR and Marshall is more of an “X” or “Y” WR. Moore is faster (4.29), but only by a shade, because Marshall wowed the scouts when he ran a 4.38 at his pro day. Curious too that Marshall’s production the last two years (94 catches for 1,402 yards, 14.2 ave and 23 TDs —- plus the game-sealing 24 yard TD catch from Joe Burrow in LSU’s 42-25 win over Clemson in the 2019 FBS Championship Game) was far more impressive than the oft-injured Moore’s (64 catches for 657 yards, 10.3 ave, 2 TDs) production over the past two seasons.
- Now, there’s no denying Rondale Moore’s prolific talent and enormous potential (and, for that matter, who the more explosive WR is), but it is curious that Jerry Sullivan, who correctly proclaimed that Justin Jefferson would be the best WR in the 2020 draft, wasn’t more influential in convincing the Cardinals to take Terrace Marshall, who would already have a leg up seeing as he has already had a year of Jerry Sullivan’s training under his belt.
- Arguably the most significant coaching change the Cardinals made this off-season was promoting OLC Sean Kugler to running game coordinator. Of all the positions coaches on Kliff Kingsbury’s staff, one could easily argue that Sean Kugler has had the most positive and profound impact.
- In fairly short order, Kugler has turned a once woeful offensive line into a team strength, while maintaining a commendable level of continuity . Furthermore, it should be noted that Kugler, his assistant Brian Natkin and the big fellas in their room have done wonders for the morale of the team by hosting their weekly entertainment shows.
- Coming into this off-season, it appeared that the Cardinals top two free agent priorities on offense were signing the Packers’ All Pro C Corey Linsley and Pro Bowl RB Aaron Jones (who played for Kugler at UTEP) to help elevate the Cardinals’ rushing attack. While the Cardinals made a huge push to sign both players, they were outbid by the Chargers for Linsley and by the Packers for Jones.
- However, the Cardinals acted quickly in trading for All Pro C Rodney Hudson, trading Mason Cole to the Vikings for a 6th round pick (CB Tay Gowan, UCF) and then signing power one-time Pro Bowl RB James Conner (which reunites him from their PIT days with the Cardinals’ RBC James Saxon).
- It should be highlighted that, thanks to Sean Kugler’s influence, the team was able to convince starting LG Justin Pugh to agree to a salary reduction (coming off what Steve Keim described as “Pugh’s best season as a Cardinal”) and they were able to re-sign starting RT Kelvin Beachum to a two year deal. Plus, Kugler was able to add a potential starting veteran RG when they signed Brian Winters (BUF) in free agency (who played next to Beachum with the Jets), while at the same time re-signing swing C/G Max Garcia. Thus, despite the early setbacks of not being able to sign Corey Linsley and Aaron Jones, Sean Kugler, as running game coordinator, was able to get all his ducks in a row very handsomely prior to the draft.
- Vance Joseph was able to retain all of his defensive assistants. The assistant who perhaps was most vulnerable was CBC Greg Williams. The Cardinals’ CB play the past two years has been highly inconsistent and perturbingly penalty-prone. It’s interesting that Vance Joseph was able to retain Greg Williams (who served as Chuck Pagano’s CBC in 2016 with the Colts and Vance Joseph’s CB coach in 2018 in this last year as HC of the Broncos). I say interesting because Kliff wasn’t able to retain David Raih (who had a Pro Bowler in his unit) while Vance was able to retain arguably the assistant coach in charge of the weakest, most mistake-prone, under-achieving unit on the entire team.
- Vance Joseph is a defensive backs coach by trade and he also brought DBC Marcus Robertson to Arizona with him from the Broncos, thus the CBs are actually being coached by committee.
- Marcus Robertson and Greg Williams are largely responsible for the Cardinals trading up into the 4th round for Marcus Wilson of Florida and for drafting Tay Gowan of UCF in the 6th round, as the coaches were on hand for Wilson’s and Gowan’s pro days, where both prospects shined, with Wilson running a 4.37 40 , posting 43.5” vertical, 4.13 shuttle and 6.80 3 cone, and Gowan running a 4.4 40, 35.5” vertical, 4.27 shuttle and 6.86 3 cone.
- Robertson and Williams now have the challenge of coaching Marcus Wilson to become disciplined in his technique and in his on-the-field behavior. They also have the challenge of integrating Tay Gowan “Gowan Island” as a key component in their highly preferred press coverage schemes. Gowan excelled in press coverage in the JUCO ranks and during his one year at UCF. His good length, playing strength and long arms are assets in disrupting the timing between his WR and the QB.
- The other one of Vance Joseph’s assistants who may have been a little vulnerable is Billy Davis, the inside linebackers coach. Davis was a catalyst in getting Jordan Hicks to sign as a free agent in 2019, as Davis was Hicks’ LBC in PHI when Hicks was a rookie. As we saw last year, Davis put the vast majority of his eggs in Hicks’ and De’Vondre Campbell’s baskets —- yet, neither Hicks (50.4) nor Campbell (49.0) played at a consistently high level, which made it all the more frustrating as to why Davis and Joseph weren’t playing Isaiah Simmons (59.9) and Tanner Vallejo (67.0) more, particularly after they were star ILB tandem during the team’s most impressive win of the season over the Seahawks on national TV.
- Bob McManaman was miffed as to why the Cardinals would draft yet another LB in R1 and give up so quickly on Hicks, whom Bobby Mac says, “is still in his prime and was at the top of the league the last two years in tackles.” The problem hasn't been the number of tackles that Hicks has made, the problem is where he makes the vast majority of them, 7-8 yards from the line of scrimmage and a a number more because of being behind consistently in pass coverage. For whatever reason, Hicks has not shown a passion to don the role as an attacking downhill ILB who meets the RB in the hole. If one watches Zaven Collins’ game tapes, his downhill attack style from the MIKE jumps right out at you. That, and Collins’ ability to be a sticky playmaker on the ball in pass coverage. Athletically and instinctually, Zaven Collins appears made to order to play a 3-down MIKE. Add Zaven’s natural leadership abilities to the equation as well.
- One of the most interesting adjustments the Cardinals are going to make this year is in their intention to plug and play both Zaven Collins at MIKE and Rondale Moore at slot WR. Just to make sure that Vance Joseph, Billy Davis and Shawn Jefferson got the message loud and clear, Steve Keim and Kliff Kingsbury were emphatic about this year’s intentions!
- A quick note about defensive line coach Brenston Buckner, it looked to me like Buck has made an impression on Vance Joseph to where Joseph is now encouraging the defensive interior to play upfield attack style instead of the old stack, read and shed philosophy. This was manifested late in the season by the impressive way in which Zach Allen started showing up on a regular basis in opponents’ backfields. When have Cardinals fans ever seen an 11 tackle, 1 sack, 1 pass breakup performance from a player on the defensive interior? Plus, look at the production Vance and Buck were getting from Dennis Gardeck as an inside pass rusher. Imagine then adding J.J. Watt to this menu!
- This off-season has been an auspicious one for Vance Joseph as he can now build the 2021 defense around the leadership of Budda Baker, J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones. The young long, athletic tandem of Zaven Collins at MIKE and Isaiah Simmons at WILL has exciting promise (especially when supported by the prolific safety tandem of Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson) and could turn a team weakness up the middle into a stunning team strength. One can expect Steve Keim to sign one more veteran CB to join Malcolm Butler and Byron Murphy (and Robert Alford, if healthy), so as to give Vance Jospeh and his assistants time to develop the talented CB duo of Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan.
- It has been an outstanding off-season for Assistant HC, STC Jeff Rodgers who was able to retain all but one (Trent Sherfield) of his top ST aces in captain Dennis Gardeck, Zeke Turner, Charles Washington, Tanner Vallejo, Chris Banjo and Darrell Daniels. In addition, he was able to re-sign P Andy Lee and sign Matt Prater the plum kicker in free agency Matt Prater made the Pro Bowl when Rodgers was coaching him in DEN. Plus, the addition of Rondale Moore as a return man brings new excitement and potential answers to what has been the weakest units on Rodgers’ STs.
- As for Kliff Kingsbury heading into his 3rd year as head coach, his role has become more and more defined over the past two seasons. His top priority is developing Kyler Murray. Kliff is the “one voice” for Kyler.
- Kyler has offered strong praise and appreciation for Kliff’s coaching.
- As by now you probably know, it has been my belief all along that Michael Bidwill called former BAL and NYG GM Ernie Accorsi to initially ask “The QB Guy” (a.k.a. Accorsi) whether he believed that Kyler Murray could be an outstanding pro. When Accorsi was very enthusiastic, then the question was what coach could be the best fit for Kyler Murray and that’s where Kliff Kingsbury made a lot of sense, particularly in light of how Kliff developed 2019 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes while at Texas Tech and Kliff’s familiarity with Kyler and his family.
- I reiterate this theory because it never made sense to me that Kingsbury was the right fit for Josh Rosen. I had also heard some rumblings about there being concerns about Rosen within the front office, concerns that originated during Josh’s rookie training camp and continued into the season.
- Kliff being the best for for Kyler is the first part, but the second part which has been evolving before our eyes is that the Cardinals did not hire Kliff Kingsbury with the full intention of him running an Air Raid college-style offense. That much should be clear by now. From day one, Steve Keim has been advising Kliff to lean on a veteran NFL staff that could help him incorporate a standard number of time-proven NFL plays and philosophies into his offense. Kliff has not only complied with Keim’s suggestions, he has embraced them.
- With Sean Kugler emerging as the running game coordinator, that takes a little more pressure off of Kingsbury and it affords him more time in practice and in game preps to devote to furthering Kyler Murray’s development.
- As long as Kyler Murray keeps developing as the team’s franchise QB, Kliff Kingsbury will be the head coach.
- Another key aspect of Kingsbury’s coaching philosophy that endears him to Michael Bidwill is Kingsbury’s willingness to protect and support his players, by falling on the sword for them after tough losses.
- This week I had a fantastic discussion about Kingsbury’s penchant for taking the blame for the team’s failures with Chris Medina (@chrismedina).
Chris, every young NFL QB struggles w/ reads & going through progressions, Just acclimating to speed of NFL pass rushes is difficult enough. Then, when they go up against coaches like Belichick who know how to confuse even Peyton Manning in his prime, it's tough and takes time.— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) May 3, 2021
That’s not what i said, Walter. I think it was unfair for everyone to assume and blame everything on Kliff and nobody to acknowledge other possibilities.— Chris Medina (@chrismedina) May 3, 2021
Chris makes a great point. He’s absolutely correct. It is unfair. Yet...
What you’re saying is that it’s a lose/lose. You think Kliff should be covering for Kyler but also think he brings it on himself/deserves it for doing so?— Chris Medina (@chrismedina) May 4, 2021
Not sure that's a lose-lose. Kliff's top priority is to protect his players. It's one reason why players like playing for him. He doesn't call them "failures in progress." It's gutsy of Kliff to take the heat. Thus, per the wise adage: praise publicly, criticize privately.— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) May 4, 2021
Kliff learned how to protect his players from the NFL coach who drafted him: Bill Belichick. Bill says the exact same things after losses ---he praises the other team for "making more plays" and always says, "we need to coach better." To your Q: expects yes, deserves yes.— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) May 4, 2021
For sure, Chris. Kliff's young and unproven. But, Bill Belichick struggled early on (got fired as HC of CLE), when he was young and unproven. What I loved hearing is Kyler's, Budda's, D.J.'s and J.J. Watt's praise for Kliff. The word is spreading among NFL players.— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) May 4, 2021
- Thank you Chris Medina! Much respect to you, Birdganger!
- Make no mistake about it, Kliff Kingsbury is very much appreciated and liked by the Cardinals’ players. They understand the gutsy sacrifices he is making in their behalf. They also like the fact that he listens to them and is willing to take suggestions.
- The players also like playing for Vance Joseph. If J.J. Watt and Budda Baker are big fans of Vance’s, that’s very encouraging.
- To sum up the current status of the Cardinals coaches amongst the players, captain D.J. Humphries said it best after the season when some fans (and media personas) were clamoring for Kliff Kingsbury to be fired:
“We came light years from having the number one pick and having 3 wins to being 8-8. That happened with Kliff as our head coach. Those fans that have those opinions, I don't want to get enamored talking to those guys at all, because if you’re not with us, you are against us.”
- These are my thoughts and hunches about the Cardinals’ coaching staff.
- I am very interested to hear yours.