DAN BICKLEY

Kliff Kingsbury biggest winner of Cardinals’ start to preseason

Aug 15, 2022, 6:27 PM

Head coach Kliff Kingbury of the Arizona Cardinals participants in a team training camp at State Fa...

Head coach Kliff Kingbury of the Arizona Cardinals participants in a team training camp at State Farm Stadium on August 03, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Generally, it doesn’t end well between me and Valley head coaches. It’s the natural order of things. They eventually fail, like most head coaches in professional sports. And they inevitably tire of my critical analysis and loudmouth. Things can get a little weird.

Vince Tobin did not appreciate the nickname, “Mr. Beige.” Larry Fitzgerald still thinks I was too harsh on his godfather, Dennis Green. And over the past two seasons, I have been extremely blunt in my ongoing evaluation of current Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

But he sure looked good on Friday.

On my scorecard, Kingsbury was the biggest winner in a meaningless preseason win over the Bengals. His football team was orderly, hungry and focused. They scored 36 points in three quarters. They committed zero turnovers and only two penalties. He unveiled a pair of new quarterbacks, both of whom functioned at a very high level inside his offense.

It resembled the handiwork of a true offensive guru.

To be clear: Preseason football is a siren. She is not to be trusted. When the outcome doesn’t matter, the game doesn’t qualify as sport. But after a disastrous playoff loss to the Rams in January, the crisp performance certainly whets the appetite and soothes the nerves. Which means Kingsbury helped restore a much-needed sense of lift to the program.

This didn’t happen overnight.

While drama raged around Kyler Murray’s contract, DeAndre Hopkins’ suspension and Rodney Hudson’s state of mind, Kingsbury was liberated by this contentious offseason. Instead of sitting on an NFL hot seat in 2022, as many expected, he was gifted a contract extension through 2027. Many howled in disbelief at Kingsbury’s reward, present company included.

But maybe it was the validation Kingsbury needed to grow in stature. To prove he deserved one of the 32 most coveted jobs in football. The early returns are promising.

Kingsbury made Murray call plays during a training camp scrimmage. He doubled down Friday in Cincinnati, pulling Murray out of his comfort zone and making him engage completely, asking him to run the offense once again. On both occasions, Kingsbury trolled his quarterback’s suspect sideline performance, poking fun at Murray in a way that speaks volumes about their mutual growth.

Don’t think the team doesn’t notice Kingsbury’s friendly barbs. And if walls are coming down around Murray, and the rest of the group feels comfortable playfully ribbing their franchise quarterback, this team might be crossing an important threshold.

Kingsbury has also been more open and entertaining during media sessions, a sure sign of his growing comfort level. He’s twice called out a defensive player by name (Marco Wilson). His grabby cornerbacks were seen wearing oven mitts in practice as a teaching aid so they wouldn’t get flagged for holding penalties.

The little things matter because Kingsbury is a complicated subject around here. In his three years, the Cardinals have elevated from five to eight to 11 victories. They made the playoffs in 2021. Yet the progress looks better on graph paper than it does on the football field, mostly because the Cardinals have collapsed horribly in the past two seasons. They have failed miserably in high-stakes football, in playoff-clinching games. They were horribly outcoached and unprepared for a postseason clash against the Rams.

The Cardinals are betting that coaches like Kingsbury are the wave of the future: offensive-minded, player-friendly, more empowering than authoritarian. Kingsbury is not the type to scream, yell or throw you under a bus in a postgame press conference. If you are a self-starting professional, there could be no better environment.

Kingsbury is also a risky proposition because football teams are small armies. They need discipline and order to survive the hard times. When things go wrong, there must be a foundation of accountability and a commanding, unwavering voice at the top.

Kingsbury must be all of that. He must prove he can flourish in the fire, during hard times, when the pressure is suffocating, when the team is silently screaming for an alpha to lead them out of darkness. That’s the next frontier. That’s when the Coach Bro moniker disappears for good.

Dan Bickley

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Kliff Kingsbury biggest winner of Cardinals’ start to preseason