As the Arizona Cardinals enter a make-or-break season, much of the focus is on quarterback Kyler Murray and whether he can take the next step. Perhaps the biggest question for the team, however, is whether head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense can become a force at the NFL level.
When Kingsbury entered the NFL from Texas Tech, there was a lot of buzz and excitement surrounding his offense — how would a true “air raid” system function at the pro level? Was he going to take the league by storm with 10 personnel (one back, zero tight ends, four wide receivers) and empty sets? Would he prove that some of the best college offenses in existence could work just fine in the NFL?
The average NFL team ran 29 plays from 10 personnel during the 2019 season — Kingsbury’s first in the league. The Cardinals ran 168 over the first four weeks, almost 60% of their offensive snaps. They came out running as close to a college version of the air raid as you’re going to find in the NFL but quickly realized the offense needed an adjustment.
While 10 personnel was featured on almost two-thirds of their snaps during the first month of the season, they ran it on just 18.3% of their snaps during the final month of that year. It was still the most in the league during that time, but it clearly represented a massive shift from what they expected when the season began.
Kingsbury has been adapting his offense to the NFL level on the fly and is feeling his way into the league every bit as much as his quarterback.
Conceptually, the air raid is built around spreading a defense out, diagnosing what it is showing pre-snap and then getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly to take advantage of what the defense is giving. It’s far from a new system, but its most extreme variants haven’t popped up in the NFL since the 1990s when the run-n-shoot was in vogue.
There are reasons for that, and Kingsbury is in a race against time to figure out which of those reasons can be overcome and which need to be schemed around.
Kingsbury has yet to move his receivers around the formation during his time in Arizona, instead sticking the wideouts to a specific side of the field and running their routes from that spot. Last season saw the addition of an elite playmaker at receiver when the Cardinals fleeced the Houston Texans for DeAndre Hopkins. With one of the best in the game in its arsenal, the team deployed its new superstar at left wide receiver on 88.3% of his snaps.
Hopkins finished the season with PFF's sixth-best receiving grade (88.0). The player ranked just above him, Allen Robinson, didn’t line up in any one spot on more than 42.9% of his snaps. Most receivers in today’s NFL follow a pattern closer to Robinson.
The Cardinals sacrifice the boost a receiver gets from moving around to find favorable matchups in exchange for added speed and efficiency that comes with every player always knowing where to line up and the tempo it allows.
On average, the Cardinals snapped the ball with 11.5 seconds left on the play clock. Only the Atlanta Falcons averaged a higher figure (by just a tenth of a second). The Cardinals were lining up and snapping the ball faster than pretty much any team in the league, but to what end? On plays in which the ball was snapped with 15 or more seconds on the clock, Arizona averaged 0.031 EPA per play, the 17th-best figure in the league. If you look only at passing plays, they slip all the way to 22nd.
Keeping receivers in the same spot on almost every play allows the team to play with greater tempo, but there is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. That extra tempo doesn't result in more efficient play, or at least more efficiency relative to the rest of the league.
At the college level, being able to line up quickly and simply out-execute the defense offers enough of an edge that the offense can thrive through efficiency. At the NFL level, defenses are too good for that to be the primary driving force. The best offenses throughout the league are pushing the envelope of misdirection and fakes to sow confusion and maximize any slight hesitation it can create in a defense.
Pre-snap motion, play action, bunch formations and moving receivers around the formation are all small elements — none of which move the needle a huge degree on their own. They can combine to generate a noticeable boost in efficiency, however.
The Cardinals — in addition to not moving receivers around — ranked dead last in pre-snap motion in 2020. The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens each used some variety of motion on over 70% of their snaps compared to Arizona's 33.5%. The Cardinals rank in the middle of the pack in terms of bunch formations — partly because they use so many receiver-heavy formations — and do at least rank in the top 10 in terms of play-action rate. In some ways, their offense is still at the forefront of NFL strategy, but in others it lags behind the curve — and it does so chasing an edge that may not exist at this level of the game.
There is nothing wrong with pushing an unusual approach to football, either on offense or defense, in the NFL. Some of the best coaches and units in league history are ones that did something differently before being copied by the rest of the league and the strategy becoming commonplace.
What is critical however, is that coaches who push that approach demonstrate the ability to evolve and adapt, to respond to circumstances and the way they are being attacked by the opposition. Some very effective systems have died off quickly or plateaued in the NFL because they never found the next chapter in the story. Once opposing teams figured them out, they were able to neutralize the threat. Without the next installment of the scheme, they never reclaimed the high ground.
Kingsbury’s offense is at that crossroads right now. NFL defenses have a pretty good handle on how to combat his offense. He had to adapt his system significantly to even get to where it is today. While showing that adaptability stands in his favor right now, it needs more.
The 2021 season is critical for Kingsbury. The team has a lot of talent at its disposal, but Kingsbury needs to break out the next phase of his offense.