Cardinals’ Kliff Kingsbury ‘Ahead of the Curve’ in Key Grade

Getty Images Kliff Kingsbury smiles after defeating the Houston Texans in 2021.

The Arizona Cardinals have themselves a mainstay in third-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Kingsbury’s name is a hot name at the moment. Top college football program Oklahoma is interested in Kingsbury’s services according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. And why wouldn’t they? He’s leading a NFL’s best record 9-2 squad.

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A big reason why Oklahoma is intrigued by Kingsbury has to be the total transformation of anchoring a once-inept offense. The Cardinals’ 2018 team finished 32nd in total offense. Arizona hired young offensive-minded Kingsbury in 2019 and three years later was ranked the best offense after Week 11 in 2021 according to Cardinals PR.

While Kingsbury deserves major credit, general manager Steve Keim pairing Kingsbury with dual-threat Kyler Murray in lockstep was a match-made in heaven. Kingsbury has contributed to Murray leading the league in big-time throw rate according to Pro Football Focus (9.0%) and has the best turnover-worthy play rate (1.0%) in the league.

When Murray missed three games with an ankle injury, backup Colt McCoy stepped in and had two great games. Kingsbury’s game scripts in the two wins with McCoy were methodical, getting him wide open targets and even letting him run with his legs.

If you needed more reason, Kingsbury stands out from the rest in one relatively new metric.

Kingsbury Beats Out Competition

On December 1, ESPN came out with a piece titled “How Good is Your NFL Coach on Fourth-Down Calls?”.

Teams are on-pace to dial up the most fourth-down attempts in 2021. They’re also “getting better at making those calls that give them the best chance to win.” The rate has increased in the last four years and will surely continue due to the increased level of analytics.

ESPN’s analytical team ranked all 32 head coaches on fourth-down based on three metrics:

  • Total win probability sacrificed through fourth-down errors
  • Difference in expected fourth-down conversion rates vs. actual rates
  • Non-obvious fourth-down error rate

Kingsbury was ranked first. Here’s what he measured in the three metrics:

  • 18.7% (Rank: 7)
  • 6.5% (Rank: 1)
  • 20.2% (Rank: 2)

Cardinals fans know all too well that Kingsbury is aggressive. And when fourth-downs don’t work out, such as Kingsbury going for it on their own territory early with McCoy in their loss to the Carolina Panthers, fans will remember.

However, ESPN reporter Josh Weinfuss noted the Cardinals best-fourth down call of the 2021 season.

Down 33-31 in this season’s Week 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings with 6:12 left in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals faced a fourth-and-5 from the Vikings’ 44,” said Weinfuss. “Quarterback Kyler Murray hit wide receiver Christian Kirk for a 35-yard pass that put Arizona at the Vikings’ 6 and four plays later, kicker Matt Prater hit a 27-yard field goal that put the Cardinals up 34-33 and wound up being the deciding score. It helped the Cardinals improve to 2-0, which eventually turned into 7-0, and the game turned into a crucial NFC win because of how the standings may shake out in January.”

NFL Keeps Evolving

Four of the top five coaches ranked on fourth-down calls by ESPN are in prime position for the playoffs (Kingsbury, LaFleur, Harbaugh, Reid).

The NFL is evolving and teams will only continue to follow the lengths it takes to one-up an opponent.

League sources estimate 28 of 32 head coaches have game-management specialists, with about 10 of those being members of the team’s analytics department. The trend of teams being more aggressive on fourth down is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. The practice is becoming more widely accepted and is likely to be commonplace before long.

Kingsbury is widely successful in his fourth-down craft. And when you stand out, other teams take notice.

Oklahoma would attest to this.

You better believe the Cardinals know this too.

With Kingsbury having one year left on his current deal and a fifth-year option, the Cardinals will surely give an extension a thought to the 42-year-old.

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