Recently, while conversing with a Cardinals’ fan on Twitter about Kyler Murray, the fan tweeted, “Murray is the real deal, but Kingsbury is garbage.”
In early December last year, despite the Cardinals being in the thick of the playoff hunt, some in the Arizona media were campaigning for the Cardinals to hire “an experienced offensive coordinator” who would be an upgrade to Kliff Kingsbury as a play caller.
As Cardinals’ players, media and fans know very well by now, when the Cardinals lose, Kliff Kingsbury is the first to blame himself. How often does he say, even following big wins, “we left a lot of plays out there.”
Kingsbury and his QB Kyler Murray are much like never-satisfied golfers —- even when they shoot a 67, well, dang, it could have been a 63.
In light of Kingsbury’s own fastidious introspection and his willingness to shoulder the blame for the Cardinals’ shortcomings, he has made it easy for armchair QBs and Lazy-Boy OCs to question his calls on a consistent basis.
Before I provide you with some critical data that would shed a light on how promising Kliff Kingsbury is as an NFL play caller, if you have never called plays in a football before, allow me to elaborate on how challenging it is to call plays that work in the games more than half the time.
Before I became a high school head coach who called the plays on game days, I was an offensive assistant at Avon Old Farms school (outside of Hartford, CT) under iconic head coach Kevin Driscoll.
We had very good teams at Avon and we could not only recruit underclassmen, but by our league rules, we could offer full scholarships to three post-graduate student/athletes.
Year after year, we had a host of very talented players and typically our three PGs were men amongst boys.
What the PGs told me time and time again is that they had never seen a head coach prepare them so well for games. Kevin Driscoll’s philosophy was to pick out eight key plays from the playbook that he intended to call with regularity in that week’s game.
For three straight days, Coach Driscoll would run each of the eight plays over and over and over (playing under a “thud” tackling rule —- which is a modified two-hand touch, bear hug approach) and ask the defensive coordinator to throw the kitchen sink at each play by giving a different look, coverage and blitz call.
Driscoll’s philosophy was so successful that he would often run the same play in a game three times in a row or more —- until the defense had come up with a way to stop it.
The thing is —- by practicing the play versus every type of defensive front, coverage and blitz package, there were no surprises. And in the process, for any of you have ever played offensive line, the standard blocking priorities of “playside-gap, head-up, backside-gap” were so engrained in the linemen that they rarely messed up.
Play design and play calling is an art that is carefully crafted during practices day-in and day-out.
You can call the perfect play at the perfect time and if one of your 11 players screws up, the play can blow up in your face and make the play caller look like a raving idiot.
Conversely, the same play well executed can make the play caller look like a genius.
My team at The Rivers School in Weston MA once lost a game when on a key 4th and 2 late in the 4th quarter, we ran a perfectly timed screen pass that would have likely been an easy walk-in TD, but the RB took a peek at the defense while the ball was in the air and of course he dropped the pass. A parent in the stands cried out, “What kind of play call is that? Why the hell didn’t you run the ball?”
Funny, but that same parent was jumping for joy two weeks later when that same screen pass was caught this time and the linemen made three precision blocks and our RB galloped for a 75 yard game-winning TD.
When Kliff Kingsbury and coaches tell us post-game that they have to look at the tape to be able to comment accurately on why certain plays failed —- it’s amazing what you see when you go to the tape. So often, it is one player who messed up his assignment. Sometimes two. And against good teams all 11 players have to click.
One of the biggest challenges of play-calling is getting the plays to the huddle on time. So often after calling a play, you will see that the defense is lined up in the perfect formation to stop the play you called —- which then behooves you to have your QB be well versed enough to call a pre-snap audible —- and even then, after hearing the audible, the more savvy defensive coordinators will then shift their formations to counter for it.
Classic chess match —- and the old cat and mouse.
This is why so many college offenses these days are no huddle offenses where the coaches see the defensive formations and then make the play calls from the sidelines. It is very difficult to have to count on the QBs to make the right audibles.
As much as Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray have created a good understanding about their audibles, we have seen Kliff’s frustration on numerous occasions when Kyler’s audible is not the right call —-like audibling into a WR bubble screen on 3rd and 7 against a fairly stacked box.
If the media and fans knew what the right choices were, you might be amazed at how correct Kliff Kingsbury is the vast majority of the time. But, ultimately, when the plays fail, the media and fans will blame Kliff —- which Kliff then readily accepts post-game.
The other huge challenge in play calling is delivering perfect timing, particularly on passing plays. Many media and fans seem ready to give up on WR Andy Isabella, but when you watch how he creates separation off his breaks and how often Kyler’s passes to him are a second too late, you can see that such misfires are exactly what Kliff and Kyler talk about when they say post-game that “we left a lot of plays out there.”
Syncing up perfect timing versus the speed of NFL defenses within the myriad of mixed coverages takes hundreds of reps for young QBs and their receivers to develop. If we are going to fairly assess Kliff and Kyler and the offense, then we need to understand the maturity process and how long it takes.
All of this said, when you take a look at the league-wide offensive stats, you will see that in year two of his and Kyler Murray’s tenure, Kliff Kingsbury is putting up numbers that place him among the best play-callers in the NFL.
One of the stats that I always look at first when it come to play-calling is “average yards per play.” That stat typically tells you whether the play calls are working more often than not.
2020 —- The Cardinals averaged 5.76 yards per play, which was 13th in the NFL a shade behind the Seahawks (12th) who also averaged 5.78 yards per play and two spot ahead of the 49ers (15th) who averaged 5.74 yards per play. The Rams under Sean McVay last year averaged 5.5 yards per play (19th).
2020 —- The Cardinals were 6th in the NFL in total yards per game at 384.6, the highest total in the NFC West —- and in NFL only behind the Chiefs, Packers, Vikings, Bills and Titans.
2020 —- The Cardinals were 3rd in the NFL in plays per game at 67.7, best in NFC West and only behind the Chargers and Cowboys. This stat delights Kliff Kingsbury because it speaks to moving the chains at a brisk tempo—- and he would tell us that the goal is to be 1st in offensive plays per game in 2021.
2020 —-The Cardinals were 4th in the NFL in first downs per game at 23.8, best in the NFC West and only behind the Chiefs, Bills and Vikings.
But here is what Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray know is the key improvement area:
2002 —- The Cardinals were 14th in points per game at 25.6, which was 2nd in the NFC West behind the Seahawks at 28.2 (7th) and ahead pf the 49ers at 23.5 (21st) and the Rams at 23.3 (22nd).
How can the Cardinals be 6th in total yards and yet 14th in points per game? Yup —- a combination of drives ending in penalties, turnovers, occasionally dropped passes and missed FGs. That’s how. Sure, Kliff Kingsbury accepts the blame for all of this, but the Cardinals need to count on the professionalism of the players this season in order to light up the scoreboard more often in 2021. It certainly helps to have an All-Pro C in Rodney Hudson to lead the charge.
Note: Even though we know the Cardinals “left a lot of plays out there”, to be 14th in the NFL is points per game at 25.6 two years after being 32nd in the NFL at 14.1 is a praise-worthy achievement.
Note: The Cardinals in Kliff Kingsbury’s and Kyler Murray’s rookie season in 2019 were 17th in points per game at 22.6, last in the NFC West behind the 49ers (#3) at 28.0. the Seahawks (#9) at 24.7 and the Rams (#10) at 24.6.
Therefore, to jump from 4th in the NFC West in points per game to 2nd in the NFC West in points per game from year one to year two is yet again a praise-worthy accomplishment.
But here’s the most auspicious accomplishment:
2019 Offensive Yards Per Game:
- #6 SEA —- 374.9
- #7 LAR —- 374.9
- #8 SF —- 374.2
- #21 ARZ —- 341.7
2020 Offensive Yards Per Game
- #6 ARZ —- 384.6
- #14 SF —- 370.1
- #14 LAR —- 367.2
- #18 SEA —- 364.1
Cardinals’ offense in yards per game improved from worst to first in the NFC West from year 1 to year 2.
This is a significant reason why there were QB moves made this off-season by the Rams and 49ers and an OC change by the Seahawks.
Some of you, like Darrin Fanning, might argue that it was Kliff’s questionable play calls at key times that is a major cause for concern. Here is my response :
Your opinion means a lot to me. What good/great NFL playcaller hasn't made a number of questionable decisions? Kliff is aggressive. Sometimes it is going to backfire. But, he believes in his offense's ability to make the big plays. We could appreciate him for that.— Walter B J Mitchell (@WBJMItch) June 20, 2021
I don’t know about you, but I like the fact that Kliff believes so much in his offense that he is aggressive in going for it on 4th downs. The 4th and short from the Cards’ own 23 yard line that backfired in the home loss to the 49ers still stings, but we tend to remember the ones that backfire and tend to lose sight of the ones that worked.
The fact is —-
2020 4th Down Conversion Percentages in the NFC West
- #5 ARZ —- 68.0%
- #18 SEA —- 56.3% (with Russell Wilson no less)
- #28 SF —- 40.0 % (with Kyle Shanahan making the calls)
- #29 LAR —- 40.0% (with Sean McVay making the calls)
Reasons for Optimism:
- Kliff is aggressive and confident in his offense.
- Kliff’s offense made impressive improvements from year one to year two.
- Kyler Murray has shown manifestations of brilliance.
- The Cardinals’ offensive line under Sean Kugler is the most productive and cohesive the Cardinals have ever had in Arizona.
Kliff Kingsbury is “garbage”?
Well comments like this one make it another splendid day for cynics, armchair QBs and Lazy-Boy OCs.
Guess it proves the old adage that “one’s man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”