SI’s Breer: Kliff Kingsbury was on to Houston as Cardinals closed out Browns
Oct 18, 2021, 8:00 PM
It looked like the Arizona Cardinals knew what they were doing Sunday.
A 37-14 win against the Cleveland Browns didn’t come without a frenzy on Friday, when the team learned head coach Kliff Kingsbury was among those who would miss the game due to a positive COVID-19 test.
But the game plan was in place.
It just came down to handing off Kingsbury’s duties. Defensive coordinator and acting head coach Vance Joseph said the staff regrouped Friday night to divvy up duties.
“It was more about the group effort than one guy,” Joseph told Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke. “Most of our work is done during the week. The beauty of coach not being positive until Friday was most of the work was done. The entire game plan was in, it was vetted … Saturday morning all he missed was a quick walk-through Saturday morning and a quick walk-through Saturday night.
“For the players it was very normal. … He had the sheet organized where the guys could call it easily.”
According to follow-up reporting from Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer and NBC’s Peter King, the thought process was about keeping things as close to normal as possible.
With quarterbacks coach Cam Turner also out with COVID-19, Kingsbury gave assistant receivers coach Spencer Whipple the play-calling headset. Why?
That helped keep run game coordinator Sean Kugler in his usual role as the first person in the play-caller’s ear with run game decisions. Whipple, however, called pass plays from the already completed game plan.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph took on the head-coaching duties, while special teams coach Jeff Rodgers took the challenge flag that Kingsbury usually carries. But for the 32-year-old Whipple and the rest of the staff, the Cardinals wanted to keep the rules simple: Call things as Kingsbury would.
That included a 4th-and-2 with 2:20 left. With the backups in, Arizona went for it and converted with a Jonathan Ward rush.
According to Breer, Kingsbury accepted he would be unable to contribute and from home for most of the game was already planning for next week’s matchup against the Houston Texans.
The funny thing about that drive is Kingsbury missed all of that. Back home in Arizona, he actually decided to use the three-hour block the game was played in to work ahead on the Texans, the Cardinals’ opponent next week, while keeping track of the score of his team’s game on his phone.
Finally, with about three minutes left, he decided to tune in, most because he was happy for the guys and wanted to see them celebrate a win they’d so richly earned.
Aside from a few needed timeouts, the offense flowed well with the system put in place late Friday.
Rodgers, according to King, had calming advice for Whipple, who had only called plays prior as an assistant coach at UMass against South Florida.
Plus, as special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers told Whipple: “It’s not like you’re going to be driving a minivan. You’re taking the keys to a Ferrari in this game.”
Quarterback Kyler Murray — the Ferrari — went 20-of-30 for 229 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions while running Whipple’s plays from Kingsbury play-sheet. Whipple told King that he gained comfort on the first drive of the day.
The play he recalled fondly after the game was the first touchdown. Arizona had a third-and-19 at the Cleveland 21 on the opening drive. Murray’s favorite play on third-and-long was a corner route to Christian Kirk; if the Cards ran it right, Kirk should have single-coverage. “I just thought, ‘Kyler loves it, so let’s call it,’“ said Whipple.
The completion put the Cardinals up, 7-0.
Arizona rolled from there.
Toward the end of the game, with the Cardinals up big, they went heavily to the run behind the play-calls of Kugler. On their second-to-last drive, they burned 7:18 off the clock and scored a touchdown.
Kingsbury may not have been completely attentive to the game, but he made sure to send a message to his emergency play-caller afterword, per King.
The text: “Congrats! Hard work pays off!”