Kliff Kingsbury’s Big 12 offense ain’t flyin’


Kliff Kingsbury

Kliff Kingsbury
Photo: Getty Images

The Cardinals got scooped by a bigger bird when the Seattle Seahawks’ 32nd-ranked defense held Arizona out of the end zone. In Arizona’s 19-9 defeat, quarterback Kyler Murray threw for fewer than 300 yards for a third consecutive week. Murray’s contract extension has been the subject of endless scrutiny and mockery in the offseason, but Klumsy Kingsbury’s miscues have been piling up and swept under the rug at an equally prolific rate.

Kingsbury was hired in 2019 specifically to construct an offensive ecosystem in which Murray could succeed. For some reason, Kingsbury was thought to be that guy. Coach GQ was undeserving of an NFL job when he was hired and was more undeserving of an extension this summer. Through the first trimester of his fourth season at the helm, he’s shown nothing that suggests he ever will provide enough value to prove he is worth the money.

Murray made plays happen with his feet to the tune of 100 rushing yards, but the passing attack that Kingsbury was responsible for jumpstarting, has been duller than a butter knife. Despite the Cardinals’ defense allowing 20 or fewer points in their last four games, they are only 2-2 in that stretch. In the 10-point loss, the Cardinals missed an extra point and elected to go for it on three fourth downs within field goal range. Those 10 points left on the board can be attributed to the lack of trust the coaching staff has in Matt Prater’s replacement, Matt Ammendola, especially after he missed a game-tying field goal against Philadelphia last weekend.

Still, it shouldn’t have come to that in a matchup pitting the Cardinals against the worst defense in the NFL. The Cardinals scored their only touchdown when safety Chris Banjo returned a fumble by the Seahawks punter for a touchdown. Even that score ended with the Cardinals punching themselves in the mouth when the kicker they should have catapulted last week missed the extra point.

Kingsbury was hired to spearhead one of the NFL’s most innovative offenses. He was depicted as a young, swashbuckling offensive mind. Instead, he’s shown to be stubborn, inflexible and unable to adjust. Why would he even feel he needs to? General manager Steve Keim awarded Kingsbury with a fat new contract after another Kingsbury-coached unit collapsed in the second half of the season in 2021.

Murray and Kingsbury are a doomed partnership, but after awarding Murray with $230 million, they shouldn’t hesitate to protect their investment by taking the loss on Kingsbury’s contract (if this trend continues) and seek fresh perspectives elsewhere.

Kingsbury promised to move things around personnel-wise and scheme-wise following Sunday’s loss, but the cold hard truth is that Kingbury’s offensive mastermind license has expired. Fielding 10 personnel in four-receiver sets at nearly twice the rate of any other team hasn’t been cutting it.

Murray entered Sunday with the fifth-lowest average in intended air yards, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. A healthy DeAndre Hopkins and the recently traded for Robbie Anderson will be valuable downfield targets who can open the offense up vertically, but watching the Seahawks, Giants, and even the Falcons do more with less is clarifying.

Looking across the field at the Seahawks illustrates how the grass could be greener for Murray. Smith has a fraction of Murray’s talent; however, Pete Carroll has been in perfect sync with the revitalized Geno Smith. One guy is a coaching virtuoso while Kingsbury only plays autotune.

If Pete Carroll can carve modern offensive masterpieces with Smith, then there is a system out there that can make the best use of Kyler Murray’s bebop jazz quarterbacking. There’s enough blame to go around, but Murray’s 25-year-old football brain is still forming. The blame was placed at the feet of Murray’s preparation, but if the instructor’s message isn’t working, then it’s time to turn to a new one. First and foremost, Murray is not a pocket passer. The Eagles play-action heavy offense has facilitated Jalen Hurts’ maturation into an MVP candidate and given Arizona the blueprint for how to get a roaming quarterback like Murray throwing on the run.

Play-action passing is just the start. All the speed Kingsbury has accumulated should have made Arizona more difficult to game-plan against. Instead, they seem more vexed offensively by opposing defenses. For instance, the best offensive tacticians utilize pre-snap motions to remove the defense’s best playmakers from the action. Yet, instead of incorporating pre-snap motion into their attack to keep defenses on their toes and optimize Murray’s mobility, Kingsbury’s offense is virtually non-existent.

The Cardinals finished 29th in utilizing pre-snap motion in 2021, 32nd in 2020 and 27th in 2019 despite being a more efficient offense when they utilize it. When they did use motion, Arizona ranked fifth in the positive play rate metric (percentage of plays that produce positive EPA) in 2021, 11th in 2020, and third in 2019.

As former-NFL-backup-quarterback-turned-ESPN-NFL-analyst Dan Orlovsky explained pre-snap motion concepts in 2020, “One of the main themes when it comes to offensive football in the NFL nowadays is, it’s no longer ok to just line up and play. The really great offenses, the Ravens, the 49ers, the Chiefs, the Rams, that have great play designers and play-callers, they know it’s all about change.”

The teams that excel at pre-snap motion change so quickly that defenses struggle to play catch up.

“These play callers understand I’m going to present my formation to the defense and I have a pretty good idea they have to match my formation. They know what the defense is going to look like and then they’re going to change,” added Orlovsky.

NFL offenses are about change, but the only way that can occur in Arizona is with new leadership in place.

Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has thrived in creating motion plays within the Chiefs offense. It’s helped to have Patrick Mahomes, but the Chiefs could have easily ripped off Kingsbury’s Texas Tech playbook and let him throw out of empty backfields every down. Instead, Reid and Bieniemy became the innovators Kingsbury was falsely proclaimed to be. Even Sean Payton has understood how to highlight the strengths of a short quarterback with Drew Brees.

Following Thursday Night Football, the Cardinals are off for 10 days and become the focus of “Hard Knocks In Season” in November. If they don’t go on a winning streak here soon, the Cardinals’ nerves will be exposed for all to see, poke and prod at for the second half of the season.





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