If you would have asked me last week whether Kliff Kingsbury should consider taking Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, I would have asked for some of your drugs. Kingsbury accepted a job as USC’s new offensive coordinator in December, while Murray seemed set to play for the Oakland A’s organization after being taken with the team’s first-round MLB draft pick in June.
But a lot has changed in one week! Now this pairing maybe, possibly could happen. Kingsbury—one of my favorite college football coaches ever—has stunningly been given the opportunity to coach an NFL team. Not just any NFL team: the Arizona Cardinals, who have the first pick in April’s draft. And Murray—one of my favorite college football players ever—is reportedly considering forgoing his baseball career a few weeks after winning the Heisman Trophy.
Kliff and Kyler is no longer the stuff of my dreams. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, a union between the two could happen:
Multiple NFL executives believe Murray is a first-round quarterback talent:
Texted several nfl execs just now on Kyler. Everyone responded 1st round.— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) January 10, 2019
I asked at WR? All said QB. No brainer for Murray
And the cherry on top: When then–Texas Tech coach Kingsbury was asked about then-Oklahoma quarterback Murray in October, he unambiguously endorsed Murray as being worthy of the no. 1 NFL draft pick:
“I would take him with the first pick of the draft if I could” is a pretty harmless thing for a college football coach to say about an opposing player, especially if that player is supposed to pursue a career in professional baseball. It’s like a couple discussing free passes to hook up with the celebrities they have crushes on. “Sure, honey … if you and Emma Stone are ever in a room together … well, I’m sure you guys would really hit it off, and I’m sure she’d love to hear you talk about why your boss is an asshole for about 45 minutes. Just make sure to tell me about it the next day.” (Note: I guarantee “Kliff Kingsbury” has been the answer to the hall-pass question for at least 10 couples in Lubbock, Texas.) It’s speculative fantasy: Nothing here will ever come to fruition.
Except now Kingsbury is an NFL head coach, and his team has the first pick in the draft, and Murray is attracting buzz as a potential first-round talent. Choosing football is suddenly more financially appealing than sticking with baseball, and it seems like Murray is leaning toward declaring for the draft. That’s right: Emma Stone is at happy hour, and she actually thinks it’s cute how mad you get when ranting about your stupid boss.
Will Kingsbury take the dive and commit to turning the Cardinals into a Big 12 team—just months after being fired by an actual Big 12 team? It’d be a huge risk, but hey, everybody here has taken a bunch of risks already. Let’s go all in.
I didn’t expect Kingsbury to be an NFL head coach because, well, I don’t think he expected to be an NFL head coach. After he was fired by Texas Tech, I wrote a post with the headline “Kliff Kingsbury Just Started His Offseason As ‘The Bachelor,’ Offensive Coordinator Edition,” since I presumed that he’d have a lot of suitors who’d want him to become their offensive coordinator. I did not expect anybody to offer him a head-coaching job because he had just prominently failed to put together anything resembling a competent defense. Over his six-season tenure, his Red Raiders never ranked better than 86th in scoring defense, and he finished with a 35-40 record overall. This may explain why Kingsbury took that job as the offensive coordinator at USC—he didn’t foresee any gettable head-coaching jobs coming open, and preferred the lower stakes and chiller atmosphere of a college OC job to NFL OC jobs with comparable salaries.
But then it became clear that pro teams wanted him to be a head coach, and, well, that changed things entirely. Kingsbury quickly backtracked on USC, leading to an awkward divorce in which the Trojans reportedly refused to let him interview with pro teams and Kingsbury promptly resigned. (The collateral damage: Any high schoolers who committed to USC during the month or so that Kingsbury worked there and signed national letters of intent have to stay at the school, because the NLI is the worst contract in sports.)
And I like the premise of NFL head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Offense was never a problem for Kingsbury’s teams; he was responsible for the top offense in college football twice, once as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator (in 2012) and once at Texas Tech (2015). He’s also proved exceptional at quarterback development, having worked with three of the league’s 32 starters: Patrick Mahomes II, Case Keenum, and Baker Mayfield. (Yes, I give Kingsbury credit for spotting Mayfield as a recruit with zero major FBS scholarship offers, even if Mayfield soured on Kingsbury after just one year and went on to become a legend at Oklahoma.)
Defense was always the hang-up, as Texas Tech had a bottom-five scoring defense in three straight years, from 2014 to 2016. Part of the explanation is that few talented defensive recruits signed up to be coached by Kingsbury. What could Kingsbury offer them, other than a chance to get embarrassed defensively while failing to receive the quality coaching necessary to emerge as a prospect for the next level? (Lubbock is also far from many things.)
The good news for the Cardinals is that Kingsbury no longer has to pitch defenders on playing for him. He can draft them, or else pay them, legally, with real American currency. Last offseason I laid out the case for why an Air Raid coach could be successful in the NFL. The Air Raid was designed to to help programs like Texas Tech compete despite having inferior talent. The problem was those programs’ defenses rarely held up. In the pros, an Air Raid head coach could commit an outsize proportion of his team’s draft capital and salary cap space to bringing in defensive star power. You would have a talent advantage on one side of the ball, and a schematic advantage on the other. That’s a recipe to win a lot of games.
I didn’t expect Murray to be a top NFL draft pick because, well, I don’t believe he expected to be a top NFL draft pick. Even when writing about Murray as a Heisman Trophy candidate in December, I operated under the presumption that we were seeing the last of him as a football player, and that he’d soon follow through on his commitment to play baseball. It made sense: MLB money is guaranteed, and the injury risks are lower.
Of course, there was always one scenario in which the football money would be more appealing: if Murray had a chance to become a first-round draft pick. First-rounders secure higher guarantees than Murray’s baseball deal ($4.77 million) includes, and if a player gets a second contract as an NFL starting quarterback, the money is enormous.
I just didn’t consider it likely that Murray would be hyped as such a high pick. That was not a knock on him, but rather on the way that NFL teams have long evaluated quarterback talent. Murray is 5-foot-10, played in an Air Raid college offense, and has a game predicated on his speed. All of those qualities have scared teams away from drafting quarterback prospects in the past. It’s even scared them away from QBs who, like Murray, dominated in college and took home the Heisman.
But pro teams seem to have realized that a quarterback’s diminutive height is a problem only if it also corresponds with a lack of arm strength—which, I promise, is not a problem with Kyler. Thanks to Mayfield, Mahomes, and Jared Goff, the myth that Air Raid quarterbacks can’t succeed in the NFL has also been killed over the past two seasons. And a quarterback being able to move well isn’t a downside—it’s a boon.
I think Murray would be an exceptional NFL quarterback. I think he’d have the best chance to realize his potential under Kingsbury, who is well versed in the offensive concepts that helped Murray become a Heisman winner at Oklahoma. And I think that a team willing to make a choice as unorthodox as Kingsbury for head coach would be willing to make a choice as unorthodox as Murray for its franchise player. A Kingsbury-and-Kyler pairing is suddenly a real possibility.
There are a few hitches here. First and foremost, the Cardinals selected a quarterback, Josh Rosen, 10th overall in last year’s NFL draft. Secondly, I just advised the Cardinals to devote their resources to bringing in top-tier defensive talent. How could I possibly endorse Arizona passing up Nick Bosa, Ed Oliver, and Quinnen Williams, among others, in favor of a quarterback—especially when it already has a young, promising one?
The answer goes back to what Schefter discussed in the above clip. The Cardinals should try to trade Rosen in exchange for draft picks. Rosen had a disappointing rookie season, but showed enough promise that he’d likely be able to entice other franchises (is that the Giants’ music?) to give up a war chest of assets to get him. And in the long term, the Cardinals would be better off building around the QB Kingsbury wants rather than committing to the QB who was already there when the coach arrived. Use that newly acquired draft capital to stock up on defense, except for that first pick. Use that on the superstar who can make Kingsbury’s offense fly.
I’m being irrational here, but this entire thing is irrational. I’m as big a supporter of Kingsbury and Murray as you’ll find, yet even I am stunned by the fact that Kingsbury is now an NFL head coach and Murray might be an NFL team’s franchise quarterback. Both of these men literally just signed contracts for other jobs. Given the recent developments, though, I can’t shake the idea that these two college football heroes will multiply each other’s powers if they unite. All I want is for the Cardinals to figure out the details and make this college football fantasy happen.