When Kliff Kingsbury began coaching in college, the NFL was not his ultimate destination because the stylistic chasm between the levels was as large as the Grand Canyon.
Kingsbury learned the Air Raid offense under Mike Leach, a scheme that often put four receivers on the field and prioritized passing. The NFL remained more three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, with the running game and a strong defense the focal point.
But as the years went by, the NFL began adopting more college concepts, and to great success.
This season, three former Kingsbury quarterbacks – Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Denver’s Case Keenum – were starters in the league, with Mahomes an MVP candidate and Mayfield living up to the billing as the No. 1 overall pick.
The fusion of NFL and college schematics led Kingsbury to a seat between team president Michael Bidwill and General Manager Steve Keim at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on Wednesday, where he was introduced as the team’s new coach.
Kingsbury looked at ease, because the jump from college to the NFL no longer felt so foreign.
“You start watching your guys – watching Patrick, watching Baker, watching Case – and you see the things they’re doing that are playing to their strengths, and the things they did really well in college,” Kingsbury said. “It’s like, ‘It’s going that way.’ And that was exciting for me. That’s really why I’m here, to continue that trend and see if we can play offense at a high level.”
The Cardinals’ offense did not have much imagination in 2018, and worse, it was wholly ineffective. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen struggled and the team finished last in the NFL in nearly every pertinent statistical category.
Kingsbury’s presence brings optimism. He finished with a losing record in six seasons at Texas Tech and the defense was a constant problem, but he regularly coaxed sterling numbers out of the offense.
Bidwill said the team searched hard for an innovative offensive mind to reboot that side of the ball, and didn’t care if it came from the NFL or college. The degree of difficulty in the NFL is tougher because defensive players are more talented and schemes more exotic, but Bidwill believes Kingsbury is up to the task.
“We’re hoping we can get our offense turned around right away,” Bidwill said.
The construction of Kingsbury’s NFL offense will hold great intrigue. He likes to throw the ball, but clarified it’s not quite Leach-esque. (Washington State threw 71 percent of the time in 2018, compared to Texas Tech’s 55 percent.) Kingsbury said running back David Johnson is a tremendous asset and will be used in a variety of ways, which includes the ground game.
Wide receiver Christian Kirk doesn’t foresee a full-throated Air Raid style.
“A lot of people think he’s just going to come in here and think we’re never going to be under center and just be full spread, never have a running back in the backfield, but that’s not the case,” Kirk said. “You can use a lot of these Air Raid concepts under center with two tight ends if you really want to. It’s all just making it look different, but a pass concept is a pass concept. It’s all about dressing it up and making it look different than it was before so you can do a lot of things with it. I know he’s a very creative mind, and I know he’s going to be very diverse.”
Cardinals tight end Ricky Seals-Jones was recruited to Texas A&M by Kingsbury, who was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2012. Kingsbury left for Texas Tech soon after, and both programs regularly used up-tempo styles. After two years of traditional NFL systems, Seals-Jones wonders if he will be turning back the clock in 2019.
“Is it going to be like back in the A&M days when you line up, get the signal from the quarterback and go?” Seals-Jones said. “Is he going to use that a little bit but then huddle up sometimes? I’m excited. I’m thrilled. I don’t know if I’ve got to get back on the track and get my wind up for the Air Raid. It’ll be exciting to see what’s going to happen.”
Some details may need to be ironed out, but a new philosophy has clearly emerged. Former coach Steve Wilks touted a strong running game and defense, which were the old-school tenets to winning games.
While that can still lead to success, the past two Super Bowls have been shootouts, and the best teams this year – the Chiefs, Saints and Rams – are led by powerful offenses.
Kingsbury was asked if teams can truly succeed throwing the ball upwards of 30 to 50 times per game in the NFL. He seems to be banking on it.
“You see some of these teams executing pretty close to that at a pretty high level,” Kingsbury said. “Putting up MVP-type numbers and first seeds. Everybody says you have to run the ball and play defense in the playoffs, so this will be a fun playoffs to see where they meet and how it all plays out.”
Past images of the Cardinals' new head coach