When the Arizona Cardinals made the hire of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury official yesterday, they took a bit of a leap of faith. Kingsbury was recently let go from his position as head coach from his alma mater Texas Tech, after six seasons that saw him compile just a 35-40 record.
Kingsbury signed on to be the offensive coordinator at USC, before interest from NFL teams heated up. He would walk away from his opportunity at USC in order to interview for NFL head coaching positions, and his gamble paid off in a big way.
Despite his mediocre record at Texas Tech, Kingsbury has the deserved reputation of a quarterback whisperer.
After a wildly productive collegiate career at Texas Tech, Kingsbury bounced around the NFL for a few seasons as a backup quarterback. He would eventually pursue coaching as a profession, being given Co-Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Houston. It was there when he would work with Case Keenum, who finished 7th in the voting for the Heisman.
In his lone season as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Kingsbury helped quarterback Johnny Manziel win the Heisman trophy. That coaching performance vaulted Kingsbury to his position at Texas Tech, becoming the youngest head coach in the FBS at age 33.
At Texas Tech, Kingsbury worked closely with Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes for varying amounts of time. For those keeping track at home, that's three first-round quarterbacks and an additional NFL starting quarterback within in a six year span.
Nowadays in the NFL, some head coach hires are dependent on rescuing a young quarterback that the franchise has invested in. Arizona hiring Kingsbury falls under this scope, as they spent a first-round pick on Josh Rosen during the 2018 NFL Draft.
Kingsbury's tenure as Cardinals coach will likely be defined by his ability to develop the young signal-caller. When a quarterback's play progresses to pro bowl level, it makes up for deficiencies in other spots of the roster. The Cardinals have a weak roster, but Kingsbury's ability to help Rosen reach his ceiling could have the most immediate impact on their win-loss record.
Kliff Kingsbury's Scheme
Kingsbury offensive scheme is based on the "air raid" system he learned while playing for Mike Leach in college. While Kingsbury's overall scheme is more evolved than the traditional air raid system, those concepts remain the backbone of his playbook.
There are some common themes in Kingsbury's offense when it comes to formation: nearly all snaps coming from shotgun, trips alignments, and empty sets. The wrinkles that Kingsbury likes to throw in are quads alignments, wide bunch sets, slot receivers being "covered up" by outside receivers on the line of scrimmage, stacked receivers, jet motions, etc.
In his playbook are the widespread passing concepts that you see throughout all air raid systems such as four verticals, stick concept, slant-flat concept, follow concept, mesh concept and smash concept.
One of the trademarks of Kingsbury's offense is how they utilize the quick passing game on the edge of the formation. Whenever a defensive back affords the wide receivers a sizable cushion in their alignment, Texas Tech will take advantage of the space with various screen looks. Here are several examples of different quick game throws from the Red Raiders offense:
Kingsbury believes in getting his best athletes the ball in space as quickly as possible. The key to these plays working is a quick release from the quarterback, as well as accuracy to hit the receivers with ball placement that allows for forward momentum.
Something that always sticks out with Kingsbury is his offense staying ahead of the chains. The extended running game and precision in which his quarterbacks operate keep their later downs at a reasonable distance.
Kingsbury's third down offense is a revelation, as he consistently schemes up passing routes beyond the first down marker. Similar to those wide receiver screens, a common route used in Kingsbury's third and short passing game is the "whip" or "return" route:
When a quarterback has consistent accuracy for a wide receiver to continue accelerating as they catch these short passes, it allows them to pick up chunks of yardage after the catch.
While these aspects of Kingsbury's scheme aren't exotic, its his ability to adapt that has kept his offenses rolling over the years.
The most impressive thing about Kingsbury's adaptations is how he is able to adjust his play-calling around his own and opposing personnel. His offense looked different from Case Keenum to Johnny Manziel to Patrick Mahomes. Additionally, there were instances of attacking weak spots of the defense on a weekly basis.
While at Texas Tech, Kingsbury has had only one truly dominant running back, Deandre Washington. Kingsbury made sure to feed Washington for two seasons, as the future pro ran for over 1,100 yards in consecutive years. During his entire tenure, Washington has been Kingsbury's only 1,000 yard rusher.
On top of changing his play-calling based on talent in the backfield, Kingsbury has changed his passing game around his wide receivers. This past season saw a bunch of turnover at the position, as Keke Coutee, Cameron Batson and Dylan Cantrell all left school for the NFL. With the talents of Coutee and Batson being dynamic athletes from the slot, the Red Raiders offense featured quickness in their route running, with the outside receivers operating as more of decoys:
Left remaining in Lubbock for 2018 was 6'6 receiver T.J. Vasher and his 6'5 counterpart Antoine "Twizzy" Wesley. Kingsbury's adjusted his passing offense to feature those two outside presences, with more throws along the boundary and down the field:
Entering the NFL from UCLA, rookie quarterback Josh Rosen was seen as a "pro-ready" prospect. While he didn't produce like other rookie quarterbacks in year one, there were still positives on his film.
Rosen was seen as pro-ready because of how he handled duties under center at such a young age. That has translated into a beautiful ability on play-action, comfortably turning his back to the defense before getting his eyes downfield:
When operating out of shotgun, Rosen is at his best when he gets to the top of his drop and is able to throw with rhythm. His accuracy and velocity on the football rarely fades when he's able to step into his throw and deliver:
The second clip against the 49ers may have been Rosen's best play of his rookie season, as he was able to drive the ball up the seam and over the pass-dropping linebackers despite pressure in his face.
Rosen wasn't put in a great situation early in his rookie season, and never progressed during the second half of the year as a result. The staple plays and concepts that Kingsbury believes in can be a revelation for Rosen to develop and hit short passing plays throughout his second season.
Remember those quick throws to the edge of the formation whenever a defense afforded the wide receivers a sizable cushion? The Cardinals produced in limited reps with these types of plays, but Kingsbury's offense will call for more looks to the edge when the opportunities present themselves.
Arizona has a dynamic young wide receiver in Christian Kirk, who possesses the explosiveness to pick up chunks of yardage after the catch. The Rosen to Kirk connection could blossom with getting Kirk more touches in these scenarios:
The "whip" routes that Kingbury has featured in his offenses over the years is a route that Rosen had success throwing in his rookie season. His accuracy and precision on short passes, even when off-platform, showed up all over his film. Expect more of this under Kingsbury:
What Kingsbury Will Add To Rosen
The advanced adaptations that Kingsbury has added to his arsenal over the years could be used to open up Rosen's game and help his progress as a complete passer.
With Rosen already comfortable in play-action situations, Kingsbury can use this to their advantage. A common theme in Texas Tech's offenses over the past few years have been "shot" plays off of play-action fakes:
Notice the play design from Kingsbury on that play-action pass. The safety is held by the initial run-action, but then sees the "over the ball" route from the receiver that attracts his eyes. This opens the deep post route from the opposite receiver, a prime opportunity for a big play.
On top of the play-action where the quarterback turns his back to the defense, Kingsbury has incorporated play-action off of jet motion. On the upcoming play, notice the safety running with the jet motion across the formation. As a result, the slot receiver gets single coverage against a safety and creates a ton of vertical separation:
Looking past strict play-action passes, Kingsbury has incorporated packages plays and run-pass options:
With motion going across the formation and a run fake, Mahomes appears to be running the zone read with an option to throw the swing route as his third option. However, the motion and swing route were acting as a horizontal stretch to open up the slant route when the safety broke downhill.
This play is similar to designs we have seen Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson utilize over the past couple of seasons. However, these type of reads were rarely, if ever, seen in the Cardinals offense this past season.
As far as true run-pass options go, Kingsbury coaches the finer details of these plays extremely well. Check out the play against Oklahoma State from the 2018 season:
The right side of the offensive line is running outside zone, as the backside is pass protecting. This is a way to give the running back normal reads if he is handed the football, but the quarterback clear passing lanes if he chooses to throw the ball. The most encouraging aspect of this play? It works under NFL rules.
As each offensive lineman who is run blocking remains within a yard of the line of scrimmage as they make contact with a defender, the throw is legal to make. While some NFL coaches are turned off by the idea of illegal man downfield penalties as a result of run-pass options, Kingsbury has designed plays to work around these constraints.
The staples of the air raid offense are quick, precise throws into open windows. Rosen consistently faced the challenges of pressure and tight coverage, as Graham Barfield highlighted. With Kingsbury's passing concepts, packaged plays and timely downfield shots, these pressure rates and tight windows should drastically decrease for Rosen in Kingsbury's offense.
What Kingsbury Needs To Add To His Arsenal
Kingsbury offense is ran almost exclusively out of shotgun, with little use of the traditional tight end position.
I'm not saying that it's impossible for an offense to succeed like this in the NFL, but it could eventually lead to too much one-dimensional play-calling. Kingsbury needs to add new tools to his toolbox in order to survive against NFL defensive coordinators.
What better aspects of offensive football to add to his playbook than to feature the strengths of his new quarterback? While Rosen can operate from shotgun just fine, he is seemingly more comfortable under center. Kingsbury adding in play-action looks to his already advanced passing concepts could create unique dimensions that NFL defenses have never seen before.
Kingsbury has always utilized the run game as a change up to the pass, but there will likely be games as an NFL head coach where he needs to rely on the running game. He currently utilizes mostly inside and outside zone runs, but adding more gap schemes could diversify his play-calling. This likely means more use of a traditional tight end.
These are features that Kingsbury will need to consider in order to expand his playbook for the NFL game. While already complex enough, varying his play-calling will be the key to offensive stability.
We may look back one day at the Kingsbury and Rosen marriage as one that was made in heaven. With Rosen's natural tools and Kingsbury experience developing the position, his progression seems almost inevitable.
Kingsbury will need to show that he's capable of leading an NFL team and fit with whichever defensive coordinator that management chooses. That may ultimately be the key to setting the ceiling of the Cardinals in the near future, but they will be defined by Rosen's development and how he progresses within Kingsbury's system.