The NFL is a fickle business, and one doesn’t have to look any further than the one-year experiment of the 2018 Steve Wilks era. After offensive-minded Bruce Arians “retired” for a season in the telecast booth, the Cardinals turned their coaching attention to the other side of the ball in the hiring of Carolina’s former defensive coordinator.
Speaking of fickle, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury was fired just two months ago and then took the offensive coordinator position with USC before the NFL came calling. Kingsbury was hired by the Cardinals after posting a 35-40 record in his six years at Texas Tech. With a sub-.500 record as a collegiate head coach, what prompted the Arizona brass to turn Kingsbury’s way?
The discovery and tutelage of current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has to be on the short list. Mahomes was a barely recruited prep passer who played two sports and wasn’t exactly a prototypical quarterback. Kingsbury saw the talent, and Mahomes would go on to throw for 598 yards and six TDs in the final game of his true freshman year. The prolific signal-caller would go on to lead the FBS in passing over the next two seasons.
In other seasons, Kingsbury had a role in the development of future NFL quarterbacks Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel, Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield. Kingsbury himself was a top-level collegiate quarterback and spent several seasons in the NFL as a deep reserve or on practice squads after being a 2001 sixth-round pick.
Kingsbury is a student of Mike Leach and Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid” system, which the quarterback learned while playing for Leach at Texas Tech. Elements of this offense can be found throughout the modern NFL in spread passing, although defenses have learned to adjust, especially through personnel changes that emphasize smaller, more athletic linebackers. The system is predicated on going four- and five-wide with multiple underneath routes, relying heavily on the receivers to create separation via route-running prowess, the routes themselves creating mismatches, and the pass-catchers excelling after the reception.
In his six seasons as the head coach of Texas Tech, Kingsbury’s teams were noticeably lopsided in favor of the offense. His defenses were, bluntly speaking, atrocious. Check out the ranking comparisons:
|Year||Team||Scoring (offense)||Scoring (defense)|
Former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements will be the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Kingsbury. After two years out of football, the 65-year-old Clements will help with game plans and will work closely in player development, although it will be Kingsbury calling the plays. Former Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph will coach the defense. Arizona will return to a 3-4 base alignment.
Personnel changes could include several changes along the offensive line, with guard Mike Iupati, tackle Joe Barksdale and guard Oday Aboushi all facing the open market in March.
The Cardinals have, in theory, their franchise quarterback in Josh Rosen, even if it didn’t look that way in 2018. It will be Kingsbury’s foremost duty to ensure the development of his second-year passer. The next line on the script is to figure out how to return David Johnson to the level of elite production we saw in 2016. Finally, getting receivers not named Larry Fitzgerald to stand out. Second-year wideout Christian Kirk must step up his game and truly complement Fitz, if not outright take the torch.
While it wasn’t entirely Rosen’s fault, 2018 was an unmitigated disaster. The Cardinals finished last in total offense (241.6 yards per game), scoring (14.1 PPG) and 157.7 (yards/game). Throwing 11 touchdowns against 14 interceptions, the 10th overall pick in 2018’s draft completed only 55.2 percent of his throws and was under duress with ridiculous frequency. The line must improve, and the running game has to take pressure off of him. Unfortunately, the ground attack is the weakest aspect of Kingsbury’s offensive design.
Fantasy football expectations
Rosen, as mentioned, is the driver of this car. Presuming he isn’t exclusively the problem and can eventually live up to his potential, we should see modest improvement. It will take time since he has to learn a new system and has personnel deficiencies around him. Rosen could emerge as a low-end QB2 this year but is best left on the wire in traditional draft formats, unless he is drawing rave reviews during the summer. His value in keeper setups is much brighter.
Two coordinators could not figure out how to get Johnson on track last season. He was poorly utilized and needs to be more frequently targeted in the passing game. Running backs are involved out of the backfield in this system, and gamers should expect a respectable rebound from DJ in 2019. He’s worthy of a pick late in the first round.
Fitzgerald returns for Year 16 and is coming off of a disappointing season that was hampered early in the year by injuries and throughout the slate by Rosen’s development issues. Entering his age-36 season, the future Hall of Famer is no better than a third fantasy receiver in PPR.
Kirk is intriguing and flashed as a rookie before a broken foot sent him to the shelf in early December. He should be just fine in the offseason. Arizona needs Kirk to give Rosen another option in the underneath passing game. Build like a running back, Kirk’s ability to get up field could be crucial.
Another receiver should be added, and guys like Randall Cobb (connection to Clements) or Golden Tate may be of interest to the coaching staff.
Tight end Ricky Seals-Jones has talent and the athleticism to make some noise, yet this system isn’t particularly known for involving the position. At Texas Tech, Jace Amaro posted a monster season in 2013, going for a line of 106-1,352-7. Aside from this explosive campaign — from a guy who didn’t translate well in the pros — Kingsbury’s offense didn’t feature the position.
It will take some time for everything to gel. Finding another pass-catching weapon, developing Rosen, utilizing Johnson in an ideal fashion, and upgrading the O-line are the key ingredients to a successful transition into the Kingsbury era.