The Cardinals believe they can unleash Kliff Kingsbury’s offense in 2020
“Hey, let me tell you something,” D.J. Humphries said, as if he was about to spill a secret. “The guy’s a wizard. But I won’t tell you anything we’re doing. We’re running the ball left and we’re running the ball right.”
The “wizard” is Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, he who is expected to unleash his Air Raid-influenced offense full force in his second season as NFL head coach. Tied to his success is quarterback Kyler Murray, who many believe can make the massive Year 2 leap just as MVPs Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have the past two seasons.
This offseason, Arizona also brought in X receiver DeAndre Hopkins via trade and transition-tagged running back Kenyan Drake, who returns for his first full season with the Cardinals. Kingsbury has a full tool box to work with, and that has expectations raised after the coach-quarterback duo helped Arizona improve the NFL’s worst offense in 2018 to a middle-rung attack a year ago.
To call Kingsbury’s offense an Air Raid attack may be accurate because of his connections to Texas Tech and Mike Leach’s coaching tree, but it’s misleading. With it come stereotypes.
“I never try to categorize what we do offensively as this or that,” Kingsbury said.
Kingsbury indeed in 2016 allowed Mahomes, then his Texas Tech quarterback, to fire off 88 passes in a single game. His up-tempo style is unique to the NFL and the facts are the Cardinals led the league in 10-personnel usage of four wide receiver sets in 2019.
What’s overlooked is Arizona was second to the Baltimore Ravens by averaging 5.03 yards per carry last year, setting a franchise record.
The running game success discovered midway through 2019 corresponded with the Cardinals’ trade for Drake but moreso was a testament to Kingsbury’s adaptability.
“In my mind, especially seeing him work, seeing some of the things he was able to come up with last year, he’s definitely a mad scientist when it comes to making plays work. Have a lot of Andy Reid-ish in him,” Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said in May. “Going up against his offense every day, the misdirection, being able to run the football downhill and also have the stretch plays, he has it all.
“He has the intermediate pass game, he has down-the-field pass game. I believe that’s what makes him dangerous. It’s not like one thing that’s like, ‘That’s what the Arizona Cardinals do well.’ Especially having Mighty Mouse at quarterback, there’s so many things you have to defend … Having the toys and having this spare time now to sit back, draw up plays, watch film, it’s going to be great for coach.”
And Kingsbury sure did have time to watch film this offseason as the coronavirus canceled training camps, office time and offseason travel opportunities. Kingsbury studied NFL, college and even XFL film. Surely he’s seen some CFL tape after the Cardinals added backup quarterback Chris Streveler, who like Kingsbury played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, in February.
Kingsbury’s willingness to mold all those ideas — ones he admittedly steals — with the running game led by offensive line coach Sean Kugler helped Arizona find its identity last year.
“When it comes to the run game or protections, I’m one of those guys who knows what he doesn’t know,” Kingsbury said. “I don’t try to go there with Coach Kugs because he’s kind of a run game savant. He’s one of the top O-line coaches in the league, if not the best.
“He comes with great ideas, I’ll try to pair some stuff up. If I see something I like or I want to try to do something, he’s been awesome at trying to accommodate me.”
Kugler has some Andy Reid-ish to him as well. He played for the current Kansas City Chiefs coach in 1987-88 when Reid was UTEP’s offensive line coach, and Kugler counts Reid as one of the most impactful coaches in his life.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said the melding of Kingsbury’s and Kugler’s minds has created an offense unique to the NFL. It pulls from college and NFL concepts, and the quick-hit passing game along with the sophisticated rushing attack can frustrate defenses.
Just ask Joseph, who spent the last three weeks playing chess with Kingsbury in training camp.
“He ran two plays (in August) in the inside drill where he pulled both tight ends and pulled the guard,” Joseph said. “You definitely have to have a plan for the run game. That run game is tough because of the quarterback element and because of the double-pulls and triple-pulls and all the things Kugs has brought to the table.
“(Kingsbury has) had run schemes and concepts that I haven’t had answers for in practice. You have to go back and figure it out.”
The Cardinals have an offensive line group that is mostly returning, though Mason Cole earned a promotion from do-it-all backup to starting center. Veteran Kelvin Beachum may be the favorite at right tackle, but backup Justin Murray has 12 games of experience in Kingsbury’s offense from last year.
That group is key, because at its core, Arizona’s offense wants to stretch the ball horizontally and vertically through the air. That’s where the Cardinals believe they can make the biggest leap in 2020.
Murray tied for the most sacks taken in the NFL last year, partially because he held on to the ball too long. Now knowing the offense and seeing the game slow down while reading defenses pre-snap, he’s spoken all offseason about improving the drop-back game.
“I think we all knew at times it was just survival mode out there,” Kingsbury said of Murray’s rookie year. “There was a lot on his plate, moving really fast. There was nowhere to go but go out there and do his best. Just seeing his level of — I wouldn’t say mastery of the offense — but understanding this year compared to last is night and day.”
With Hopkins joining Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals expect to get the ball out of Murray’s hands quicker — Murray still ranked 12th in time to throw (2.73 seconds) despite his habit of hanging on to it. On broken plays, they hope Hopkins can bail the young quarterback out if Murray’s legs cannot. Even Drake hopes his first full year in the offense allows him to navigate better to find open grass, giving Murray a safety-valve in the passing attack.
The Cardinals rolled out 10 personnel (four receivers, one back and no tight ends) less as 2019 went on, but they still ran it 31% of the time. No other team utilized it more than 8% of their snaps.
Whether Andy Isabella or another player separates himself as the No. 4 receiver, the Cardinals will be matchup-hunting with four pass-catchers and a running back often in 2020.
It’s been one of the NFL’s worst-kept secrets that tight end Dan Arnold very well could break out as a favorite target of Murray, giving Arizona, essentially, a 10-personnel look without pushing a tight end off the field.
“No one has four cover guys that (can) cover those four receivers one-on-one in man coverage,” Joseph said.
If teams play man, defenders’ backs are to Murray, giving him the ability to pull the ball and run. Against a zone, the second-year pro has the accuracy to pick a defense apart, the defensive coordinator added.
“I think the combination of coach’s imagination, and the personnel and Kyler’s ability to run and throw, it makes it almost impossible (to defend),” Joseph said. “So to practice against our offense, you have to have a plan and you have to be intentional with your plan. You can’t just call defenses, because if you do, (Kingsbury) will catch you in something.”
Poll the Cardinals’ players and assistant coaches, and they’ll tell you the same common themes: The offense is fast, it’s diverse in how it attacks mismatches and it’s built around the players’ abilities.
Those things are made possible because of Kingsbury’s deep collection of ideas from the film he studied and his willingness to adapt.
Said Drake: “Kliff is one of the more mad-genius, offensive-minded guys in this league because of how he can put players in different positions to go out there and be successful and use your raw, natural ability to mirror up with the things the offense works best at.”