2019 NFL preview: Kliff Kingsbury couldn’t win in Big 12, can he win with Cardinals?

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Kliff Kingsbury is unlike any other head-coaching hire in recent NFL memory. Kyler Murray is unlike any No. 1 pick in NFL history, and aside from Doug Flutie, different than any other quarterback over the past 50 years.

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The Arizona Cardinals were undeniably awful last season. They might be awful again this season, but they shouldn’t be dull.

Kingsbury was a failure at Texas Tech, his alma mater that revered him. He posted four straight losing seasons, and four of five, before he was fired. He couldn’t beat the Big 12, but he’s expected to win in the NFL.

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It’s exceptionally rare to get hired as an NFL head coach after posting a losing record in college (Dennis Green is a notable exception, and he did fine). It might be unprecedented to get fired after losing in college and land in the NFL weeks later. There’s a reason Kingsbury jumped on the USC offensive coordinator job, which he left once the Cardinals hired him. He and his agent clearly didn’t know he could land an NFL head coaching job. Based on his resume, they had no reason to believe it was possible.

Murray is the first of his kind too, but at least he was good in college. Last season’s Heisman Trophy winner is 5-foot-10. He’s not only the first quarterback that short to go first in the draft, he’ll become just the second quarterback 5-10 or shorter to start a game in the Super Bowl era. Flutie finally has company.

Murray’s stature doesn’t mean he’ll fail. However, other than Flutie, there’s nobody quite like him in the modern NFL. That’s scary.

But can you blame the Cardinals for getting crazy? They were the NFL’s worst team last season and it wasn’t close. Coach Steve Wilks probably deserved more than one year. Quarterback Josh Rosen, the 10th pick of last year’s draft, could still thrive in Miami. But there’s good reason the Cardinals went for the hard reset.

Murray’s size aside, there’s no great reason to believe he won’t succeed. Quarterbacks, even those picked first overall, bust all the time. Murray could too. But it’s hard to find much fault in his game. He seems like a good bet.

Kingsbury is the real gamble here. Either Texas Tech failed miserably and historically with a future NFL star head coach, or the Cardinals made a big mistake. One or the other.

Kingsbury put together some very good offenses at Texas Tech. When the Cardinals hired him, they pointed out his Texas Tech offenses ranked top 10 among all FBS teams in passing yards all six seasons Kingsbury was in Lubbock, and averaged at least 30 points, 470 total yards and 300 passing yards per game each season. Four times the Red Raiders averaged 500 yards per game. That’s why he got the job in the pass-heavy NFL. That part makes sense.

The Cardinals are fully invested as they took a big loss on Rosen to get Kingsbury his quarterback. They drafted three receivers and a tight end. Maybe Kingsbury will tweak his offense for the NFL, but this looks like “Air Raid,” full speed ahead. The NFL has incorporated so-called college concepts, with spread formations and up-tempo play-calling, but the 2019 Cardinals might take that to a different level. Running back David Johnson told the team’s website the Cardinals want to run “90 or 95 plays a game.” Last season the Baltimore Ravens led the NFL at 70.9 plays per game. Arizona should be fun to watch.

The Cardinals’ old approach wasn’t working. They’ve never won a Super Bowl. Last season they went 3-13, and two wins were against the Jimmy Garoppolo-less 49ers. It’s hard to find any metric that indicates the Cardinals were good at any part of football last season. And on top of the deficiencies the Cardinals had to fix, they’ll be without eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson for six games this season due to a PED suspension.

The Cardinals have been mostly anonymous as a franchise since moving to Arizona in 1988. That might change quickly with a new style. We’ll see if wins follow.

Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals was a unique NFL hire. (Getty Images)
Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals was a unique NFL hire. (Getty Images)

The Cardinals had a draft many experts liked, loading up at receiver, getting cornerback Byron Murphy at a great value in the second round, and of course, Murray. The Cardinals helped a bad offensive line a little in free agency, linebacker Jordan Hicks could be very good when healthy and cornerback Robert Alford might help at a position of need. The indecision on trading Josh Rosen, and the loss of value that resulted, has to be factored in. Otherwise, a good offseason.

Grade: B

Whether or not Steve Wilks and his staff deserved to be fired after one season, those coaches had a poor year. The offense was lost, and the defense never took to a 4-3 scheme. The defense will return to a 3-4, and we know the offense will be much different. We don’t know if Kingsbury and his staff, which includes former Broncos head coach Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator, will succeed. But everyone knows how important coaching is, and a change can’t hurt.

The Cardinals’ offensive line was a big problem in 2018. Pro Football Focus graded it as the worst unit in the NFL. Football Outsiders had the Cardinals’ line ranked 25th. Injuries were a big reason, and presumably the Cardinals won’t be so unlucky this season. Maybe a new scheme helps too, but the Cardinals didn’t do too much to add to the line this offseason. They didn’t draft a lineman until the sixth round. Guards J.R. Sweezy and Max Garcia were signed, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert was acquired from the Steelers in a trade, but they’re short-term fixes at best. The line could be an issue again, and that’s usually not a great thing for a rookie quarterback.

The move to trade Josh Rosen a year after picking him 10th overall was unusual, but understandable. Perhaps the Cardinals felt Rosen was good but Kyler Murray has MVP potential. Quarterback is the most important position in sports, so unconventional ways to chase greatness at that spot shouldn’t be dismissed. And Murray has top-five quarterback upside. An excellent pre-draft breakdown of Murray from Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm described Murray thusly: “Murray is a rare playmaker with a unique skill set who could change the paradigm at the position in the NFL with success.” He could be special.

In a perfect world Larry Fitzgerald would exit on top, not on a rebuilding team trying a brand new offense. But Fitzgerald is back for another season, and will be a veteran leader on a team that needs it. Fitzgerald, an 11-time Pro Bowler, saw his numbers dip to 69 catches and 734 yards last season, but part of that was a bad offense with a rookie quarterback. Even though Fitzgerald will be 36, he might have a rebound. Even if the Cardinals are bad again we can still appreciate Fitzgerald, the consummate professional.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “David Johnson has settled back in as a first-round pick in early high-stakes ADP, which might be surprising given how little he did the last two years. But last year everything was working against Johnson; this year, all arrows point to DJ. The quarterback position is likely upgraded, and an incompetent coaching staff has been cleaned out. Johnson was grossly underutilized as a receiver last year, but the new staff figures to correct that. Take those easy yards when you can.

“Yes, injury did wipe out DJ in 2017, but at least it was a wrist injury. It’s not something we worry about going forward.

“If you want to pick Johnson in the first round — heck, in the first half of the first round — I’ll stand by you. He might not have the sturdiest floor, but he still has the plausible upside to be fantasy’s No. 1 player. Into his age-28 season, I’m happy to buy.”

While Kingsbury’s offense is known as “Air Raid,” it’s not like Texas Tech passed exclusively:

2013: 32.5 rushing attempts per game, 118.2 rushing yards per game

2014: 29.6 attempts, 153 yards

2015: 35.7 attempts, 191.3 yards

2016: 32.4 attempts, 103.6 yards

2017: 35.3 attempts, 140.9 yards

2018: 36.4 attempts, 131.8 yards

This is good news for running back David Johnson. He was in a shotgun-based offense at Northern Iowa. He also will have fewer defenders to deal with in the box, if the Cardinals spread it out. And hopefully Kingsbury will be more creative with him, after last year’s staff was content to run Johnson up the middle over and over. The Cardinals might have an “Air Raid” offense but Johnson could have a big year on the ground.


There hasn’t been a definitive statement on what, if any, changes Kingsbury will make to his offense. But center A.Q. Shipley had an interesting comment on “The Pat McAfee Show.”

"All of college football is all shotgun, correct?" Shipley said, via the Arizona Republic. "So, 99 percent of what we’re going to be doing, what do you think it’s going to be?


Kingsbury wouldn’t say if 90-plus percent was realistic, but pointed out that the Chiefs were in shotgun more than 80 percent of the time last season.

Is this going to be a full spread-em-out, up-tempo offense with almost every snap from the shotgun? Kingsbury used a one-back, four-receiver look about 60 percent of his last four Texas Tech seasons, according to the Arizona Republic. Will Murray be regularly used in run-pass options? Probably. However, Kingsbury said it’s “not like we’re going super fast every play,” and battled other misconceptions.

"That it's going to be wide open every single snap, throw it every play," Kingsbury said, speaking on other misconceptions of his offense, according to the Arizona Republic. "That's not what it's going to be."

We don’t know what the offense will be, and that’s an edge the Cardinals can exploit early in the season. It should look different than most other teams, or why even make such a radical head-coaching hire?

The Cardinals were dreadful on offense last season. They were last in the NFL in yards per run play and yards per pass play, which is tough to do. It’s not outrageous to think Murray can be a Baker Mayfield-like instant star and Kingsbury’s offensive acumen confuses the NFL, at least for a while. There’s a ton of room for offensive improvement, and that could make the Cardinals a big surprise.

The NFL is hard. Kingsbury couldn’t win at Texas Tech with Lamar and Kansas on his schedule. There’s no realistic scenario in which Kingsbury is an NFL star coach and at the same time it’s also perfectly reasonable why Texas Tech couldn’t even go to the Camping World Bowl once in a while with the next Sean McVay. If Kingsbury rules the NFL, TTU might want to reconsider this whole FBS football thing. Maybe Kingsbury is a historical outlier and dominates the NFL. If he doesn’t, the mess might take a while to clean up.

Even a big improvement from the Cardinals might not bring them back to .500. They were outscored by 200 points last season. They have a first-time NFL coach and a rookie quarterback. The Cardinals should be fun to watch, even if the record doesn’t improve too much.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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