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The 5 O’Clock Club: It’s not the ‘Air Raid’ anymore; what should we expect from a Kliff Kingsbury offense?

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By: Bill-in-Bangkok

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

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Wikipedia offers a surprisingly concise summary of Kliff Kingsbury’s four seasons as the Arizona Cardinals head coach:

Kingsbury was hired by USC as their new offensive coordinator in December 2018 but resigned a month later to look into NFL opportunities. On January 8, 2019, he was hired as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Some attributed Kingsbury’s hiring to the “Sean McVay effect”, a trend in the league of teams hiring younger offensive minded head coaches. Kingsbury won his first game against the Cincinnati Bengals and finished the season 4th in the NFC West with a record of 5–10–1. In 2020, the Cardinals finished 3rd in the NFC West with a 8–8 record…. The Cardinals finished 2nd in the NFC West and made the playoffs with an 11–6 record. In his playoff debut, Kingsbury and the Cardinals lost 34–11 in the first round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. Despite signing a six-year contract extension earlier in 2022, Kingsbury was fired after the Cardinals posted a 4-13 record that year. He finished his tenure with a 28–37–1 record and one playoff appearance.

While Kingsbury was the head coach in Arizona, he is also regarded as having been the offensive ‘mastermind’ of the Cardinals offense, so looking at the characteristics of that offense may give us some clues about what to expect from him as Washington’s offensive coordinator.

My first comment would be that 2019, Kyler Murray’s rookie season, and 2022, a season when the wheels fell off and Kyler Murray played in only 11 games, are the ‘outliers’ in this small sample. Personally, I will choose to focus on the two most successful seasons of 2020 and 2021 in trying to figure out what style of offense from his past NFL experience Kingsbury is likely to try to emulate.

That offense appears to be fairly balanced by NFL standards. In the 8-win season of 2020, the Cardinals ranked 17th in passing yards and 7th in rushing yards, while they ranked 18th & 9th in yards per attempt for passing and rushing respectively.

In the more successful 11-win 2021 season, they ranked 10th in both rushing and passing yards, while ranking 6th in yards per pass attempt but just 22nd in yards per rush attempt.

The stats that leap out at me there are that passing efficiency improved by half a yard per attempt from ‘20 to ‘21 while rushing efficiency worsened by half a yard per attempt in the same two seasons. The difference appears to be found in Kyler Murray’s rushing numbers, which dropped from a career-high 819 yards in 2020 to a career low (on a per-game basis) of just 423 yards in 2021, combined with an injury to the starting quarterback that sidelined him for 3 games mid-season. Colt McCoy started those 3 games, achieving a record of 2-1 while rushing 22 times at just 1.7 yards per attempt.

Because Murray averages over 6 yards per carry, the decrease in his running resulted in a significant drop in the team’s rushing yards per attempt. However, Kyler Murray and backup Colt McCoy threw for an extra 360 passing yards as McCoy rushing for only 37 yards in 3 games.

Cardinals’ scoring under Kliff Kingsbury rose each of his first three seasons, as the Arizona offense climbed from 16th in NFL scoring to 11th before collapsing in KK’s final season to just 20.0 points per game.

What does this mean for the Commanders offense in 2024?

Kliff Kingsbury again finds himself with a highly mobile rookie quarterback with a strong and accurate arm. That offense is paired with a defense that has few question marks aside from boundary cornerbacks, and which should benefit from a huge improvement in coaching under the leadership of Quinn, Whitt & Co.

On offense, the coaches, with Jayden Daniels, will likely be trying hard to find the balance between aggressive running and understanding when a play is dead as they attempt to fine-tune the NFL instincts of their rookie QB. It’s the same battle I think Washington’s last set of coaches went through with Taylor Heinicke in 2021-22; it takes a while to find the sweet spot, and the tendency may be to ‘overcoach’ during the effort to find exactly where the balance should be.

Eventually, the Commanders should find success; whether it comes immediately in Daniels’ rookie season or slightly later in his career remains to be seen.

Looking at the relative success of the Cardinals’ ‘20 and ‘21 seasons, I think that Kingsbury will be trying to slightly suppress the No. 5’s instinct to run himself out of trouble. If Kliff can call plays that get his team to the benchmark of 6,000+ total yards — split about 66/34 passing:rushing — while keeping Daniels to less than 500 rushing yards, that’s the style of football that would be consistent with Kingsbury’s most successful seasons with the Cardinals and Kyler Murray. If he can manage to get the burgundy & gold into the top-12 scoring offenses in the league while doing it, as he did with the Cardinal red in 2020-21, then the Commanders will have the opportunity to make some noise.

Originally posted on Hogs Haven