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What Tricks Does Kliff Kingsbury Have Up His Sleeve for 2020?

The Cardinals’ high-flying spread offense shifted to a slightly more mainstream approach in 2019. Soon there could be new evolutions for one of the NFL’s most interesting teams.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Heading into 2020, there’s no shortage of hype around the Cardinals offense, a burgeoning unit that makes Arizona a must-watch team this fall. Fresh off the extraordinary 2019 turnaround that saw that group transform from terrible to downright explosive, the Cardinals offense looks primed to make a big leap in Year 2 of the team’s rebuild. Led by a forward-thinking and adaptable play-caller in Kliff Kingsbury, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in quarterback Kyler Murray, an elusive running back in Kenyan Drake, and a newly acquired superstar receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona has all the pieces in place to make some noise in the NFC West. But for a team that played with two distinct offensive styles in its pivotal 2019 campaign, one big question remains: What will the Cardinals’ still-evolving offense look like in 2020?

Kingsbury’s Early Stumbles

The Cardinals’ much-anticipated Air Raid revolution didn’t make it off the runway in the early going of Kingsbury’s debut season. In fact, in the team’s opening-week tie with the Lions, Arizona managed just six first downs through the first three quarters, averaging 2.4 yards per play while eking out two field goals in that stretch before finding a groove late in the game (it ended in a 27-27 overtime tie). That unit followed a similar pattern over the next three games―all losses―performing in fits and starts as Kingsbury attempted to implement his college-style scheme, which was designed to operate at warp speed with mostly four- and five-receiver formations.

Arizona ran in those four-plus-receiver sets on 61 percent of its snaps (164 total plays) in that four-week stretch, by far the highest clip in the league (the runner-up in that category was Seattle, who played in four- or five-wide sets on just 12 percent of their offensive snaps, or 29 plays). Kingsbury’s crew operated at a blistering pace in those games, running no-huddle looks at a league-high 41 percent while averaging a league-low 24.9 seconds per snap, per Establish the Run’s Pat Thorman. The speed-it-up-and-spread-’em-out strategy failed to pay real dividends, though: Arizona’s 18.5 points per game average through the first month ranked 25th in the NFL, and the team sat at 0-3-1 as September came to a close. Not exactly the start that Kingsbury or the team’s fans were hoping for. To the rookie coach’s credit, he quickly switched gears.

Arizona adopted a more mainstream approach throughout the rest of the season. From weeks 5 through 17, Kingsbury’s Cardinals decreased their usage of four-plus-receiver sets to just 22 percent of their plays (156 total) while moving to more three-receiver (40 percent) and two-tight-end (28 percent) looks down the stretch. (It’s worth noting, of course, that everything is relative: Arizona was still playing out of four- and five-wide sets more than any other team in the NFL in those games, and on the year, the Cardinals finished with 328 plays with four-plus receivers, more than the next five teams combined.)

Arizona slowed things down significantly after its disappointing first month, too, cutting its no-huddle rate to 24 percent from Week 5 on. After hints that the team was going to try to run an unheard-of 90 to 95 plays per game, the Cardinals finished the year with a nice, round 1,000 offensive plays in 2019, an average of 62.5 per game. That was 80 fewer plays than their opponents ran, and ranked just 22nd leaguewide.

The Cardinals’ decision to slow things down coincided with a bigger focus on running the ball. After averaging just 19.8 rush attempts per game over the first four weeks, Arizona’s offense notched 26.4 rush attempts per game in its final 12 outings. That shift wasn’t just a product of opponent or game script, either: The team’s situation-neutral pass rate (i.e., plays from the first three quarters of one-score games) dropped from 71.5 percent in the first four weeks (second highest) to 56 percent from Week 5 on, per ETR. Their seconds-per-snap rate on all plays dropped from first (24.9) to eighth (27.2). In other words, Arizona went from a frenetic, wide-open, super-pass-heavy offense to a still-fast but much more balanced squad.

How Arizona Struck a Balance

Arizona’s early-season shift from a wide-open air attack to more symmetrical approach showed up on the team’s win column (the Cardinals went 5-7 down the stretch) and on Kyler Murray’s stat line. After completing 62.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and four picks, a 78.8 passer rating, and a 6.34 yards per attempt average over the first four games, Murray’s completion percentage jumped to 65.2 percent over his final 12 games, a stretch in which he threw 16 touchdowns and eight picks, notched a 91.3 passer rating, and averaged 7.11 yards per attempt.

Crucially, the team’s run game flourished from Week 5 on. Boosted by a midseason trade for Kenyan Drake, Arizona’s offense finished the year second in rushing DVOA, 10th in total rushing yards (1,990), tied for seventh in rushing TDs (18; same as Dallas and Green Bay), and tied for second in rushing yards per attempt (5.0). That wasn’t exactly what I expected from the team’s Air Raid–style system, of course, but it did make plenty of sense. For starters, Arizona’s penchant to run out of three- and four-receiver sets helped create plenty of light boxes on defense. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, 47 percent of the team’s running back carries came against six or fewer box defenders. Only the Chiefs ran into more light boxes.

Additionally, Murray’s speed and elusiveness as a ballcarrier changed the way teams had to defend the Cardinals. The diminutive speedster was utilized on option run plays, which did well to consistently keep defenders on their heels.

Kingsbury mixed in a few other designed run plays, too, like naked bootlegs and quarterback draws, to keep them guessing.

The misdirection and option plays worked like a charm, and were aided by Murray’s deft execution. Per Pro Football Focus, Murray averaged 4.2 yards per rush before contact, 0.6 yards per carry better than that of Lamar Jackson on the year, and first among all players with at least 50 carries.

Ultimately, instead of throwing it up deep 40 times a game, as some may have envisioned, Arizona adopted a modern NBA-style attack, as The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia put it, mixing a bunch of layups and dunks (run plays and screens) with 3-point bombs (deep shots downfield). That strategy seemed to work well for the Cardinals; Drake fit like a glove in the team’s ground attack and Murray showed off one of the prettiest deep balls in the NFL.

In the end, Arizona came up short in the win column, but its offense notched the third-largest year-over-year improvement in Football Outsiders’ DVOA history, transforming from the worst group in the NFL to a slightly-above-average one (and finished middle of the pack with 22.6 points per game). Arizona ranked seventh in weighted DVOA, which more strongly accounts for late-season performance, a strong finish that should lay the foundation for another big jump this season.

What’s the Next Evolution?

So what will Arizona’s offense look like in 2020? It’s tough to predict, and the notoriously secretive Kingsbury isn’t tipping his hand. It stands to reason that the über-fast, pass-heavy, four- and five-wide-receiver looks we saw early in the 2019 season represent the style that Kingsbury wanted to bring into the NFL. His quick audible to a slower, run-heavier, and slightly less spread out system also proved that he knows he’s going to have to be schematically nimble to stick around in the league long term. That adaptability could mean we see something new altogether in 2020.

One thing that’s crucially different about this year’s Cardinals roster, though, is that the receiver group looks far deeper. It shouldn’t be surprising that Kingsbury’s revolutionary four-plus-receiver scheme sputtered early on, considering he was trying to run it with Christian Kirk, a 36-year-old Larry Fitzgerald, and a bunch of rookies and replacement-level journeymen at the position. Things are different now. The acquisition of Hopkins is a massive boost for that group, rapidly accelerating the team’s rebuilding timeline―and as a bonus, Arizona could see significant second-year jumps from the likes of KeeSean Johnson, Hakeem Butler, and especially Andy Isabella. The team’s second-rounder from last year struggled to get onto the field―but he flashed potential when he did.

With more talent at receiver, Kingsbury may be tempted to go back to his four-wide looks at a higher clip in 2020. Even if he doesn’t, I’d expect the Cardinals to continue to spread out the field with empty-backfield looks like this one, which gets all the team’s playmakers in space:

The team’s cast of characters could include another relatively new face this season: Keep an eye out for 6-foot-6, 220-pound Dan Arnold, a tight end–receiver hybrid who made his presence known in the team’s final three games after Arizona grabbed him off waivers from New Orleans in December. There’s a steady drumbeat of hype building around the athletic former undrafted free agent, who caught six passes for 102 yards and two scores in three games with the team.

Arnold could pair up with the ageless Fitzgerald to give Murray more options in the intermediate areas of the field. After relying on layups and 3s for most of his first year in the NFL, Murray could look to develop his touch on his midrange jumper.

Whether Kingsbury looks to spread out and speed back up into five-receiver, empty-back sets or lean on slower, three-receiver looks in 2020, though, I can’t wait to see what this Cardinals offense has in store for its opponents. With Murray under center and a flexible play-caller like Kingsbury directing the action, it feels like the sky’s the limit.