All the reasons the Cardinals’ decision to hire Kliff Kingsbury is troubling
Arizona prematurely fired a black coach, then hired an unqualified white one
There is no good reason for an NFL team to hire Kliff Kingsbury as its head coach. There is not even a plausible bad reason to hire Kliff Kingsbury. Kliff Kingsbury himself had to be shocked when his agent called to let him know that an NFL team had interest in interviewing him. Had he thought it was a possibility, he wouldn’t have signed on to become the offensive coordinator at USC.
Let me be clear: I don’t begrudge Kingsbury this ultimate finesse. Honestly, I am impressed and admire his ingenuity. Thanks to the success of Sean McVay, we are in a young, handsome, offensive genius bubble, the perfect market for Kingsbury to sell himself. And as the saying goes: You only need one sucker.
But I can’t understand how the Arizona Cardinals arrived at this decision.
While I think the logic that underpins the conventional way the league goes about hiring head coaches is deeply flawed, and I have written in great detail about it, I understand how teams can convince themselves that they’ve found the right guy. The justifications for most head coach hires are as follows:
- Retread: The candidate had some success doing this job elsewhere. With the proper support and the value of previous experience, he can reproduce and improve on that level of success.
- Accomplished coordinator: This candidate was great at strategy, play design and playcalling for one side of the ball. While those skills are not directly applicable to the requirements of a head coach, being good on one side of the ball or the other is obviously valuable.
- Championship proximity: This candidate was on the staff of a winner. And presumably he knows how to duplicate the culture and conditions that facilitate success.
- Step up: This candidate has succeeded as a head coach in college or in a different pro football league, so he should be able to do it in the NFL.
None of these reasons applies to Kingsbury, who was fired from Texas Tech after a 5-7 campaign in 2018. For those who would excuse Kingsbury’s losing by pointing out how difficult it is to win at Texas Tech, that’s true, but since when is failing at a place like Lubbock a springboard to one of the 32 most coveted jobs in coaching? Oh, and Kingsbury’s two predecessors were also more successful than he was at Texas Tech. Mike Leach had a .661 win percentage from 2000-09, followed by Tommy Tuberville’s three seasons with a .541 win percentage, so it’s not impossible to win at Texas Tech. Kingsbury is actually the only Texas Tech head coach since Jerry Moore (1982-85) to end his tenure in Lubbock with a losing record.
And if, as we all suspect, the Cardinals are trying to copy their division rival, the Los Angeles Rams, and find their own Sean McVay, they are focusing on the wrong attributes.
McVay’s unit was sixth in expected points added (EPA) in the NFL when he was offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins in 2016. This past season, the offensive EPA for Kingsbury’s Red Raiders was good for 34th in all of college football and fifth out of 10 teams in their own conference. So, contrary to what you may have heard, he is not an offensive guru. The pass-happy, air-raid offense he runs could certainly work in the NFL, but it is not new; many of the principles that once made it special when it was first innovated by Mike Leach in the early ’90s at Iowa Wesleyan have long since been adopted by NFL teams. He brings nothing new to the NFL and hasn’t had a track record of offensive innovation.
But maybe that’s not what the Cardinals want from Kingsbury. Maybe they want him to perform some McVay-esque magic on second-year quarterback Josh Rosen. McVay earned his title as a quarterback whisperer by transforming Jared Goff from the worst quarterback in NFL history to a legitimate franchise quarterback in just one season. Although Kingsbury has been around a lot of good quarterbacks, there is no evidence that his influence has improved them.
He certainly seems to have a good eye for spotting talent. He picked Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes when few other programs thought they were good enough. But Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma after an injury-plagued freshman season, won the Heisman Trophy as a senior, was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 NFL draft and is currently the best quarterback in his draft class. Mayfield has gotten progressively better every season he moves farther away from Kingsbury. Which isn’t necessarily Kingsbury’s fault, but a quarterback whisperer it does not make him.
Mahomes, on the other hand, put up monster numbers in his three seasons under Kingsbury. So Kingsbury deserves some credit for “whispering” to Mahomes. But how much of that translated to Mahomes putting up monster numbers in his first season in the NFL? Maybe Mahomes is just a monster. Had Mahomes come to the NFL and become a bust, maybe we’d wonder what Kingsbury was whispering at Texas Tech to get so much out of him. Instead, I am wondering why they won only five games in Mahomes’ final and best season at Texas Tech.
Kingsbury is also credited as a quarterback whisperer for what he did with Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and Case Keenum at Houston. Manziel was a talented player, but he never conformed to the Kingsbury offense. Manziel did not become an NFL-ready passer under Kingsbury. In my view, Keenum is the one shining example of Kingsbury’s ability to get the most out of a quarterback. With Kingsbury as his coordinator, Keenum was a Heisman candidate. As a senior he threw for 5,631 yards, 48 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Granted this was against Conference USA talent, but impressive nonetheless. Still, with those numbers, NFL teams didn’t deem Keenum talented enough to draft. Which tells me that NFL scouts determined it wasn’t Keenum’s talent carrying that offense.
But even if I give Kingsbury 100 percent of the credit for Keenum’s 2011 college success, that has never been enough to get an NFL head-coaching job. It couldn’t even get him a college head-coaching job. Kingsbury was set to be USC’s offensive coordinator if the thirsty Cardinals didn’t swoop in. Although Kingsbury’s not in Conference USA anymore, there is sparse evidence he can get the most out of Rosen.
There is still another big problem: He has never been the head coach of a team with a good defense. Not even a decent defense. His teams’ cumulative defensive EPA over his five years in Texas Tech is good for a No. 127 ranking.
I know he is not being hired for his defensive prowess, but he is also not being hired as a quarterback coach or offensive coordinator. As head coach, the performance of the defense is kind of important. Hiring a head coach is like marriage, in that you are not just marrying a person, you’re marrying a family — or, in this case, a staff.
Possibly the most important staff member for McVay and the Rams was a 71-year-old defensive coordinator with head-coaching experience, Wade Phillips. One would assume Kingsbury would be well-served to add a keen defensive mind to his staff. But, based on his teams’ track record, I am pretty sure he doesn’t know any.
For his sake, I hope he meets some good defensive coaches and turns out to be the second coming of Bill Belichick. I will celebrate him. But even if the result is good, it doesn’t mean the decision-making process was sound.
It certainly wasn’t fair.
In the shadow of the Blackest Monday, and renewed inspection of the impact of the Rooney Rule, Arizona has made itself a poster child for what not to do. The Cardinals fired Steve Wilks, their black head coach, after just one season, which no sane person would believe is enough time to fairly evaluate a coach. Meanwhile, they retained their white general manager, Steve Keim, who put together the underachieving team and was arrested over the summer for suspicion of DUI.
And instead of hiring one of the dozens of coaches, black or white, whose résumé outshines Wilks’ fairly weak résumé (before becoming Cardinals head coach, he was an NFL defensive coordinator for just one season), they went and found a white coach who is less qualified.
To be completely fair to Keim and Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, I have spent no time in the Cardinals’ building this season. So maybe whatever Wilks was doing was so terrible that another season would have been untenable. And maybe the poor judgment that landed Keim in jail for suspicion of DUI is completely independent from the judgment needed to build a championship team. But, even if all of that is true, that doesn’t change the facts. In a league that has identified the hiring practices of its teams as a problem, the Cardinals prematurely fired a black coach and replaced him with an unqualified white coach.
They are free to make those decisions, of course. And we are obligated to bring their inconsistencies and apparent biases to light. But this story won’t end here. Firing Wilks after one season and keeping Keim suggests the Cardinals believe Wilks grossly mismanaged the talent acquired by Keim and well undershot their win expectations. Now, all eyes will be watching how the Cardinals treat Kingsbury at the end of next season should they underachieve again.