Football players are weaned on routine. They’re spoon-fed authority. They learn to respect force. On some level, they must fear the head coach.
The latter is not happening in Arizona, where the game and tactics have changed. Players and fans can rightfully wonder if this is the Kliff Kingsbury Era or the Steve Keim Show. A goldmine gone right, a serious problem if another season goes off the rails.
The Cardinals didn’t just hire a new coach entering the 2019 season. The hired a new kind of coach. A head coach who is all relationships and schematics, all playbook and no hammer. A head coach who defers rather than dictates, embracing his limited role as glorified offensive coordinator.
Say this for Kingsbury: He is too smart to seize control of a NFL franchise with such little pedigree, assuming something he hasn’t earned. As a result, there’s an authentic glow to the new head coach. For not selling something he’s not. For not trying too hard.
“That’s a cool cat, man,” Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said of Kingsbury just before the NFL Draft. “That’s a cool dude. I like his approach and his demeanor every day. He’s about his business but extremely personable. He’s the kind of guy, you walk into a hallway, and he doesn’t have that, ‘I’m the head coach, get out of my way mentality.’
“He’s like, ‘How ya’ doin’? How was the weekend? How are the kids?’ And it’s not just me. I’ve seen him do it with everybody.”
Kingsbury’s profile is central to this story because head coaches matter in the NFL. They must inspire with toughness, fairness and honesty. They must deliver coherent messages daily, commanding with robust rhetoric, in the presence of mercenaries and malcontents. And even if a rookie head coach can do all of that extremely well, somebody will test him, his philosophy and his hypocrisy.
What will Kingsbury do then?
Kingsbury has a temporary advantage because he’s a celebrity head coach, among a cluster of A-listers surrounding Tom Brady at the Kentucky Derby. He later took a jet to Las Vegas, sitting ringside with even bigger celebrities. His fame fuels, feeds and exceeds his credibility.
“There’s a lot of positive energy and positive affirmation,” Fitzgerald said. “They focus their coaching on things guys can do as opposed to things they can’t. The first thing he said was, ‘Hey look, I have a system here. It’s been successful. But my job is to get the best out of you guys and build my system around what you guys do best.’ I’ve never heard a head coach say anything like that before.
“You guys are going to do what I tell you to do the way I tell you to do it? No, that’s not his approach. It’s easy to see why he convinced Baker Mayfield to come to school for him, and the other players they had come, the Patrick Mahomes’ of the world. He can look you in the eyes and you can feel like you trust him.”
Fitzgerald’s praise is to be expected. It’s also reassuring. It reinforces the new direction in Arizona, where Fitzgerald is playing for a head coach unlike any he has ever experienced; where the GM is making bold statements on the radio, declaring Kyler Murray as the Week 1 starter even though he’s not the head coach; where Kingsbury is occasionally trailing the play, unsure what to say on any given day; where the answer is as simple as the kid playing quarterback, the one who can turn all problems into elevator music.
He is the real story here. The one who will make or break the bromance between Keim and Kingsbury, for better or worse. I like our chances.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.