Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury’s beautiful mind
TEMPE, Ariz. — While other kids his age spent their summer in New Braunfels, Texas, going to the river or playing with their friends, Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, then 9 years old, spent his on the football field at two-a-days.
Tim Kingsbury, Kliff’s father, was defensive coordinator at New Braunfels High School, where he’d later become head coach and Kliff would go on to star as quarterback. A young Kliff and longtime friend David Simmonds, whose father was the New Braunfels offensive coordinator, were staples at practice.
The two were ball boys and never missed a day, Simmonds said. If they weren’t at practice, they were inside watching film. And when they weren’t watching film, they were drawing plays up on a whiteboard.
“Who does that as a 9-year-old?” Simmonds asked. “That’s ridiculous.”
It’s not that different from what Kingsbury does now as coach of the Cardinals. Over the past 12 years, Kingsbury has climbed the ranks: from quality control coach to offensive coordinator at Houston, to Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in 2012, to six seasons as Texas Tech’s head coach, to his second season as an NFL head coach. On Monday, Kingsbury leads his 3-2 Cardinals against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Kingsburys’ reputation as an offensive savant has grown with each stop thanks, in part, to his willingness to be creative and adapt.
“There’s a lot of offensive coaches who spend an extreme amount of time figuring out what the defense does,” said Cardinals wide receivers coach David Raih, who also coached with Kingsbury at Texas Tech in 2013. “He’s more concerned about what we do, which is a very aggressive way to play offense.”
To Kingsbury, that was a natural way of approaching offensive football. “It always made sense to me that we’re the one with the snap count, we’re the one who controls the tempo, so make them react to us,” he said.
It has led to high praise.
Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake described him as a “mad genius.”
Cornerback Patrick Peterson said he’s a “mad scientist.”
Left tackle D.J. Humphries called him “the wizard.”
Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney, who coached with Kingsbury for five years at Houston and Texas A&M, said: “It’s like the ‘Rain Man.'”
Brandon Jones, the Houston Cougars’ offensive line coach who held the same position with Kingsbury at Texas Tech in 2017 and 2018, said, “It’s like something I’ve never seen. It’s like ‘A Beautiful Mind.'”
Playcaller from the start
Kliff caught the football bug early. At a young age, his dad set up a tire and a trash can in the backyard so Kliff could work on his passing accuracy and touch. Kliff was self-driven even when he was young and played everything from T-ball to track to baseball to flag football to soccer, Tim said. It got to a point, though, that Tim was concerned Kliff was taking everything too seriously.
Kliff watched ESPN rather than cartoons, his dad said. And if he saw a play on a highlight he either didn’t understand or didn’t think was the right play, he’d ask his dad about it and explain what the right play should’ve been.
Kliff also watched film with his dad on occasion, and started to work on his own offense.
“He would draw stuff up on napkins and show them to me,” Tim said. “He was very creative when it came to that.”
Back on the practice field as a 9-year-old, Simmonds remembers he and Kliff discussing what would happen with the plays they designed if the other team ran Cover 2 or a 46 defense or had a spy who shaded to the left. “And we loved it,” Simmonds said.
On game days in the fall, Simmonds remembers he and Kliff would go on the field two hours before kickoff and run their plays — just the two of them, against air — up and down the turf. Kliff was always the receiver and Simmonds was always the quarterback — until they got deep in the red zone. Then Kliff would take over at quarterback.
“We tried to play a little bit of everything,” Kliff said. “But, yeah, we were eaten up by it, just the game, the strategy of it, and we’d want to draw it up and then go try to make it work on the field.”
Coming up with plays
The foundation of Kingsbury’s offensive philosophy was built during his high school and college years. He began running the Air Raid while playing quarterback at New Braunfels and continued it at Texas Tech as a quarterback under Mike Leach.
From there, Kingsbury’s offensive education took off. Kingsbury said he was “fortunate” to learn a “ton of offenses” from various college and pro leagues.
“It started with the Air Raid, Mike Leach,” Kingsbury said. “A lot of those base concepts really made sense to me, and I like the way we operated in that system. And then I bounced around, NFL, NFL Europe, CFL, wherever, just any concept that I saw that, ‘Hey, this makes sense to me, this is quarterback-friendly, it’s a great read,’ I would carry that and install it at a different place.”
Each stop added another layer to Kingsbury’s offensive encyclopedia. But one of the most important lessons came as a player on injured reserve during the 2003 season with the New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick.
“With Bill it was his ability to adapt to his personnel year in, year out,” Kingsbury said. “Whoever he signed or drafted, it didn’t matter, they were going to find a way to utilize those guys in different ways and maximize who they were with their personnel group, and you saw that year after year.”
What Kingsbury runs on the field can be the result of something he saw during his hours of film study, something he stole from another team or something he came up with on his own. Those ideas come both on the practice field and while he’s out fishing.
“It should be the last place that happens, but I remember some distinct plays, so I don’t know,” he said.
Whenever a play idea lands in his head, Kingsbury tries to write it down so he doesn’t lose it. After the plays get jotted down, they used to end up on a whiteboard in Kingsbury’s office that has been slowly replaced by stacks and stacks of notepads.
Pete Robertson, a former Cardinals linebacker who played for Kingsbury at Texas Tech, walked into Kingsbury’s office in Lubbock, Texas, one day and found two whiteboards full of plays.
Those plays on those boards were the “greatest hits,” Kingsbury said. Throughout the offseason, anytime he saw a play he liked, Kingsbury put it on the board. Then he’d go through all of them, pairing them with different teams. It was a tedious process that’d often leave him trying to remember why he liked a play or which team he wanted to use it against — if he couldn’t recall either answer, he’d erase them.
Now that he’s using notepads, it has become a weekly ritual for Kingsbury to throw out or scratch out a play, leaving him with a list. Kingsbury likes to insert new plays every week, said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who said they usually include some sort of new design or way to get the Cardinals’ playmakers involved. Every play also comes with a corresponding hand signal so Kingsbury has to find a new one for each addition.
“I love the fact that you come in here on a Wednesday morning, you got to have your nose in the book because there’s going to be some things that are thrown at you that you haven’t seen before,” Fitzgerald said.
During the week, Kingsbury has been known to show film of a Texas Tech play from four years ago or a play Houston ran 10 years ago or even black-and-white film from offensive assistant coach Jerry Sullivan’s days with the San Diego Chargers from the early 1990s.
He’ll run new plays on Wednesday, when he throws “it all out there, see what fits.” Because Wednesdays are the Cardinals’ walk-through day, he can evaluate a play in slow motion, which allows him to take a longer look at alignment, spacing and timing. If it doesn’t work after a couple of tries or if quarterback Kyler Murray doesn’t like it, Kingsbury will trash it.
“I can think it’s the best play in the world, but if he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m not feeling it,’ then we take it out,” Kingsbury said.
That communication between Kingsbury and Murray has “definitely progressed” in the 17 months they’ve been together with the Cardinals, Kingsbury said. Murray called Kingsbury’s offense “very quarterback-friendly,” in part because Kingsbury, a former quarterback himself, understands what the quarterbacks go through.
Kingsbury is a strong believer that the key to getting his players to buy in to a play is how he presents it during installation.
“I’m not going to have it in unless there’s a reason, and I try to explain that reason, try to show them on tape this is why we’re doing it,” Kingsbury said. “Always have a why.”
Fitting the offense to the QB
In his one season coaching with Kingsbury at Texas A&M in 2012, former Aggies wide receivers coach David Beaty learned an important lesson watching Kingsbury.
“That dude builds the confidence of quarterbacks,” said Beaty, who would go on to become the head coach at Kansas. “Those guys know that’s their team, and he does such a good job of teaching them to be accountable for their team. … When a guy feels like he has some say-so in it, when there’s some ownership there, that quarterback is the king of the castle.”
Kingsbury wants to fit his system to his players, not the other way around. At Texas Tech, when quarterbacks Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes brought a play to him that they liked, he’d always be receptive.
“He’s very easy to talk to input-wise, as long as you have a good reason,” Webb said. “He allows the quarterback to have not total free rein but more than anybody I’ve ever been around, where they can check at the line of scrimmage and kind of be the coordinator behind the scenes and get us into the right play as long as you have a good reason and he trusts you’re able to do that.
“That’s something that’s pretty unique, especially for a guy that is so smart and has such a good system.”
Kingsbury showed his flexibility in 2012, his only season as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator.
He inherited an undersized, little-known quarterback named Johnny Manziel and prepared to install the same Air Raid-style offense Kingsbury orchestrated at Houston — the same one that helped Case Keenum, who coaches said ran the scheme to perfection, throw for an NCAA-record 19,217 yards during his career. Except Manziel wasn’t the traditional dropback passer; he was a shifty, crafty, mobile quarterback.
“With Johnny, it looked nothing like what it was supposed to look like, and our offensive staff was like, ‘What the hell, man? We look like s—,'” McKinney said. “But Kliff’s like, ‘All he do is move the chains.’ Which made sense. It don’t matter how you do it. You just keep getting first downs, eventually you’re going to get some touchdowns.”
Kingsbury kept the offense simple for Manziel, which allowed him to master it. Texas A&M went from 7-6 to 11-2, from seventh in yards per game to third, and from 27th in yards per play to first. On his way to a Heisman Trophy, Manziel and the Aggies led the SEC in rushing.
“I thought that showed that he was very versatile as a coach,” McKinney said. “He adjusts to his talent. I thought that showed that he could coach anybody.”
Kingsbury credits Kevin Sumlin, now the University of Arizona head coach. Sumlin was Kingsbury’s first boss, and they worked together for four years at Houston and then for a season at Texas A&M. At both schools, Sumlin gave Kingsbury “complete freedom.”
“That has really helped me because I was never told, ‘You have to run the ball this many times or do this type of personnel group formation,'” Kingsbury said. “So, it’s allowed me to just look at the game from a different perspective.”
Kingsbury developed a reputation for being a film junkie when he played at Texas Tech. There, he watched film “better than any young quarterback I’ve ever been around,” said SMU coach Sonny Dykes, who was an assistant at Texas Tech during Kingsbury’s playing days.
Confined to his home this offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kingsbury wasn’t left with much else to do but watch film, especially of college offenses.
“It’s definitely a deeper dive into offensive football this offseason with all the downtime,” he said.
It paid off in Week 2, when the Cardinals ran a dizzying play on fourth-and-1, shifting from a split-back shotgun formation with Murray at quarterback to a double-wing flex triple-option with backup Chris Streveler under center. Kingsbury stole the play from Navy, which ran it in the Liberty Bowl last season against Kansas State. It worked for a first down.
Now that the season is going, Kingsbury will watch film of offenses from around the league to see what other teams are doing. Most defenses around the league, he said, are the same, so if a play worked for one team, it’ll likely work for the Cardinals.
But Kingsbury can be picky.
“I’m a big first-instinct guy,” Kingsbury said, “so if it doesn’t strike me like that as being a fit, I’ll move forward and go on to the next one. I think that just allows me to kind of really get through more volume of them.”
At Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Houston, Kingsbury didn’t just limit his film watching to what everyone else around college football was doing, he dove into what high schools were doing, some of his former players and coaches said. He doesn’t have a limit for the level of football he’ll watch.
With the Cardinals, Kingsbury has his staff do “deep dives” for trick plays every week from college football. And sometimes they come up with a play or two from unlikely sources, such as one taken from Abilene Christian University, a Football Championship Subdivision school with about 5,300 students, that Arizona ran last season.
Kingsbury has been open about having “no shame in ripping plays.” But sometimes he has gone deeper than just replicating a play he saw on film.
Late in his tenure at Texas Tech, Kingsbury called Purdue coach Jeff Brohm and told him he was intrigued by some concepts Brohm was running and wanted to install them. Kingsbury didn’t just ask about the ins and outs of the plays, he asked Brohm about the specific teaching points.
That, former Houston assistant Tony Levine said, is rare. Most times, coaches call each other and ask about general concepts and packages — what’s working for you on first-and-10? How can I get better on third-and-long? But for a coach to call another coach and say he has dissected a concept every which way — studied the depth of the running back, the eyes of the quarterback, the offensive line splits — and wants to know the details of installing and teaching it, is almost unheard of it, Levine added.
“He’s studying in the offseason, when I know a lot of coaches [say], ‘Hey, it’s our offseason,’ at the college level, ‘we’re recruiting.’ At the NFL level, ‘We got some time off, getting ready for the draft, it’s not as intense,'” Levine said. “The intensity level, to me, is increased with Kliff because now he loves, as much as anything, the opportunity to sit down and scout and evaluate and study what some of the top offenses and top offensive minds in the NFL and college football at any level are doing.”