2018 was a breakout year for offenses in the NFL. Teams accumulated 1,371 TDs throughout the season, the most ever in NFL history. Before 2018, there were only three seasons were three offenses averaged over 30+ points a game: 1948, 1949, and 2011 season which saw Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England all scoring over 500+ points. Rushing yards per carry were the highest they have ever been (4.42), and the NFL saw the most players ever record 100 receptions, with 11 doing so. Most notably in 2018 was the offensive prowess of Kansas City and the LA Rams (New Orleans was the third team to average 30+ points in ’18). The Chiefs led by the electric NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes (a Kingsbury product) and the LA Rams with their innovative Head Coach Sean McVay.
Both the Chiefs and the Rams used “Spread” sets but in different ways. The Chiefs embraced Mahomes freakish athletic abilities and history of working from the shotgun combining this with quick motions and moving their athletes all over the field (shown above). Kansas City finished 2018 with third-best points scored in NFL history, only behind the 2013 Manning-led Broncos (605) and the 2007 Brady-Moss led Patriots (589), both averaging 35+ points a game. Mahomes would finish the year over the 5,000-yard passing mark and the leagues MVP in only his second year.
The Rams innovative offense chose more or a “Pro-Style” approach to the Spread (above), barely leaving 11 pers. and used a mixture of Zone runs, reduced split formations combined with crossing routes, and play-action passes to destroy defenses all year long (well, until the Super Bowl). Behind a young QB (Jared Goff) and Head Coach, the Rams were able to march through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl where they would eventually lose to the Patriots. Goff would finish the year with over 4,600 yards passing and the Rams’ RB, Todd Gurley, finishing with over 1,400 on the ground while leading the league in total TDs (21).
Alarm bells were ringing all over the NFL. Defensive coaches and pundits alike were looking for ways to stop the never-ending onslaught of offense. By October NFL records were being broken around the league. The topic of defense continued to come up with pundits asking, have NFL defensive schemes become too antiquated, and is there a paradigm shift about to happen? Doug Farrar of USA Today wrote a three-part piece on the topic in November. There has never been a better time for a true Air Raid purest to enter the league. Enter Kliff Kingsbury and the 2019 Arizona Cardinals.
For more on the 2018 NFL season’s records & milestones, click HERE.
The Arizona Cardinals wasted no time in converting 100% behind the offensive bandwagon with the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury (former Texas Tech Head Coach), the sending off of Josh Rosen (Miami), and the drafting of Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, who I have described as a create-a-player (just not with optimal height). Josh Rosen is a typical Pro-Style QB. A stand-and-deliver type of player. Not the dynamic fleet-of-foot QB needed to run Kingsbury’s Air Raid system (see Mayfield and Mahomes), especially with a rebuilding of the offensive line. Murray also brings a certain comfort level to Kingsbury as well, having recruited and coached against him. Murray was built to be in a Kinsbury system. Look at the success of Johnny Manzel or Patrick Mahomes, both fleet-of-foot QBs with NFL arm talent that worked under Kinsbury’s tutelage. Below is a clip of Murray’s arm talent and ability to scramble while keeping his eyes downfield.
Murray played under Lincoln Riley, who arguably is the best offensive coordinator in college football. He is also an Air Raid coach from the same Leach tree. Riley worked under Leach for eight years, moving from student assistant to WRs Coach during his time in Lubbock. When Ruffin McNeil (former Leach DC at Tech) got the Head Coach title at East Carolina, Riley was selected as his OC. With five years of coordinating under his belt, Riley became a hot name and a rising star in college football. Bob Stoops at Oklahoma quickly snatched him away from East Carolina (people forget he brought the Air Raid and Mike Leach to the Big 12). With Stoops retiring before the 2017 season, the rest is history.
Murray is also a Texas kid. Someone Kingsbury recruited and coached against. Knowing his skill set intimately and understanding Murray’s background knowledge in the system made him an easy choice for Kingsbury’s first draft pick. One thing that cannot be overlooked is the translation of Kingsbury’s offense to the NFL level. Murray, who has an intimate knowledge of Riley’s system can help Kingsbury add to what is already a dangerous scheme and much of the verbiage will carry over.
Looking at the Cardinals’ current roster the TE group is separated into two groups: pass-catching (flex) TEs and blocking (inline) TEs. Charles Clay and Maxx Williams both have hybrid potential and the ability to play on the line. The Cardinals opted to keep Ricky Seals-Jones and draft Caleb Wilson from UCLA, who exploded under Spread-guru Chip Kelly (60/965 and 4 TDs). With the room divided into two, something like the clip below isn’t far fetched to see Kingsbury stealing from Riley’s playbook.
The clip illustrates Riley’s use of two TEs. #45 (Carson Meier) is a traditional TE and aligns primarily near the box in Oklahoma’s scheme. The WR at the bottom (#80 Grant Calcaterra) is used as a flex-TE. Meaning he lines up in as a WR a majority of the time. The use of an inline TE brings people to the box while the flexed TE can cause problems against smaller DBs on the edge. This also forces a defense to decide what the flexed TE’s role is on offense (Is he a TE or a WR?). Does a defense stay in Base or run a Nickel package?
The ability for the flexed TE to come near the box and assist in run blocking is an added value. He also has the ability to sprint downfield at any time. Leave a LB on a speedy TE and that can create mismatches. This ambiguity forces defenses to think hard about their personnel. Get too light and the larger bodies can road grade through the defense. Get too big and the mismatches at WR or TE can now be used to blow the top off a defense. This constant stress is why Riley uses his 12 pers. as a base grouping. I’d expect Kingsbury to follow suit.
One thing Kingsbury has in Arizona that he never had in Lubbock is a legitimate NFL RB in the backfield. Running can sometimes be an afterthought in Kingsbury’s system. Having a legitimate RB can open up the playbook, especially with the use of TEs. Kingsbury uses the RB in various ways to create mismatches on the field. Much like Carolina uses Christian McCaffery in various ways, look for Kingsbury to do the same with David Johnson, who is a great WR as well as RB. Outside of his injury-shortened 2017 season, Johnson has averaged over 400 yards receiving, with a highwater mark of 879 in 2016. This multiplicity will only add to Kinsbury’s concepts and open up more opportunities for others.
Screens from the RB, in particular, are a staple in Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. Even in Leach’s pure Air Raid scheme, the RB is a vital part of the passing game. Below is a look at a unique slip-screen designed by Kinsbury. The RB will work out like he is running a lazy flat route (typical in the system) only to jab-step and pivot back inside where several offensive linemen are working downfield.
Flare-screens are another way for Kinsbury to get the ball into the RB’s hands in space. Below, Kinsbury uses motion to leverage the defense. The WR will crackdown on the OLB near the box and the H-back/TE will arc to the ILB. The result is a huge gain for the Red Raiders. The GT pull is a great compliment because it gets the box defenders working the opposite way (what is called a split-flow look). Even a little hesitation by the defense can force a big play like below.
The WR corp is something that has to come together for the Air Raid to work. There are two types of WRs an offense in the system needs to be great. First, there needs to be a dynamic Slot. In the NFL, this can be found in the way Tyreek Hill (Chiefs) or Tarik Cohen (Bears) are used in their respective offenses. Cohen is even listed as a RB, yet has more receiving yards (1,078) than rushing (814) throughout his career.
Kingsbury has a knack for discovering and developing “smaller” WRs, using their speed and quickness to find open spaces in coverage. Jakeem Grant (5’7″) had over 1,200 yards in 2015 for the Red Raiders and was even drafted by the Dolphins in the 6th Round. Most recently, Keke Coutee (5’10”) had over 1,400 yards receiving in his final year at Tech and was drafted in the 4th Round by Houston.
The Cardinals’ WR roster is filled with guys that can find a home in Kingsbury’s system. Larry Fitzgerald can line up outside like he did for much of his career or inside as a slot like he did under former Head Coach Bruce Arians. The Hall of Fame WR will easily be able to give Kingsbury a legitimate possession WR who can consistently get open and block on the perimeter. With Fitzgeralds route running ability and sure hands is perfect for an Air Raid scheme.
Christian Kirk, who hails from an Air Raid system at Texas A&M under Sumlin (who Kingsbury worked for) is the perfect hybrid-Slot the Cardinals need in the modern game. Built like a RB at 5’11” 200, Kirk can be used in multiple ways from perimeter screens to running the ball on Jet Sweeps. Being multiple is something of a bonus in Kingsbury’s offense. Finally, the addition of Kevin White (1st Round WVU) from the Bears cannot be overlooked. White in college was a legitimate deep threat and hails from the same system as Kingsbury (Holgorsen comes from the Leach tree as well).
When Kingsbury went to the college ranks for a WR in this year’s draft, he chose players that would fill the voids in the WR corp. In the 2nd Round, the Cardinals took Andy Isabella who led the FBS in receiving yards with just under 1,700 yards receiving. Isabella’s can run too, snatching a 4.31 in the 40 at the combine. Though Isabella isn’t big, only 5’9″ 188, he has the speed and agility to get open in Kingsbury’s Air Raid scheme. Adding him to the mix that is already in Pheonix gives the Cardinals a ton to work with. Alex Kirshner of SBNation even went as far as to say, “…Isabella could challenge Anquan Boldin’s record of 101 receptions by a rookie.“ The Cardinals didn’t stop adding to their arsenal after Isabella.
Kinsbury stuck with adding familiar faces in selecting physical freak Hakeem Butler, a 6’5″ WR who was clocked at 4.48 in the 40 hailing from Big 12 opponent Iowa State. Finally, in the 6th Round, the Cardinals added KeeSean Johnson from Fresno State, who graduated with back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons, catching 95 balls in 2018. The particular mix of veterans and rookies found in Pheonix should be intriguing. As stated, Kinsbury has a knack for developing underrated or overlooked WR talent. Will his scheme translate to the NFL? Only time will tell, but Kinsbury has familiar weapons to work with.
The Offensive Line
Last, but certainly not least, is the offensive line position. Without a solid nucleus of lineman, this Air Raid experiment will certainly fail. Maybe one of the main reasons the Cardinals “reached” for Kingsbury was an overall lack of offensive production. One main reason for that in 2018 was the mass amounts of injuries to the O-line.
Former starters DJ Humphries (LT), AQ Shipley (C), and Justin Pugh (RG) are back from injuries. Humphries and Pugh are considered solid starters… when healthy. Neither player has finished a season in two years. Shipley will have to battle last year’s starting Center Mason Cole who started as a rookie. Shipley was a regular starter in ’16 and ’17 but missed all of last year with a knee injury. If Shipley can win the Center battle, that gives Arizona a proven starter in Cole that can either be an inside swing player or starter at Guard. With a limited game-day roster, NFL teams need swing O-lineman that can play multiple positions.
The Cardinals traded for Pittsburgh’s Marcus Gilbert (RT) in March for a 6th Round pick. Gilbert is another O-lineman that has been a proven starter in the league but has seen his past two seasons cut short by injury. Another veteran, JR Sweezy (LG), was brought in through free agency from Seattle. Sweezy has been a solid starter in the league the past five years. Through the draft, the Cardinals added inside swing-man Lamont Gaillard from Georgia and Tackle Joshua Miles of Morgan State. The Cardinals have the pieces for a solid offensive line, but only if they stay healthy throughout the year.
The key will be developing linemen that can function in an Air Raid system, but also has the qualities to match what NFL defenses are doing on the front. The O-line and the development of Murray will be the key to the success of the offense. Even with Murray’s athleticism, he can’t live running for his life and taking massive shots. Protection schemes are simple in Kingsbury’s system but will have to be modified to protect in the NFL (I’ll discuss how Kingsbury will need to revamp his pass-pro in Part 2). If Murray can stay upright in 2019, the sky’s the limit (offensively) for the Cardinals.
Many will look to Chip Kelly’s lack of success and say this is going to be a failed experiment. Kingsbury is not technically a proven Head Coach, he would even admit that, but his offense works and is intriguing at the NFL level. His record as a Head Coach in the Big 12 was an abysmal 19-35 with an overall record of 35-40. That doesn’t scream instant success. The Cardinals turned to Kinsbury because offense is king in the NFL. The Chiefs proved last year that all you need is an elite offense to win games (31st in overall defense). The Cardinals are betting on that in 2019.
Most NFL teams have separate departments. When done right, this creates a “checks and balances” system, much like you learned in government class. Kelly failed in part because of player management. He didn’t have a QB he liked and he never got players that fit exactly what he wanted. What the Cardinals have done is clean the house and give Kingsbury exactly what he needs to be successful on offense. There are a lot of players on the Arizona roster that are products of an Air Raid system, have direct connections to Kingsbury, or have skill sets that match what Kinsbury needs. Only time will tell if the Air Raid will work in the NFL.
Look for Part 2 in the coming weeks as we break down Arizona’s coaching hires and explore how Kingsbury’s will adapt his offense to fit the NFL.
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