Steve Keim always was on the lookout, given how the Cardinals GM’s head coach at the time, Bruce Arians, would ruminate on retirement. And three or four years ago, he found the man for the job—a guy who surely was too young for anyone else to be considering, but who brought all the qualities he wanted in Arians’ successor.
Keim found Sean McVay. Not the next McVay. The actual McVay.
Then Arians decided to coach one more season, and that was that. The following year, on the heels of another solid season from Kirk Cousins, the Redskins offensive coordinator scored interviews with the 49ers and Rams, blew both away, wound up landing in Los Angeles, and has done enough since then to send a quarter of the league scurrying to the coaching market to try to clone him.
It was a couple months after McVay got away for good that Kliff Kingsbury first remembers spending extended time with Keim. A Cardinals contingent that included Arians and then-quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich had come to Lubbock to work out Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, which put the Red Raiders coach right in front of his future colleague.
“The focus was on Pat, which it should have been,” Kingsbury told me late on Wednesday afternoon. “But talking with Steve, you could just tell, and I’d heard incredible things. I had met him before, but really getting to know him, you could just see his passion for the Cardinals organization and the process. He’s a guy who works his tail off at what he does, and that’s why he’s regarded as one of the best.”
As strong as the impression the Cardinals GM made on the coach, Kingsbury evidently gave Keim just as much to think about as he left town. That’s why this off-the-wall Cardinals hire really has been more than a few weeks in the making. And maybe quietly being proven right on McVay steeled Keim’s resolve to follow his instincts and hire a guy whose record raises lots of legitimate questions.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to answer your coaching carousel questions, have a veteran evaluator take a look back at Monday’s college football title game from a draft perspective and give you a quick look ahead to this weekend’s divisional playoff round. And we’re going to give you more on Kingsbury in a minute too.
But first, real quick, one thought on each of the three hires that went down Wednesday …
• This could go for the Browns and Cardinals too, but the Jets’ hirereally was about the development of their young quarterback. Adam Gase was on site for career years from Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler and Ryan Tannehill, and owner Christopher Johnson and GM Mike Maccagnan are betting the 40-year-old can work that kind of magic again.
• Freddie Kitchens landing the Cleveland jobis, in part, thanks to the bond he built with and production he got out of Baker Mayfield. But there were a lot of different hands in the pot (scouting, analytics, ownership) for the Browns’ process, which made Kitchens’ potential as a unifier of the building important. The internal discord during the Haslam era (Hue Jackson/Sashi Brown; Mike Pettine/Ray Farmer; Rob Chudzinski/Joe Banner/Mike Lombardi) has been hard to miss. This is a move to strike that sort of thing from the organization.
• The Broncos’ deal came together quickly. On Monday, Vic Fangio got to the Deer Path Inn, near the Bears facility, at 9:30 a.m. for a 10 a.m. interview. Fangio was back at Halas Hall for exit meetings with his players at 12:30 p.m., then doubled back to meet Elway down the street at a tiny Sicilian place that Fangio loves. The two had an early dinner there, and talked one-on-one. And by the next morning, Elway’s focus had begun to turn to Fangio. One thing that jumped out about Fangio to Denver—Elway not only wanted someone who was extraordinary in their job (the Bears defensive performance speaks for itself), but he also was looking for a coach with great attention to detail, and Fangio showed pride in the interview in how Chicago was among the five least penalized defenses in football in three of his four years there.
And then, there’s the Kingsbury hire, which was willfully different.
On Wednesday afternoon I called Washington State coach Mike Leach. He and Kingsbury, as coach and quarterback respectively, took the Big 12 by storm at the turn of the century, introducing the Air Raid, in all its glory, to America. Kingsbury left Lubbock with 39 school records, 13 conference records and nine college football records, then spent five years bouncing around the NFL, NFL Europe and the CFL.
Leach and Kingsbury have known each other for nearly two decades and will be linked forever. But even Leach, in an honest moment, says he was caught off-guard when the NFL came full bore after his old protégé just six weeks after Kingsbury was fired by the school that ties the two together. Kingsburgy was 35-40 over six seasons as head coach of Texas Tech.
“I have a tough answer for that one,” Leach said. “I mean, I don’t know what to tell you. There are some elements of the hire that make it surprising, and that’d be one of them. I mean, don’t you think? So I don’t know. I don’t know on that one. I wish him the best, I know he’s a very dedicated, hard worker, that type of thing. But as far as what they’re thinking, I don’t know how they reconcile that.”
I asked Leach if he was surprised at how it went down, and he answered quickly, “I think everybody was. He might’ve been surprised himself.”
To his credit, Kingsbury admitted as much when we talked.
“Yeah, I think so, to be in this actual chair [as head coach],” he said. “There had been quite a few opportunities to coordinate at this level. So I had looked at some of those, but I really thought that USC was a great opportunity.”
And then circumstances came together over the weekend, and he had not one but two shots at winning an NFL head coaching job—I’m told he had real support in some corners of the Jets buidling—which understandably changed everything.
That Kingsbury was surprised himself, and is willing to concede that, shows a healthy amount of self-awareness. He’s also confident enough to understand why the league was attracted to him in the first place.
Since he first became a coordinator, his offenses have scored nearly 42 points per game. This year, the year he got fired, the Red Raiders were in 16th in FBS in scoring, putting up 37.3 points per game, and 12th in yards per game, at 485.2. He’s worked with Mahomes, Johnny Manziel, Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb. And he thinks the basis of what he did in Lubbock will work in the NFL.
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“We’re not going to run it like we ran it Year 1 at Texas Tech,” he said. “We evolved through those years and adapted it to our personnel and made adjustments as defenses made adjustments. I can’t really say exactly what it’s going to look like at this point, but I’m excited to get some offensive coaches in here and sort of build that thing out. Conceptually there will be some similarities, and we’ll continue to try and be creative and be on the cutting edge.”
The real key to this hire, though, is how the NFL has grown to be open to that kind of creativity. Kingsbury told me he studies McVay, Eagles coach Doug Pederson, Chiefs coach Andy Reid and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, has broken down how they design and call offenses, and he sees lots of things that look familiar to what you see on a Saturday.
“Stuff that used to be ‘too college-y,’” he said, “those things are showing up and thriving in the NFL.”
There are adjustments he’ll have to make, to be sure. Based on what failed his Tech teams, it goes without saying that the defensive coordinator will be a big hire in Arizona. But so too, if you ask scouts, will be the offensive line coach, who’ll probably be tasked with diversifying protections in the passing game, and generating more creativity in the run game.
The good news is that, as a coach’s son, Kingsbury’s reputation is that of a grinder with a passion for the game. Patriots people have told others around the NFL that Kingsbury, a sixth-round pick of New England in 2003, was like a graduate assistant coach when he was on their roster for a year. Charlie Weis, his offensive coordinator during that time, texted that he recalled Kingsbury came off “destined to be a coach. He was energetic, well-liked and well-respected.”
The implication is simple. He’ll work at it, and get better. And he does have the sort of presence and swagger that every head coach needs, and you don’t just learn to have along away.
All of that—the football acumen, personality and work ethic—made him an easy hire for Tech in 2013, even at 33 years old. Conversely, six years later, it was just as easy to explain what led to his ouster, and Kingsbury gets why eyebrows arched at his introduction in Arizona.
“There’s nothing to say today that’s going to change that,” Kingsbury said. “So it’s more just about proving it with how we play and how we operate from this day moving forward. I understand that, and I understand people’s point of view on that. But I’ve always been very secure in my ability as a coach and what we’re going to do and where this thing is headed.”
That’s what Keim is betting on now. And it’s what guys like Leach are rooting for. “I was excited for him, happy for Kliff and happy that he got that chance,” Leach said. “And I do think he’s a very hard worker and a diligent football mind.”
Could 35-40 be a harbinger of what’s ahead? Sure, and the Cardinals know this is a big swing.
But it’s one for the fences, just like the one Keim intended to take a few years back. Remember, at that point, McVay was a respected but a mostly under-the-radar coordinator for a fringe playoff team, and still in his late 20s, and what the Cardinals and Rams and 49ers liked about him had very little to do with the Redskins’ record.
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The Rams weren’t betting on wins and losses when they hired McVay. They liked what he’d done with Cousins and company, but their gamble was more about who he was. Two years later, McVay’s success with the Rams has given everyone else cover to take on more risk than they ordinarily would. And so here is Keim, bat in his hand, ready to take another cut.
Kingsbury could be the big hit Keim correctly forecast McVay to be. Or he could wind up as more proof of just rare the actual McVay is.
To the weekend …
WEEKEND WATCH LIST
NFL players in the spotlight in the divisional round.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. Fifty touchdowns. 5,097 yards. 113.8 passer rating. It’s almost unfathomable that Mahomes pulled all this off as a first-year starter. And then you realize that we’ve been down this path, though not to this degree, with impressive Andy Reid-led Chiefs teams in the past. One such case was last year, with Alex Smith at the helm. The Chiefs were big-time favorites. The Titans ran them off the field. We’ve heard all year that Mahomes is the difference. Against a more well-rounded Colts team, he’ll have to be.
Cowboys G Connor Williams. Williams got hurt, then benched, earlier in the year, and has been pressed back into duty because of an injury to former Texan Xavier Su’a-Filo (who’ll likely be out again). Assuming Su’a-Filo sits, we’re probably going to see Williams on Aaron Donald a lot. Which isn’t fantastic news for the Cowboys.
Chargers DEs Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Both guys wreaked havoc against Baltimore—combining for three sacks and four quarterback hits, while Ingram forced and recovered a fumble. And defensive coordinator Gus Bradley moved both guys around, which will be a key this week. That’s because it’s not usually edge pressure that affects Tom Brady. It’s heat coming up the middle. So if the Chargers can slow a solid Patriots run game like they did against the Ravens, they’ll have a chance to roll the creative stuff out there more often, which would put New England in a tough spot.
Eagles CB Rasul Douglas. Really, this isn’t just Douglas. It’s also Avonte Maddox. The two corners went down in-game against the Saints on Nov. 18, and that was why there were insurance salesmen playing big minutes in the Philly secondary, and why that game turned into a 48-7 rout. Corner is still not a team strength in Philly. But Douglas and Maddox have come along, and will be important in combatting Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn and crew on Sunday.
TWO FOR SATURDAY
Without even an All-Star Game to pick apart this week, we decided to turn this section over to Senior Bowl executive director, Alabama resident and long-time Patriots, Chiefs and Seahawks scout Jim Nagy this week, and give him the chance to give us two thoughts from the national title game. Let’s go …
1. “The loss of OLB Christian Miller (hamstring) was a big blow to the Alabama defense. Without Miller, who finally put it all together this year and is an ascending draft prospect, the Tide couldn’t generate any real edge pressure on freshman QB Trevor Lawrence.”
2. “People have been critical Alabama’s play-calling, but the most egregious error was not using junior RB Josh Jacobs in a critical goal-line situation. The Tide staff went with Damien Harris, and he got stuffed. Harris is not nearly the short-yardage runner that Jacobs is. Jacobs is the best all-around back on that team, and possibly in this year’s draft class.”
From Sean Forrey (@sean4e42): Dolphins coach??
Sean, I’d never rule out something out of nowhere here—and the owner’s affection for the Harbaugh family is real, which is why there was special attention paid to the Baltimore situation by the guys in that building. But my understanding is Harbaugh’s people and the Ravens have a good, healthy dialogue going, making his departure unlikely.
Two names I’m tracking are Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores and Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard. Both are very well-respected, and project great as leaders. And as for their titles, both are pretty much coordinators. Flores is doing his year, like all rising Belichick assistants do, where he’s a coordinator but doesn’t yet have the title. Meanwhile, Richard started the season calling third down and setting up the back end of Dallas’ D. Since September he’s been calling the whole thing.