Another year. Another head coach. Another offensive system.
The Arizona Cardinals’ new head coach Kliff Kingsbury will be the franchise’s third in as many years.
Running back David Johnson’s productivity in that time dropped dramatically following his breakout 2016 season under then-head coach Bruce Arians.
According to Pro Football Focus, since the 27-year-old’s rookie season in 2015, Johnson has a receiving grade of 84.9 from the slot (13th amongst all pass-catchers in that span) and has also turned 84% of those receptions into first downs or touchdowns, the most of any running back.
Arizona’s offensive line in 2016 was among the league’s best with the eighth-best run-blocking grade (79.8). That allowed for Johnson to produce the sixth-best rushing grade (75.4) and third-most average yards per carry (6.3), both out of the shotgun.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals and Johnson, his 2017 season ended the same day it started as he sustained a wrist injury in Week 1 that required surgery.
The 2018 season saw a complete coaching staff change following the retirement of Arians. Steve Wilks and Mike McCoy were hired as the head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively.
But McCoy’s offense didn’t utilize Johnson’s talent the same way Arians’ did. Arizona’s offensive line didn’t help either, as the abysmal play saw the team’s run blocking rating (55.8), and both Johnson’s yards per carry (2.3) and rushing grade (66.5) drop to the bottom half of the league’s ranks.
But with the 2019 season approaching, first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury gives Johnson, and the rest of the team, optimism for a dramatic turnaround from last year’s offense.
Kingsbury’s air raid offense is predominately run out of 10-personnel formations, spreading out four wide receivers and lining up a running back in the slot.
While Kingsbury was at Texas Tech from 2015-18, the Red Raiders offense ranked in the top-25 in average points and yards per game that included two finishes in the top-five. Over that time, Kingsbury ran his offense in 10-personnel formations 60.3% of the time, quadrupling the NCAA average of 15%. The Cardinals didn’t run a single play out of 10 personnel last season.
Johnson seems to be a perfect fit in Kingsbury’s offense as the 2016 Pro Bowler led all NFL running backs with a receiving grade of 90 that included 80 receptions for 879 yards and 42 first downs that same season. His sophomore year also saw him generate a 110 passer rating for his quarterback as 40% of Johnson’s total receiving yards came from the slot or out wide.
And while first overall pick Kyler Murray only targeted running backs 3.4% of the time at Oklahoma, he led the nation with a 95.1 passing grade when throwing to the slot receiver.
But Arizona’s new-look offense will benefit Johnson in the run game as well. Since 2015, Kingsbury’s offense has run the ball out of the shotgun over 75% of the time, giving his Red Raiders a rushing grade of 82.8 (tied for 34th in FBS).
After the worst season in team history, Kingsbury and Murray will join the likes of Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, giving Arizona a completely new-look offense.
And with the Patrick Peterson suspension announced on Thursday, a possible resurgence of Johnson to his 2016 form gives Cardinals fans something to look forward to.