Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals during the NFL game at State Farm Stadium
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When Kliff Kingsbury Gets Fired, Should He Return to College Football?


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The Arizona Cardinals finished 2021 with an 11-6 record and their first playoff berth since the 2015 season. Things had finally come together under head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and in his third season at the helm, the team rewarded him with a contract extension through 2027. Arizona then made a substantially larger investment in quarterback Kyler Murray, a five-year extension worth about $230 million dollars. Even with star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins suspended for the first 6 games of the upcoming season, hopes were high surrounding the 2022 Cardinals.

But Arizona currently sits in last place in the NFC West with a 3-6 record, and all that optimism has gone out the window. The Cardinals have yet to win a game within the division. With a three-game-stretch coming up against the Rams, 49ers and Chargers, there is a real possibility Kingsbury may be shown the door on, or before, the team's week 13 bye. If Kingsbury does make it through the season amid the disappointment, it's hard to see the Cardinals choosing not to part ways this offseason, despite the recent extension.

Aside from that 2021 season, Kingsbury has been subpar most of his time with the Cardinals. His record is three games under .500 overall, and he is an embarrassing 10-18-1 at home. If the Cardinals don't think he is the guy, and they certainly aren't performing like he is, Arizona will want to turn the page on their coach quickly, before they damage the larger and more important investment they made in their quarterback.

What Should Kliff Do After Arizona?

Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals and head coach Kliff Kingsbury talk during the second half against the Minnesota Vikings

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Kliff can try to find another head coaching job in the NFL, if he has any offers. More likely, he could accept a stint somewhere as an offensive coordinator, before working his way back to earn another shot at the top job. It's a path many others in the NFL have walked following their first head coaching positions.

But he is likely to have another option, and I think he should take the bag and return to college. High-level programs across the country would be clamoring for Kliff Kingsbury's services and in college he is more likely to achieve sustained success.

Kingsbury runs a variation of the "Air Raid Offense", developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. It's the same offense Kingsbury commanded as a quarterback at Texas Tech, where in 2002 he led the nation with over 5000 passing yards and 45 touchdowns under first-time head coach Mike Leach.

The offense is predicated on spreading out defenses and forcing them to guard every yard of the field both vertically and horizontally, while passing at an extremely high rate. The goal is to put the ball in the hands of your most talented athletes in space.

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Spread passing concepts have since become commonplace in the NFL, but the 'Air Raid' variation hasn't been as successful at the professional level for a variety of reasons. Some attribute it to the higher caliber of athletes playing in NFL secondaries, or that NFL pass rushers create pressure quicker than they do in college. Others believe that NFL teams use significantly more defensive schemes, and disguise these looks with more nuance, making it harder for quarterbacks to quickly diagnose and execute the 'air raid' offense. Whatever the reason is, while the air raid has its fingerprints on the professional game, the highest levels of success for these offensive concepts remain at the collegiate level. Kingsbury might also see his highest levels of success in college, not just because of the style of offense, but because of his likelihood of success in recruiting.

Back to School for Kingsbury

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Texas Tech Red Raiders fires up his team during warm ups before the game against the West Virginia Mountaineers

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Let's take a look at some resume highlights from Kliff's college coaching career and how they might impact him if he returns to the NCAA.

Kingsbury's first stop as a coach was on the offensive staff for Kevin Sumlin at the University of Houston from 2008-2011. During that time, Kingsbury's air raid offense allowed quarterback Case Keenum to both throw for over 5600 yards and lead the nation in touchdown passes TWICE. Keenum still holds the NCAA career records for passing yardage, completions and touchdowns and is ten years into his NFL career. In Kingsbury's final season at Houston, the Cougars went 13-1.

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In 2012, Kingsbury went with Sumlin to Texas A&M to be the Aggies' offensive coordinator. In his lone season at Texas A&M, the team went 11-2 and quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

Kingsbury left the following season to become the head coach of his alma mater Texas Tech. While Kliff had only 2 winning seasons out of his 6 in Lubbock, many of the issues were related to the team's poor defense. The offense remained prolific under his care and the three major quarterbacks during his time--Baker Mayfield (prior to his transfer), Davis Webb, and Patrick Mahomes--were all selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.

That list of accomplishments coaching the quarterback position in college is unbelievable. Any top high school QB recruit in the country should want to play for Kliff Kingsbury. In an era where collegiate players can now sign NIL deals to earn sponsorship money, it is even more enticing to play for a coach like Kingsbury. His proven track record of turning quarterbacks into some of the highest individual performers in the country could mean real dollars for a recruit even before the NFL.

If Kliff chooses to return to college he can lead a major recruiting campaign to acquire the best athletes that fit his offensive system from across the country. He will have the advantage of playing with them against likely inferior defensive athletes and more simplified defensive schemes.

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After his time in the NFL, Kingsbury should be able to draw upon some of the brightest defensive coaching minds to consider running that side of the ball for any program he ends up at. This should result in a stronger defense and more wins than he had during his time at Texas Tech.

If Kingsbury returns to college he will also have more autonomy running an NCAA program than he has in the NFL. He won't have to deal with any lack of continuity with an NFL GM or with the bickering of professional athletes.

At this moment in time, Kliff Kingsbury is a coach who has shown the ability to get the highest statistical performances out of his offensive players, but that hasn't translated to wins. The easiest place for that correlation to happen for him, given his style of coaching and the advantage he would have in recruiting, is at the collegiate level. He should be onto greener pastures once the Arizona Cardinals ask him to walk out the door.

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