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Kliff Kingsbury yells on the sideline during a win in Seattle in 2021
Kliff Kingsbury Becomes A Success Story
Cardinals coach has led team to increase in victories in each season
By Darren Urban Nov 24, 2021
Photographs By Arizona Cardinals

Late in the third quarter, as the Cardinals nursed a 10-point lead in Seattle and quarterback Colt McCoy broke down still photos with quarterbacks coach Cam Turner, Kliff Kingsbury had something to say.

He called over the rest of the offense, which had hit a lull after halftime. Kingsbury was animated as he forcefully delivered a message: Stop waiting for the game to end and go finish it.

"The way he pulled us together on the sideline was something I don't think he would've done when he first got here," tackle D.J. Humphries said

The Cardinals indeed finished it with two solid drives (one ended in a missed field goal, but the other a game-clinching touchdown) as they knocked off the Seahawks.

Kingsbury's team was 6-0 on the road heading into the bye. They were 9-2, locked into the top spot in the NFL. They maneuvered through three games – winning two – without their quarterback and top wide receiver. The won another game in Cleveland with Kingsbury's gameplan while he had to sit at home with Covid. Yet another win came with Kingsbury on the sideline only after he had to miss the entire week of practice, again with Covid protocols.

The Cardinals are assured their first winning season since 2015 with six games to go. They have upped their victory count from five to eight to nine-and-counting in each of Kingsbury's seasons.

He was hired to rehab a team and an offense that was the worst in the NFL in 2018 by a large margin. Two-and-a-half years in, his team has the best record, and one of the best offenses. He is a Coach of the Year candidate in a season when some were ready to put him on the hot seat before the year began.

"It's just fun to watch him have success," said defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who became a key part of the staff when Kingsbury arrived, after two seasons of his own as a head coach in Denver. "It's a hard job, it's a public job and you get criticized on so many levels constantly, even when you are winning.

"For him to endure that, ignore that, and work through that stuff, that part I enjoy for all coaches. When you are winning and you're building a special team, and you can feel it's special, that's a joy."

Kingsbury, at least publicly, isn't going to flaunt whatever he might have accomplished. He was acutely aware of the people that doubted he could succeed in the NFL when the Cardinals hired him; he has made self-deprecating jokes about it.

So no, Kingsbury said, with where the Cardinals stand at the bye at 9-2, he's not getting any particular personal satisfaction of proving people otherwise. Although he does see a benefit.

"The only thing I like is, family members and people that believed in me forever, that actually don't have to hear me called a dumbass all the time," Kingsbury said.

Kingsbury is admittedly introverted, but this season, whether it was a natural evolution or the collateral vibe he has felt with the victories piling up, the 42-year-old coach has flashed more of his personality both on the sideline and in front of cameras.

After the win in Los Angeles against the Rams, at the height of the hype around the second season of the Apple TV show "Ted Lasso" – about an American football coach that goes to London to coach soccer despite no background in the sport – Kingsbury compared himself to Ted.

"There are some real parallels between Ted Lasso and myself," Kingsbury said. "Like the epic YouTube dance video. (And) ya'll were at my (introductory) press conference, it was essentially the same one Ted Lasso had, where everyone was like, 'Is this some kind of a joke?' And then he's weirdly positive all the time."

Joseph smiles at the idea Kingsbury has shown some personality. Kingsbury is really funny, Joseph said, and that's been apparent to him since 2019. But in front of the world? "First-time NFL head coach and not winning much the first two years, it's hard to share who you really are," Joseph said.

His players, however, know what they've got.

In the Cardinals' first game without Kyler Murray this season, the tension perhaps ratcheted up in San Francisco with backup Colt McCoy in the lineup, Kingsbury was the most visibly emotional he had been since arriving in Arizona.

He wandered a few yards off the sideline multiple times arguing, and once started jawing with 49ers cornerback Josh Norman. "You have to pick your spots," Kingsbury later said, but it was to the delight of his team.

"He's that dude," running back James Conner said. "Love playing for Coach King. He's got that swag to him, like we have that swag."

Kingsbury has been called a players' coach. It doesn't mean he is necessarily soft on them. Veteran defensive lineman Corey Peters said Kingsbury – like good coaches – will listen for input. Sometimes they'll use it, sometimes not, but professional players want to be heard.

Peters said he's been on teams when players never feel comfortable to execute whatever is being asked, and that is no way to win games.

But Kingsbury has always known how he wants his team to operate. It was Kingsbury's game plan that won the game in Cleveland, even though he was home and watching video of the next opponent rather than pining to be in Ohio while watching the game live on TV.

"One of the things I respect the most about Kliff is he's going to do it his way," veteran quarterback Colt McCoy said. "He's going to listen to feedback from guys who are on the field and his coaches, but Kliff has a clear understanding of what he wants this offense to look like, and we all trust in that.

"I want to execute it the way he sees it, because he sees it the right way, and it works."

Kingsbury has a better roster than his first two years, and as Peters emphasized, the NFL is about having players first. But while Joseph said "coaching is coaching" when it comes to Kingsbury's college-to-NFL jump, there is little question Kingsbury has grown too.

"I'm a very observant person," Humphries said. "I love people watching – it's one of my favorite things to do. That's one thing I have noticed about him. Gradually every single year he's expanding on what he does.

"It's been fun to watch him."

Kingsbury wouldn't be where he is without Murray, of course. Coaches don't have success in the NFL without a quarterback – surely Joseph would like another head coaching chance with that the case, after having no QB in Denver – and he knew from the day the Cardinals drafted Murray that would be his opportunity.

"We signed up together and as much as any duo probably in the history of the NFL the way this thing has played out," Kingsbury said, "we know we're tied to each other forever."

Murray's own evolution over his two-plus years is almost directly proportional to Kingsbury's improvement as a coach.

"If we do what we're capable of doing, I assume we'll (both) be here for a while," Murray said.

Kingsbury wants the gimpy Murray back on the field, of course, but the November without Murray and DeAndre Hopkins also showed what Kingsbury has become as a coach. Winning two of three in such a situation in 2020 or 2019 would have been dismissed as unrealistic.

After the Seattle game, Kingsbury said he was tired and ready for the bye weekend to spend time on his couch. Linebacker Chandler Jones could only smile at the notion, because by now, all the players know Kingsbury's ridiculous schedule – arriving to the team facility around 4 a.m. for a workout and getting in some film work before the team shows up.

Why would the bye and Thanksgiving be much different?

"Let me tell you, Kliff is an overtime worker," Jones said. "I don't know how he's going to be sitting down on the couch. There's been times where I've walked in on Kliff and he's watching teams that we're going to play in three weeks."

That's not any different than what Kingsbury was doing in 2019. It just took some time to see the results.

"Every coach and GM are presented with challenges early in their career," GM Steve Keim said. "At 9-and-2 in his third year, I think it's pretty apparent his leadership, skillset, and football acumen has led to a lot of our success."

Kingsbury pushes back on the idea he is a better coach compared to when he first arrived, but he allows "I think I'm more comfortable."

He said once he got into coaching, he knew he'd have to fight his introverted tendencies to an extent. In college, with 120 kids around, many freshmen and walk-ons, it was important to reach out to them, call them by their names, say hello. He remembered what that was like as a player if Bill Belichick said, "Hey Kliff, how are you doing?"

"Everybody wants affirmations," Kingsbury said.

That would include Kingsbury, who will get more praise as the season goes on if his team keeps winning, and very few that will call him a "dumbass."

He'll probably pull his offense aside in a game or two on the sideline, at just the right time, like he did in Seattle. And maybe he'll finally become completely at ease during press conferences. Maybe.

"It's not bad," Kingsbury said with a chuckle. "Y'all are a good group. But yeah, I'd rather be doing something different."

Like coaching.

The best images of the Cardinals through the first 11 games of 2021.

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