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Kliff 2022: Beginning of the end...or End of the Beginning?

The oft-maligned Cardinals’ head coach has been called on the hot seat, but if he overcomes 3 simple things, does his narrative change altogether?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals OTA Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The beginning of the end...or the end of the beginning.

2022 will be an all important year for one Kliff Kingsbury to prove it one way or the other.

At this point in the offseason, with hardly any NFL news to note, the Cardinals and their head coach have made it into offseason projections and predictions.

One of them, seemingly like clockwork, is the head coach “hot seat” list, taking the coaches who are most at-risk for their jobs and putting them on the hot seat. And to some degree, this is familiar territory for Cardinals fans.

Because it’s felt like Kliff has been on the proverbial hot seat ever since he arrived in Arizona, after all.

Lest we forget how the unconventional move was...

  • mocked
  • ridiculed
  • despised
  • scoffed at
  • labeled a humiliation

There were media types that essentially decried how Arizona fired a “leader of men” style coach for a whiz kid offensive coordinator who couldn’t win in the Big 12 or with Patrick Mahomes as his QB.

Many projected Kliff would be gone in a year, or at least in year 2. Heck, I was a doubter in year 3 who wondered if they’d make the playoffs.

Lo and behold, they did and Kingsbury not only led Arizona to double-digit wins but also was rewarded with a contract extension.

So why is it that there are articles like this one from The Draft Network that believe that Kingsbury, despite the extension, isn’t still on the hot seat but WILL be the first coach fired in 2022?

Now don’t get me wrong.

I respect a lot of the people and content at TDN, including Revenge of the Birds’ own Damian Parson. And like others, there’s skepticism to be had with Kingsbury. Some of the article, in my opinion, is conjecture:

The main point of the article seems to argue that Rhule was given a long leash by ownership given the large deal he signed with the Panthers back in 2020, just two years ago. While that’s possible that’s still the case, Rhule’s track record and the all-important win percentage is .303, compared to Kingsbury whose has stayed relatively steady around .500 after briefly flirting with a winning record in the NFL.

(If the Detroit Lions tie in his first NFL game ever had been a win he’d be a net positive...BARELY)

The idea that Kliff Kingsbury can have a MUCH shorter leash than Rhule could be true, but the idea that his leash is MUCH shorter, short enough to be the first coach fired, while ALSO just getting a contract extension show-of-good-faith simply doesn’t add up.

It would be like coming home after getting a promotion from your boss and telling your wife to pack it all up because you’re getting fired any day now for poor performance.

Makes about as much sense as putting a screen door on your submarine. It’s as simple as extension=security for the time being.

In fact, I’d argue that there’s three pieces that Kliff Kingsbury’s resume is missing that if he fills them in, people will instead be looking at the opposite of him rather as a fill-in name on the hot seat each year:

Piece #1: Continue the trend of the hot starts

If Kingsbury is able to prove with offseason preptime that he can break down an opponent’s defensive schemes and get the Cardinals off to their 3rd hot start in almost as many years as he has been their head coach, he’ll probably get a different level of credit and respect around the league.

Why, you ask?

Because of the Hopkins impact.

Sure, people might point and laugh and Kingsbury going “just wait until the second half of the season!” but if Kingsbury and Co. go out and manage to get off to a hot start without the likes of a Pro Bowler in Hopkins (and possibly/probably one in Center Rodney Hudson) then it will put the Cards ahead and show that it isn’t simply a great player being great all the time. While the best Quarterbacks are expected to win without their weapons, it’s coaching and adjustments that would be shown off here.

Kingsbury’s never “lost” an opener to his season, interestingly enough (a tie twists that a bit) but Arizona, after struggling to get a win in 2019, has done relatively well to begin the season with 6-2 and 10-2 starts to the year.

That’s...not usual for most coaches.

It’s really good.

And this is something that Kingsbury could definitely put into his cap as putting Arizona into a far different category than other head coaches. For example, Patriots coach Matt Patricia, as coach of the Detroit Lions, had a future Super Bowl winning QB in Matthew Stafford on his roster, talent across the board on offense and seemingly a good enough defensive mind to win Bill Belichick’s trust.

With his career win % of .314, he would need to go 16-0, as a head coach, to match Kingsbury’s career winning percentage despite the first year being a ROOKIE quarterback on what had been the worst team in the National Football League.

Patricia took over a 9-7 team that a year previously had been in the playoffs...and promptly made them worse. This isn’t to dunk on him or the Lions, per se, but rather to show that Kingsbury has already proven more staying power than even coaches who were more widely regarded than he was coming into the league. Even with some tough opponents on the opening schedule (2021 was no slouch in that department either, and Arizona almost went 8-0 outside of an AJ Green drop against multiple playoff teams) even a 4-2 start should earn the coach more staying power.

Piece #2: Stay afloat during the second half

If Kingsbury gets off to a rough start but Arizona goes bonkers down the stretch with Hopkins back from suspension, well, maybe some will disregard that first point entirely.

But this has been the biggest knock on Kingsbury even dating all the way back to his Texas Tech days.

Make no doubt, this is the single most important metric people will be looking to improve on for the Cardinals this year. But it really isn’t a lot that Kingsbury will have to do.

The Cardinals’ second half of the season was marred in part by the playoff performance and an atrocious outing against a bottom 2 team in the league in the Detroit Lions in which they were shutout of the first half and blown out against the Rams in the NFL Playoffs on the road.

While they struggled to close out teams, they were still fighting and scrapping and the “collapse” ended up being essentially. .500 football.

After the loss in Week 8, Arizona went 4-5 the rest of the way to finish the season before the playoff flop that was.

It’s interesting, in part, because I think it shows some of the narrative following Kliff. The way people talk about Arizona it’s like they drop 5 straight at times.

No one is saying 4-5 is good, or that in 2020 when they needed a game to win a spot in the playoffs and went 2-6 after a 6-2 start is something to aspire.

The opposite, I’d say.

That it’s something he does need to show improvement in, but even something as simple as a 6-4 record after the above mentioned 4-2 start? That’s another 10 win season, with a game to go.

And it would basically be as simple as a two-game swing. That might seem a lot in the NFL, but really all it’s asking is not for Kingsbury to light the world on fire and prove it with a 14-3 team that wins 8 games down the homestretch to the playoffs.

It’s well within reason. And even if Arizona doesn’t get out of the gate strong, given the departures of multiple Pro Bowl players, if Arizona takes a step back in the wins column to 8 or 9 wins, it’ll demonstrate consistency. And perhaps that it’s more a measure of talent (which falls on the GM) in Arizona versus the coaching lifting or failing the players.

Consistently average isn’t consistently good...but it’s consistently bad that gets you canned in the NFL all too quickly. For real.

Piece #3: Win a playoff game

Sure if you barely win a playoff game and get blown out in the next round of the playoffs you might end up being the Bruce Arians Arizona Cardinals and nobody cares. Super Bowls, of course, are another thing entirely, but that’s essentially the goal of every team and every franchise...and every NFL Head Coach.

Coming back from a playoff loss and making it to the playoffs and delivering a hard-fought win is one of the easiest ways for Kingsbury to be able to demonstrate staying power in the league.

In a “what have you done for me lately” league people will look at that blowout loss to the Rams until there’s another playoff berth, nigh victory, to replace it. Instead of being on the hot seat, Kingsbury would be “that guy” who got Arizona not just to the playoffs in back-to-back years but then improved upon that by winning one when it counted.

To this point, Arizona hasn’t won one of those “win and your in” type of games in the league under Kingsbury as many have pointed out.

That’s not to say they haven’t won games that counted (the Dallas Cowboys game comes to mind here with a tough road win against a playoff opponent despite no veteran left tackle or DeAndre Hopkins) but more that it’s about the idea of growth.

There’s only so far that a coach can take a team.

There’s no coach who can keep improving until they win every single game because that’s simply not the NFL. Even the 1972 Dolphins with a perfect season weren’t outdone by Bill Belichick’s 19-0 Patriots that...couldn’t get it done due to some miraculous Manning play.

And that’s the greatest football coach of the past few generations, mind you.

What people want to see rather, is simply progress, learning from mistakes and being able to secure little things where fans can celebrate a postseason victory after a well-played season, at the minimum. That’s not necessarily possible for every team, but after last season the expectations for the Cardinals, at minimum, is to not take a huge step back amidst a shaky NFC Conference.

So those are the 3 pieces of the pie that Kliff Kingsbury, if baked, will be able to get himself off the hotseat. In fact, people might start to look at what he’s done in Arizona and wonder if it will be the end of the beginning.

AKA the beginning of Kingsbury’s tenure in the desert will be over. He will be, likely, off the hot seat and expectations of him will be set in place with other top NFL head coaches.

That said...the article’s concerns have shown that some of the reason people have had doubt aren’t without merit.

Do I think that Kingsbury would be in danger of losing his job this season (much less first NFL coach fired) if he put up a losing record?


Maybe if there’s a 0-17 type of scenario that doesn’t include some major sort of catastrophic injury scenario but that’s likely to get any head coach in the league canned, mind you.

For example, if we reverse some of these trends?

-Kingsbury say DOESN’T get off to a hot start and Arizona has a 2-4 start over their first 6 games (or, in the scenario in which Matt Rhule & the Panthers still manage to beat him) an even worse start potentially

-Another stumbling down the stretch, a reliance on offense that shows DeAndre Hopkins made it tick, or offensive struggles that tax a weak defense too much and puts his offense into impossible situations

-A lack of a playoff berth or falling behind the San Francisco 49ers in the division and out of the postseason?

Then Kingsbury will survive, I believe, due in part to that new contract extension. But it’ll be right back onto that proverbial hot seat. And this time, people will be looking ahead at an offseason that might not feature J.J. Watt, has a major decision forthcoming on Hopkins and/or Hollywood Brown as well as some major positional questions.

It might be marked as the “beginning of the end” for Kingsbury and his tenure as the NFL is by no means a patient league when it comes to winning and stability. And 2023 might put him right back onto these offseason lists. To repeat...

The beginning of the end...or the end of the beginning.

2022 will be an all important year for one Kliff Kingsbury to prove it one way, or the other, indeed.