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Off-Season Take-Season: Kliff Kingsbury Was a Good Hire

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Spurred by a football off-season dearth, and bolstered by various ODB takes in the past, I am proffering a take.

NCAA Football: Baylor vs Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I am here to do some uncomfortable business: dispel a take that hates on a rival. A smarter man and better fan would probably just let this ride, allowing the rival to fight this take. But I am neither of these.

Kliff Kingsbury, in a matter of months, went from being fired by Texas Tech to becoming the head coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. This has sparked many reactions of incredulity, because when you zoom-in only on those facts it does seem pretty ridiculous.

But here is the Travis take: this take misses some important context. Yes, Kingsbury produced middling results at Texas Tech. But when you look at why, two clear reasons stick out:

Recruiting

Despite being young and handsome, which apparently 17-year-old recruits didn’t care about, he had trouble recruiting. Other than one very good year in 2015 (bolstered by a 5* DL who transferred), Tech consistently finished behind Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State. Tech is fighting for many of the same kids of these schools, so it was disheartening for their fans to consistently lose many of these recruiting battles. My perception is that Kingsbury loves to scheme and coach offense, and had less desire to convince Houstonian kids to come 9 hours to Lubbock.

Defense

Kingsbury could never field a good defense. This needs little elucidation: Tech’s defenses were always bad, though they started to look merely below average once they got some continuity under David Gibbs. I think this was really just an extension of their recruiting woes, as they had middling recruiting classes but all of their better recruits tended to play offense.

These Concerns Are Less of a Worry in the NFL

Recruiting is totally irrelevant in the NFL. So cross that off.

But what about the putrid defenses? It is, after all, the job of the head coach to field both a competent offense and defense. But as argued previously, I think many of Tech’s defensive woes were due to insufficient recruiting in the first place. This isn’t a worry, as Arizona should have just as much defensive talent at its disposal as the rest of the NFL.

The real worry is that Kingsbury’s practice structure and/or coaching attention will leave the Cardinals’ defense in the wake. But again, this is a significant difference between the NFL and college. In college, practice time is significantly (compared to the NFL) limited. This means that teams, especially teams without elite talent, have to specialize. It is often near impossible for an average Power 5 team to be really good on offense and defense because you have to set priorities given limited practice time. Kingsbury was known at Tech for beginning almost every practice with his offense running 100 plays as fast as possible. This is arguably not good for developing a defense, because defenders need to learn from mistakes after they bust assignments, not spring back to the line to make the same mistake again.

Kingsbury won’t be operating under any practice constraints in the NFL. It is still a concern whether his offensive coaching methods can allow for good defense to be played, but the concern is lessened due to the NFL’s structure.

Kingsbury’s Offenses Were Awesome

In Kingsbury’s 5 years at Tech, they ranked in the top 25 of Offensive S&P+ every year except one where they finished 33rd. They peaked at the 4th ranked offense in 2015 with Pat Mahomes. This is even more impressive with context as again, Kingsbury was not recruiting well.

This was exemplified in the years where Kingsbury had to deal with new QBs. In 2018, he somehow managed a 23rd ranked offense despite a revolving door of 3* true freshman Alan Bowman, a sophomore who can’t throw accurately in Jett Duffey, and a JUCO transfer with a hobbled ankle in McLane Carter. This is 4 spots higher than Texas’ offense that was built around a 4* QB in Sam Ehlinger and tons of 4-5* skill talent, and 16 spots higher than Baylor’s offense.

The Real Question

Would you rather have Kliff Kingsbury, now teamed up with Kyler Murray, coaching your NFL team or go with your standard NFL hire of 1) already-failed NFL coach or 2) some other team’s coordinator.

I know that I have set up a bit of a straw-man here, setting up a “Kingsbury vs crappy normal NFL head coach” question. But I think this exists in reality. Many of the college head coaches pundits assume would leap to the NFL at any opportunity aren’t doing so (See Matt Rhule, James Franklin, David Shaw, Brian Kelley, etc.) Thus the Cardinals might really have been in a position where they go with standard NFL hire who still wants his QB under center 50% of the time, or taking a chance on a guy like Kingsbury.

I’m not saying it’s a guarantee that Kingsbury ends up working out in the NFL. But I know that if I actually cared about an NFL team, I’d be pretty excited to see what he can do within the structure of the league.