In an increasingly play-caller driven NFL, does Kliff Kingsbury stack up?


Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals

In today’s NFL, more often than not, the play-caller makes the quarterback, not the other way around. As great as Patrick Mahomes is - and was last night - Andy Reid’s been doing this with his quarterbacks since 1997. Reid made Kevin Kolb look so good it convinced the Cardinals to give him a five-year, $63 million dollar contract. Michael Vick was better in his three years under Andy Reid than he was at any point with the Falcons. Alex Smith, after compiling a career average of 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions per year in San Francisco, exploded in his five years under Andy Reid, averaging 20 touchdowns and just 6.5 interceptions on the way to a 50-26 record with the Chiefs.

Kyle Shanahan has a similar track record. During Shanahan’s two years as offensive coordinator for the Texans in 2008-2009, quarterback Matt Schaub made his only Pro Bowl after his best season as a pro with 29 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2009. Schaub - a 3rd-round JAG (just a guy) - meandered his way around the NFL for the 13 other non-Shanahan years he spent in the league. Shanahan’s next stop was Washington, where he made Robert Griffin III the Offensive Rookie of the Year before Griffin’s career took an injury detour. After three years in Washington, Shanahan became the offensive coordinator in Atlanta, where he gave Matt Ryan his most successful season in 2016. Ryan threw a career-high 38 touchdowns and matched a career-low in interceptions with just 7, on his way to a Super Bowl appearance. When Shanahan got the opportunity to be a head coach a year later, he developed a 49ers program into one that would go on to their own Super Bowl appearance in 2019. That campaign was led by Jimmy Garoppolo who - surprise, surprise - had his best season as a pro. Fast forward to 2020, and the 49ers just put up 36 points on the Giants with their scout team.

Do I need to do Sean McVay’s history? OK, fine. I’ll keep it brief. McVay got his first offensive coordinator gig in 2014 for the team now known as the WFTs. During Kirk Cousins’s two full years playing quarterback under McVay in Washington, Cousins threw 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, for an average of 27 TDs and 11.5 INTs per year. Cousins became the hottest quarterback on the market after that, signing a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million dollar contract with the Minnesota Vikings. In his 50 games since parting ways with McVay, Cousins’s averages dropped to 22 TDs and 9 INTs per year. In that same time frame - from 2017 to present day - McVay pulled Jared Goff out of an 0-7 quarterback grave to resurrect him as a two-time Pro Bowler averaging 22 TDs and 9 INTs, 11 wins per season. Goff and McVay also appeared in a Super Bowl together along the way.

Bruce Arians, Sean Peyton, Frank Reich, and Josh McDaniels have all followed similar trajectories, albeit with less obvious quarterback transformations or lower peaks than Reid, Shanahan or McVay.

As the NFL shapes itself around play-callers, where does Kliff Kingsbury fit in? That’s the question the Cardinals will be asking themselves over their next 13 games.

At Texas Tech, Baker Mayfield was just OK under Kingsbury, and would go on to have better college years with Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. Mayfield, though, was a true freshman walk-on during his lone season under Kingsbury. Patrick Mahomes should be a better litmus test. Mahomes improved steadily in three years under Kingsbury from 2014-2016, culminating in a 41 touchdown, 10 interception 2016 season leading to Mahomes being drafted in the 1st-round in 2017 by the Chiefs. But Mahomes got even better in the NFL. Mahomes averages 28 touchdowns and 6 interceptions with the Chiefs, compared to the 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions he averaged in the defense-less Big 12. So, under Andy Reid, Mahomes has cut down on mistakes, but kept production nearly equal to what it was under Kingsbury in college.

Now, 19 games into Kingsbury’s relationship with Kyler Murray, things still look mechanical at times. Murray and Kingsbury have stretches of brilliance, but have yet to reach the level of “flow” that the best play-callers create with their quarterbacks.

Aaron Rodgers talked about what that flow looks like between him and his young signal caller Matt LaFluer:

After a wacko offseason, I’ll give the Cardinals’ offense a few more games of slack. But, it doesn’t matter what I think. A few more games is all the NFL will give the Cardinals. After they play the Panthers and Jets, Arizona’s schedule is very unforgiving the rest of the way. So is the NFC West, which features Shanahan, McVay, and the soon-to-be MVP Russell Wilson. It’s hard to be a “project” when you’re up against some of the most polished offenses in football.

Organizationally, the offensive production in the NFC West is a great opportunity to find out just how close - or how far away - the Cardinals are from truly humming. In today’s NFL, that distance will say more about Kliff Kingsbury than it will about Kyler Murray.