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Pretty good isn’t good enough: Kliff Kingsbury’s offense wasn’t good enough when it mattered

The Cardinals offense had some good numbers and highlights against the Chargers on Sunday. But the loss after the offense collapsed in the 2nd half is a microcosm for the Kliff Kingsbury era in Arizona... which is hopefully coming to an end soon.

A downtrodden Kliff Kingsbury heading to the locker room after a home loss has become a disappointingly common sight over the past 3+ seasons.
| Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Although the Arizona Cardinals lost in heartbreaking (and season-ending) fashion on Sunday, the offense had a pretty good game. They outgained the Chargers 366-311 and had a 5.7 to 4.9 yards per play advantage, including 6.2 to 4.8 through the air.

Kyler had almost 250 total yards with 3 combined TDs. Hop went 4/87/1 TD and Hollywood led the team in targets in his first game back from injury. Conner went for 120 on the ground. We had 20 first downs, a slight edge in time of possession, and put up 24 points. Pretty good all around.

An offensive performance like that should be good enough to win you the game most weeks.

But this wasn’t most weeks, and the offense just wasn’t good enough—like it hasn’t been for almost all of Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure in the desert. He was the hotshot offensive mind who was supposed to build a perennial top-10 offense around Kyler Murray. That just hasn’t happened, and, in fact, the Chargers game was a microcosm of his failures in the desert, providing ample proof that he’s not the right man to lead this team.

Ill-Fated 4th and 1

There are a few things about the team’s offensive performance I want to touch on, starting with that ill-fated interception on 4th and 1 about halfway through the 2nd quarter. That play was one of the only things that didn’t go right in an otherwise solid 17-point 1st half. (The other being the Conner fumble on the first drive. I’d say he recovered from that nicely.)

But back to the interception. The Cardinals were facing 4th and 1 from their own 34 yard line. In a vacuum, I like the aggression of going for it. It’s obviously a risk at your own 34, but it’s only a yard. So I don’t mind the decision to go for it, and it’s hardly surprising that Kliff elected to keep the offense on the field. Aggressive 4th-down calls have been a hallmark of his tenure.

But what unfolded from there was just a disaster. First, the formation: why are you in shotgun on 4th and 1? Then the play: some kind of quick play-action to Conner with Kyler’s first read looking like McBride in the flat to the left. It’s hard to tell because the play was busted from the start, with Kyler now-infamously saying “Schematically, we were f***ed.”

I don’t understand the formation, the play fake, even the decision to call a pass. I’ve often compared the Cardinals to the Eagles this season. Why not do what the Eagles do and run a QB sneak with someone pushing Kyler from behind? Sure, Kyler is one of the smallest QBs in the league, but it’s a pretty foolproof play. At the very least, just let Conner pound it up the middle against a defense he gashed for most of the day. They just needed a yard.

Instead, with the flat covered, Kyler threw it up to Hop along the sideline. Not the worst decision in the world—maybe you get a PI call, and Hop is a monster on 50/50 balls. But the throw was short and the Chargers DB picked it off. It was essentially a shanked punt. But it gave the Chargers a short field. They immediately took advantage and punched it in for a TD a couple minutes later.

I can live with failing to convert on 4th down, even that deep in our own territory. But the playcall at least needs to make sense. This was just perplexing.

But the offense would recover, scoring TDs on two out of the next three drives (with a missed FG sandwiched in between.) What happened on the next three drives would essentially decide the game—and perhaps be the defining legacy of the Kliff Kingsbury era.

Three Drives of Futility

And what happened on those three drives? Absolutely nothing—just utter futility. The offense had a 7-point lead with about 11 minutes to play. They would have three chances to either 1) score a TD to all but put the game out of reach with how the Chargers offense was playing, or 2) bleed the clock to preserve the lead.

Instead, the offense produced three straight 3-and-outs that took a grand total of 3:43 off the clock. Here’s the autopsy report for these three drives of futility:

  • 1st and 10 from our own 6 with 10:52 left in the 4th: a Conner run for -1 yards from a shotgun 3-wide set.
  • 2nd and 11: incomplete pass short to McBride from a 5-wide set.
  • 3rd and 11: Conner run for 9 yards out of a 4-wide set with trips left. (It looked like Kyler may have changed the play at the line of scrimmage.)
  • 4th and 2: Punt. The drive took a total of 1:45 off the clock.

So Kliff calls a run on 1st down when the Chargers know we were most likely going to run. Then some dink and dunk pass from a 5-wide set when they knew we would most likely pass. (Going 5 wide is also pretty dangerous in the shadow of your own end zone.) Then who knows what the actual playcall was on 3rd down, but Conner nearly got the 1st down anyway.

But the defense held (that was the drive with the near pick by Zaven Collins) to get the ball back for the offense. Here’s what happened next.

  • 1st and 10 from our own 25 with 7:34 left: Conner run for 1 yard from some funky shotgun 2 WR/2 TE set with a lot of presnap motion.
  • 2nd and 9: a 4-yard pass to Hop from another funky set with a lot of presnap motion. (That was that incredible catch by Hop.)
  • 3rd and 9: an incomplete pass to McBride that he probably should have caught for a 1st down.
  • 4th and 9: Punt. The drive took a total of 1:27 off the clock.

Again with the run on 1st down when we’re most likely going to run and a pass on 2nd down when we’re most likely going to pass. There were also some interesting personnel groupings and motion on this drive. Kliff got criticized a bit last year for not moving players around before the snap, so maybe he took some of that criticism to heart? Either way, it didn’t work.

The defense held yet again, ending the Chargers drive with a huge 3rd-down sack by Isaiah Simmons. The Cardinals would get the ball back basically needing one 1st down to end the game and get the home W. Instead…

  • 1st and 10 from our own 10 with 2:19 left: Conner run for no gain from another 2 WR/2 TE formation.
  • 2nd and 10: a play-action pass with the same 2 WR/2 TE personnel that resulted in Kyler getting sacked for -6 yards.
  • 3rd and 16: a 9-yard gain on a screen to Conner out of a 4 WR set to get to the 2:00 warning.
  • 4th and 7: Punt. The drive took a total of 0:31 off the clock.

More predictable playcalling: run on 1st, pass on 2nd. On these three drives, we lost a net total of 6 yards on 1st and 2nd down. It’s almost impossible to extend drives and bleed clock when you’re facing 3rd and long every time. And then the 3rd down playcall on this drive was just baffling: why are you passing in a 4 WR set from your own end zone?? This is when you just run Conner up the middle to either force them to burn a timeout or get to the 2:00 warning. Why risk a pass in your own end zone?? It could get blown up for a safety or defensive TD, and even if it falls incomplete it gifts the Chargers a timeout and precious extra seconds. Huge risk, very little reward.

This drive showed Kliff’s very worst tendencies as a playcaller: predictable when he needs to keep the defense on its toes, and too cute when he needs to be smart and sensible. That might actually be Kliff’s real legacy: he was just too cute.

After that woeful Cardinals 3 and out, the Chargers did what they failed to do all 2nd half: score a TD. The defense had forced three punts in a row, but you can’t keep an offense led by Justin Herbert, Austin Ekeler, and Keenan Allen down forever. And then to see them win on a two-point conversion—the ultimate gamble—was doubly painful. Kliff’s gamble earlier in the game didn’t work; this one gave us our sixth(!) home loss of the season. (Although one was in Mexico.)

Final Thoughts

Like I said at the beginning of this piece, the offense had a pretty good day. And the Cardinals have been pretty good for most of Kliff’s tenure—until it all fell apart this season. And that seems to be this franchise’s ceiling under Kliff’s leadership: pretty good.

That can’t be good enough anymore. I genuinely like Kliff, and it’s a testament to his character that he doesn’t seem to have lost the locker room even in this disastrous season. But he’s just not the right man for this job—the last 12 weeks have made that clear enough.

And never was it more clear than last Sunday. Kliff’s tenure has been marred by crushing 2nd-half collapses in each of his three seasons. Watching this team blow a very winnable game by collapsing in the 2nd half was just too bitterly ironic, a microcosm of his time here in the Valley. This team and its fans deserve better. They deserve someone who knows how to win, and can do it consistently. Who can follow through on promising 1st halves, who can get this team over the top when opportunities present themselves.

And that ain’t Kliff. Never has been. And likely never will be.

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