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Dan Bickley

Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching evolution begins to pay off for Arizona Cardinals

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals is seen during the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 6, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Kliff Kingsbury is working.

The Arizona Cardinals head coach is among the first to arrive at team headquarters every morning. He’s among the last to leave. He’s careful to set the right example, leaving no fodder for skeptical players or media critics.

“I don’t keep tabs (on the hours),” Kingsbury said. “But I try to make sure if guys are still here grinding away at it, then I’m around. They can see me, and know if they’re paying that price, I’m willing to pay it right here with them.”

Kinsbury’s ballyhooed offense is also working. The Cardinals have exceeded 400 net yards of offense in successive weeks. They currently rank 10th in the NFL, right behind the Patriots. They fix problems and address issues on the fly, unlike the defensive side of the football.

It’s a remarkable change from the 2018 season, when the Arizona ranked dead last in offense.

Most of this is the ascending stardom of rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who brings unprecedented skill to the position. But a 34-33 victory over the Falcons on Sunday was a testament to his acumen, along with a tempo that had Falcons defenders gasping at the line of scrimmage. And he’s just getting started.

“I think (his playbook) is very deep,” Murray said. “I don’t think a lot of defenses have seen it. Also, I feel like going into a game against the Cardinals you don’t really know what to expect. Kind of hard to game plan for that when we’re throwing things at them (they haven’t seen).”

Kingsbury is very smart. He entered the season relying on four wide-receiver sets, far more than any other NFL team. He has scaled back with each passing week, incorporating more tight end, more power and more running game, including more plays for spark plug Chase Edmonds.

The ongoing evolution illuminates a 40-year old head coach who isn’t stubbornly chained to methodology, like Bruce Arians. He isn’t rigid and inflexible like Steve Wilks, who feared dramatic changes in his rookie season would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Kingsbury knows he’s laid bare by his inexperience. Acting like he has all the answers would be hubris, an invitation for mutiny. Instead, he’s showing great wisdom and adaptability, playing to the strengths of his players and listening to his offensive line coach when his X’s and O’s don’t add up.

“I’m big, and always have been, on trying to adapt to your personnel, and maximize each player you have to the best of their ability,” Kingsbury said. “That’s the job of a coach.

“So we may have started one way, had some trial and error, and seeing where it went. And then we try to evolve into being the best version of ourselves. I think our guys are understanding how we can be as an offense, when we’re playing downhill and not making negative plays. It’s certainly increasing our chances of being successful.”

Kingsbury’s play selection was certainly a factor in Sunday’s victory. He’s learned how to get Murray in rhythm to start games. It’s reminiscent of the early impact Arians had as a play-calling head coach, once he got on the same page with Carson Palmer.

“I know how to call it for our quarterback better than I did in Week One,” Kingsbury said. “We have a comfort level right now when it comes to what he likes, how he likes to be coached on game day, and talked through all of those things. It’s a process that will continue to evolve over the entire year.”

Kingsbury is 2-3-1 after six games, a respectable record achieved without star cornerback Patrick Peterson. He was ridiculed and targeted far more than any other first-year head coach in the NFL and yet his record trails only Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur. Meanwhile, Arians and Freddie Kitchens have four losses while Adam Gase, Brian Flores and Zac Taylor have combined for one victory.

Kingsbury has a chance to win big in the NFL, vindicating Keim and defying all those who thought a failed college coach did not deserve to fall up the ladder, landing in the rough-and-tumble NFL. But Kingsbury is humble. He runs his offense and not his mouth. He won’t take credit for anything the Cardinals have achieved so far, and maybe he never will.

“I’ve coached enough and called plays long enough to know it’s about your personnel,” Kingsbury said. “You can draw up the best plays in the world that you think in your head. If you don’t have the cats to run it, it’s not going to look very good. I got over myself when it comes to play-calling and offense a long time ago. Now, I try to make it about the players.”

That’s the mark of very bright rookie head coach. Someone who entered the NFL with a target on his back. Someone smart enough to know what he was getting into, avoiding all unnecessary arrows.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier