It wasn’t long ago that NFL teams hesitated to hire college coaches, as conventional wisdom stated that pro football was “different” and “faster” than the sport’s amateur version. Now, in the opening days of 2019, it’s clear that era is long over. Teams are so desperate for young, forward-thinking offensive minds that going 35-40 in six seasons as the Texas Tech coach (and notching a one-month stint as the USC offensive coordinator) apparently qualifies you for an NFL job. Everyone, welcome the new head coach of the Arizona Cardinals: Kliff Kingsbury.
We’re in an era when every team is searching for the next Sean McVay, but while McVay served as the offensive coordinator in Washington for three seasons before being hired to helm the Rams, young offensive minds are being scooped up like cryptocurrency was in November 2017. On Monday, the Packers hired Matt LaFleur as their head coach after he spent just one season calling plays in Tennessee; in that season, the Titans offense ranked in the bottom half of the league by virtually every metric. Freddie Kitchens or Kevin Stefanski could be the new head coach of the Browns by the time I’m done writing this blog, and neither has called plays for more than half an NFL season. Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy has had interviews with the Bengals, Dolphins, Jets, and Buccaneers despite Andy Reid being Kansas City’s play caller.
But if any team has a reason to desperately grasp for the next McVay, it’s the Cardinals. Arizona’s situation is comically similar to the one McVay inherited from Jeff Fisher in 2017: Both had highly drafted QBs who looked like busts in their first seasons and supremely talented running backs who were withering away in archaic offenses. Josh Rosen had an abysmal season in 2018, completing just 55.2 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, while all-everything running back David Johnson averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. The Arizona offense, which was by far the worst in the league in yards, points, and DVOA this season, seemed largely set up to make its players unsuccessful. Rosen was frequently faced with difficult throws:
No quarterback was pressured more often (37.2%), threw into a tight window more often (21.6%), or had a lower expected completion percentage (59.4%)—based on the difficulty of the throw—than Josh Rosen did in 2018.— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) January 8, 2019
This will certainly change under Kliff Kingsbury.
And Johnson often ran directly into a brick wall:
Cardinals OC Mike McCoy has a tendency to run his RBs too much behind C:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) October 18, 2018
•The NFL avg is 28.9% over the last 3 years
•David Johnson has a 10% success rate on 1st down running behind C (1.8 YPC)
•McCoy's run offenses ranked #32, #24 & #22 the last 3 yrs
•Run rate visualized: pic.twitter.com/mI4BwOAvOB
Make no mistake though: Kingsbury isn’t a carbon copy of McVay. In fact, their systems are nothing alike. McVay’s offense is heavy on under-center formations, play-action, and 11-personnel, whereas Kingsbury ran a true Air Raid scheme at Texas Tech, often rolling with four wide receivers and his quarterback in shotgun. But even though his approach may be different than what the Rams have found success with, Kingsbury’s offense will be decidedly more modern than what Steve Wilks ran this year. Texas Tech averaged more than 30 points per game in all six of Kingsbury’s seasons and topped 40 points per game in two of those years. And that’s why the Cardinals are making this hire: It’s not about the overall success (or lack thereof) that Kingsbury had with the Red Raiders, it’s about getting someone—anyone—who can put their moribund offense back on track.
Kingsbury will have to adjust his offense to fit in the NFL, as every college coach who moves up has to, and the team will need to upgrade its offensive line and receiving corps this offseason before a new scheme will even be effective. But if Kingsbury can clear those hurdles and save Rosen, the Cardinals will have gotten exactly what they wanted.