The hottest thing in Arizona is Kingsbury’s seat

Kliff Kingsbury arrived as an NFL head coach based on promise not production. He’d been fired at Texas Tech after going 35-40 despite having both Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes as his quarterbacks.

The Arizona Cardinals hired him anyway, a 40-year-old with limited experience but ties to the so-called Air Raid offense that, presumably, might soon overtake the NFL. The way Mahomes was playing in Kansas City looked like the future, and Kingsbury was tangentially attached. The Cardinals then used the first overall pick on Kyler Murray, a mobile 5-foot-10 quarterback in that mode.

The whole thing was a gamble. Even Kingsbury, always likable, acknowledged that. He promised aggression.

Here in Year 3, he better deliver it.

You can’t dub the Kingsbury-Murray Experiment in Arizona as a failure. They took over a three-win team, promptly went 5-10-1 and then 8-8. That said, there were late-season slides, often due to self-inflicted in-game wounds, that doomed what was possible. Murray injuring his shoulder in the second half of last season didn’t help either.

The question now is if they can make the next step and reach the playoffs out of what appears to be the toughest division in football. BetMGM has their win total at just 8.5 and they are -200 to make the playoffs. So it’ll be close.

To do so, Kingsbury’s offense needs to match the bold moves that the franchise has made to support it. Not only did they hire a college guy without a track record of success, and not only did they take Murray, but over the last two years they’ve brought in dynamic playmakers DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green and Rondale Moore.

Expectations are fairly high in Arizona, but considering Kingsbury is among the betting favorites to be the first coach fired this season, so are the doubts.

“I know everybody’s got different expectations, but my expectations are certainly to go to the playoffs and even further,” general manager Steve Keim told “I think it’s one of those things where everybody gets consumed with, ‘What are their expectations? What are their goals?’

“There is no year where we waive the white flag and say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to rebuild or whatever.’ We’re always trying,” Keim continued. “ … I mean, you’ve got to win … and I think we’ve put together a roster that can certainly challenge in the NFC West.”

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals walk off the field during an NFL preseason game on Aug. 8, 2019. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals walk off the field during an NFL preseason game on Aug. 8, 2019. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

To do that, the Cardinals need to play offensively with at least a measure of the abandon that the Kingsbury hiring promised. They did when he first got to the NFL, operating the uptempo Air Raid for his first four games. The Cards went 0-3-1, though, much like veteran coaches around the league predicted.

The playbook seemed to get pared down and it hasn’t returned.

Murray is everything Arizona could have hoped for when they took him first overall in 2019. He’s thrown for 7,693 yards and 46 touchdowns across two seasons. There have been just 24 picks, not bad for a young QB. He’s rushed for 15 more touchdowns, including 11 (and 819 yards) last year.

Yet much of the offense is predicated on Murray making big plays, not executing designed big plays. In 2020, he threw deep (20-plus yards per Pro Football Focus) just 11.5% of the time (22nd in the league). Just 19.7% of his attempts went between 10-19 yards.

The offense was a lot of screen passes, short routes and having Murray run and do something. Often he did. But what if he’s allowed to open it up?

A full Air Raid offense won’t work in the NFL. It tires out defenses and taxes depth. It didn’t even work at Texas Tech, where the defense was a sieve. At least in college, there are 85 scholarship players, so there are plenty of bodies to run in and out. Not so in the NFL, where just 47 or 48 players (depending on positions) can dress for a game. The Cards defense isn’t expected to be great as is.

There has to be a happy medium for being bold, though.

It’s up to Kingsbury, a bold hire if there ever was one, to find it. Sooner rather than later, because despite the competition in the NFC West, the Cardinals have a chance to surprise people this year, even deep into January.

Or they could be the first team to dump their coach.