Kliff Kingsbury was not yet in coach mode when he arrived in New England in 2003.
As a rookie sixth-round pick of the Patriots, the young quarterback was still hoping to gain his foothold as a player in the NFL. However, an arm injury landed him on injured reserve, which gave Kingsbury time to look at the game from a coach's point of view.
While he may not have thought about it much back then, that year-plus with coach Bill Belichick proved valuable when Kingsbury eventually exchanged his pads for a clipboard.
"With that team, each and every day – it didn't matter if it was a preseason game or an offseason practice – you were going to be prepared," said Kingsbury, who was released by the Patriots after his second training camp in 2004. "You were going to know what was going on. That's why he's had such great success. That would be the biggest thing I took from him, was watching his work ethic and the level of preparation that he put his team through."
Kingsbury has some Belichick tendencies. He rises before the sun each morning and is not fire-and-brimstone during practice, preferring to monitor the action quietly. While not nearly as gruff, his evasive answers to the media can be Belichick-lite.
The big difference, of course, is their résumés. Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history. Kingsbury has never coached a regular season game at the professional level and won just 35 of 75 games at Texas Tech.
Despite the gulf, there is hope Kingsbury can turn into a solid NFL coach. His schematic ideas are on the cutting edge, and even as a player in New England, his potential coaching acumen stood out. Then-Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had Kingsbury break down video with the New England assistants in 2003, a rarity for any player, let alone a rookie.
"The two things I've always thought anyone had to have to coach — you had to be smart and have great work ethic," Weis recently told Sports Illustrated. "I always thought if you were smart and you had work ethic, you had a chance. And then the fact that he played at a high level, he had the trifecta."
Belichick's greatness manifests on game days, where he combines meticulous preparation with creative game plans. The Super Bowl was a shining example, as the Patriots' scheme stunted the Rams' dynamic offense.
"It starts with the players, obviously -- it's about those guys-- but when you have great coaches like coach Belichick, and he gets a read on something or comes up with a scheme that's working, that's why he's the best to ever do it," Kingsbury said.
The criticism of the Air Raid offense is its simplicity, and critics believe a lack of ingenuity led to Chip Kelly's NFL demise. One place Kingsbury may differ is his ability to add wrinkles. If Kingsbury can take a page from Belichick's book and outscheme opponents, the Cardinals' ceiling will rise.
"I feel like that's what football is all about – being more prepared than the other team," said outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who played the first four seasons of his career under Belichick. "That's what you want to expose. I think it's a huge component of the game, going after weaknesses in game-planning."
While Kingsbury's competency in that area won't be revealed until the regular season, Jones has been buoyed by his first few months around the team's new coach.
"He does a good job of getting the information across to his players, and that's a great characteristic to have as a coach," Jones said. "Anyone can go up there and show players 'Xs' and 'Os', but to retain it and gather it and process it, and then go out on the field and do it – if you can do that as a coaching staff, it's very impressive. For this to be his first NFL coaching job, it's impressive to see."
Kingsbury is not a Belichick clone. One is known for his GQ style on the sideline and the other is known for his hoodie. But the pair has a relationship all these years later – Belichick texted Kingsbury a congratulatory note upon his Cardinals hire – and if Kingsbury can tap into a portion of that genius, it could help his NFL coaching career get off on the right foot.
"When you look at coaching trees across the NFL, the one thing that is great about guys who have success, they take bits and pieces from the coaches they have learned from and apply it to their style," GM Steve Keim said. "It doesn't mean they are carbon copies, but there are guys who can apply those little things to their coaching style and still be themselves."
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