TEMPE, Ariz. — Kliff Kingsbury has learned a few things in his four months on the job as an NFL head coach. This is one thing: “People just make sh— up,” Kingsbury said, calmly, in a conference room at the Cardinals training facility late Saturday.
I asked Kingsbury if he ever said at the combine that it was a “done deal” the Cards were drafting Kyler Murray first overall.
“No,” he said. “Never.”
I asked Kingsbury what he’d have said if GM Steve had told him a month ago the best thing for the team was to keep Josh Rosen at quarterback and draft Nick Bosa.
“I’d have said, ‘Let’s go to work,’ “ Kingsbury said. “That’s why I signed on here. I knew I was coming here to try and improve the offense. We were last in everything. Try to help Josh become a better player, more comfortable in the system, continue to build him. That was my job. If that was what we were going to do, that’s what I signed up for in the first place.”
“Biggest misconception about your role in this?” I asked.
“That I rolled here and was just like, ‘We’re taking Kyler Murray,’“ Kingsbury said. “First off … I don’t have that type of juice coming in the door. That wasn’t how it went down at all.”
This was an hour or so after the draft. Kingsbury and the man who hired him, Keim, sat together to discuss one crazy era of Cardinals football—the drafting of Josh Rosen 10th overall a year ago, the hiring of a coach who’d been fired at Texas Tech to pilot the franchise, the marginalizing of Rosen, the drafting of Murray, the unloading of Rosen to Miami, the drafting of three receivers to turn the Cards’ offense into Kingsbury’s personal Madden game.
I turned to Keim, who has put his GM career on the line with this coaching hire and this draft choice, and asked: “Did you seriously weigh the alternative of keeping Rosen and saying, ‘Sorry, Kliff, I’m not giving you your guy?’ “
“Absolutely,” Keim said. “That’s my job. All spring, your mind races with the different scenarios. At the end of the day, you had to look and say again, ‘What is really going to catapult us into being different?’ I’ve always been a visual guy and I’ve always had success evaluating quarterbacks when I trusted my instincts and my gut. I’ve missed on the guys that looked the part, smelled the part, you tried to invent and because all the things were connecting the dots. You scouted them and said, ‘Okay, they’re going to be a player because they look like this. I’m not saying that’s Josh Rosen. I’m saying I had my real success, guys I’ve loved that have been great NFL players, based on instinct.
“When I closed my eyes and I visualized Kyler Murray running around State Farm Stadium in red and white, for whatever reason, all I saw was just fireworks, excitement, a must-see [environment] where fans have to go and show up and see this thing. Him being the architect was a phenomenal fit for me.”
Interesting way to evaluate: scouting through visualization. “I either visualize them or I just have bigger balls than my brains,” Keim said. “I’m not scared to make a mistake. That could cost me my career but at the same time, to be great and to have success you gotta be willing to take chances—ones that you believe in.”
Clearly, that’s what this time in Cards history is about. Arizona took a chance on Kingsbury, and is taking another one on Murray. This is a franchise adrift, with a GM with his job on the line, a head coach the league looks at dubiously, and now a 5-10 quarterback the new coach has pined for since the kid’s sophomore year in high school in Texas. (True story: Kingsbury, then Texas Tech coach, offered 5-foot-5 sophomore quarterback Kyler Murray a full scholarship as a sophomore at Allen High in 2012.]
Keim said he didn’t study Murray thoroughly till after he studied the free-agent prospects. So it wasn’t till mid-March, Keim said, that he dug in on Murray tape. Until then, he said, there’s no way the organization would have made the decision to draft Murray—because Keim contractually has final say on the draft. “I was reluctant to study him because I knew what we had in Josh Rosen,” Keim said. “As I watched the first game, I watched the second game, I couldn’t put down the controller. All I wanted to do was keep watching this kid on tape. I don’t know if I wrote down ‘wow’ 100 times, or 500 times, but my hand got tired of writing it. In the time I’ve been doing this, I haven’t seen a guy who could throw like him and run like him. I’ve seen guys who could do one of each, but I’ve never evaluated a guy who possesses the skill set to do both things at such a high level. I was also studying guys that I was falling in love with, like Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, really having to really weigh which player makes the biggest impact for us. It became crystal clear in the end it was Kyler Murray.”
Keim was adamant about Kingsbury expressing his opinion, then staying out of the way of the evaluation process. “The thing I respect the most about Kliff is he never once interrupted the process,” Keim said, with Kingsbury sitting across the conference table. “He never once came down and put his fist on the table and said, ‘I want Kyler Murray. I have to have him.’ I knew that he loved him as a player, but he allowed the process to take care of itself. To me, that was the only way we were going to get it right.”
So now, in the wake of drafting four players to help Kingsbury run his offense, let’s see where these Cardinals are. Kingsbury’s offense, a cousin of Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme, will often run four wide receivers and one back; it’s important to have specific roles for the receivers, but in the case, say, of second-round receiver Andy Isabella from UMass, Kingsbury found a receiver who can be used in the slot, outside, and on Jet Sweep-type plays, because Isabella is experienced at all three roles. Kingsbury likely envisions an offense, at least at first, with Isabella and the ancient but still productive Larry Fitzgerald in either slot, with second-year wideout Christian Kirk and this year’s 103rd pick, 6-5 Hakeem Butler, outside on either side. And, of course, strong runner and receiver David Johnson should get 300 touches out of the backfield. There will be a consistent no-huddle element too, so some of these Arizona games will be survival-of-the-fittest track meets.
What’s different with Kingsbury’s system, his friends in coaching say, is how game-plan-specific his weekly plans will be. A sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2003, Kingsbury spent that season (New England’s second Super Bowl season) on IR with an arm injury, but soaked in the Bill Belichick philosophy about varying the weekly game plan. With Belichick, every game plan is a snowflake; no two look alike. And though Kingsbury’s passing offense will be the wide-open, four-wideouts-on-the-field-regularly scheme, he’ll be sure to tailor it to that week’s opponent too.
Kingsbury told me the system for Murray will be “very similar” as his Oklahoma scheme under the progressive Lincoln Riley. “His ability to escape the pocket, escape those D-lineman when they can’t get off blocks—it’s just unique. And to still be able to drop back and survey the field and still be able to get the ball out on time, get through his progressions … When you spread people out he’s a weapon in a bunch of different ways. That’s tough on defenses because if you want to rush him upfield and he takes off, good luck catching him. And if you sit back, he can still pick you apart. The way we spread people out, the tempo in which we play, he’s the guy who can really thrive in system.
“We’re going to play the game at times wider than probably most people do in the league. We’re going to use the entire field and make them cover five wides and the quarterback and that’s tough on defenses.”
I was really curious how Kingsbury, back in 2012, just having taken the Texas Tech head-coaching job, could have been so smitten with a tiny quarterback in Allen, Texas. “Well,” Kingsbury said, ”nobody could touch him, he could throw it from the pocket, the mechanics were great. He was the quickest player on the field. I just always believed that he could be great. I’d never seen anything like it on the field, a combination of that type of quickness and explosiveness and a true drop-back passer. So we developed a relationship through the years. He always knew that I believed in him and saw great things coming. It’s been a wild ride and crazy to see how it’s all turned out. I think everybody just assumed since he was undersized he couldn’t play at the next level.”
So here is Murray, at the next level, and at the next level after that. The highest level. The NFL.
This is going to be a great test tube football season in Arizona. In the NFL this year, no coach/QB combo platter will be under more scrutiny. A coach with a losing college record, and the first sub-6-foot quarterback to be drafted in the first round. And going number one overall! Kingsbury and Murray will be must-see TV, and must-see Keim visualization.
“I think both of us are competitive and have a chip on our shoulder,” Kingsbury told me. “What’s been said out there … “ His voice trailed off. He knows. “Now it’s time to go. We’ve heard all the talk and the talking’s done now. It’s about what we do from this point forward. When he came in here [Friday], we both kind of had that conversation and that mindset. That was more what our meeting was about.”
“Any celebrating that you finally got your guy after all these years of chasing him?” I asked.
“Not yet, no,” Kingsbury said. “There won’t be any celebrating till we win some games.”