DAN BICKLEY

Playoff win is only way Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury can silence critics

Jan 4, 2022, 5:09 PM
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals  on the field before the game against the Seatt...
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals on the field before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field on November 21, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Kliff Kingsbury checked off the big box. He delivered a postseason berth to his bosses. He has done enough to keep his job in Arizona, enough to warrant an offseason extension.

But real respect requires a little more. If the Cardinals head coach truly covets next-level credibility, he needs to win a playoff game in 2022.

That’s the only way Kingsbury can silence the lingering skeptics, and there are plenty.

Do critics matter? Probably not in his world. Kingsbury doesn’t act like a man who needs daily affirmation. He’s comfortable in his own skin and his skinny jeans. If he obsessed over media coverage, he would spend more time manipulating his image in press gatherings, tilting the system to his advantage. He does not. Much respect.

But the great paradox of Kingsbury is the personal style vs. true substance. He has been described as a football coach to the bone, a man who prefers devoting his hours to the job and not the club. If this is true, then he surely yearns for a higher level of professional respect. To be considered an impact head coach, a reputation that has eluded him his entire career.

Recurring questions arose during the Cardinals’ recent three-game losing streak. Undisciplined penalties. Bad energy. Grab-bag play calling. An offense full of cute that too easily abandons the run. A team that is inexplicably 3-4 at home, posting a losing record in front of the paying customers. Panicky moments inside the fishbowl, when all those big decisions add up.

Kingbury’s teams have a long history of collapsing in the second half of seasons, when the loose culture of his program makes it harder to get the car out of the ditch. Before Sunday’s win in Dallas, shots were fired from all over the league, and not just in this space.

An anonymous AFC scouting director told FanSided’s Matt Lombardo that Kingsbury is “overhyped and not a good coach.”  An anonymous NFL personnel executive said “Arizona’s like an arena football team. If they lose their perimeter guys, they lose their identity, they lose what they have … Here’s the problem with Arizona; they’re a finesse team.”

A league source said, “Honestly I think it’s that Kliff has such an easy-going atmosphere in that building. Hell, leading into Week 1, the first team never practiced or played together at full-speed. Veterans hardly ever practice. There isn’t any structure or discipline there.”

Finally, a veteran Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist offered the following paragraph:

“If you don’t think looking good matters during a job interview, you have not followed Kliff Kingsbury’s coaching career. Coach Bro’s Arizona Cardinals came to AT&T Stadium on Sunday with a team that recently had been playing as if it were in a drunken stupor. It’s the type of season Texas Tech fans became all too familiar with when he was the Red Raiders’ head coach from 2013-18.”

Some of the criticisms above ring true. Much of it is tired assumption from those not paying close attention. All of it surfaced before Kingsbury and his entire coaching staff scored a bloody knockout of the Cowboys in Dallas, fueling new momentum in Arizona.

But this much is written in stone:  In nearly every season on the job, Kingsbury’s closing acts have been highly disappointing. He gets criticized for failing to win with Patrick Mahomes. For going 0-for-5 over the past two seasons in playoff-clinching games. For falling up the professional ladder, for getting a NFL head coaching job without paying his dues, at the expense of better candidates.

Kingsbury surely wants to flush that last narrative. He has met the core requirements in 2022. The Cardinals have a playoff berth in pocket and can still win the NFC West on Sunday. A strong finish is finally within reach for Kingsbury, one that would bring new waves of professional respect, maybe even retire the ‘Coach Bro’ moniker for good.

But that requires more than just beating the Seahawks on Sunday. That means winning a playoff game in two weeks, on the biggest of stages, silencing those who can argue no more.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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