Learning to win: Kingsbury leads Arizona into NFL’s elite

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Kliff Kingsbury has proven his coaching chops on many occasions over the past decade, developing elite quarterbacks, piling up points on the scoreboard, producing an entertaining brand of offensive football that fans enjoy and opposing coaches respect.

There’s only one real problem on his resume. Unfortunately for him, it’s a big one.

He hasn’t won much.

That’s finally starting to change for the 42-year-old Kingsbury, who has helped push the Arizona Cardinals to the NFL’s best record this season. The Cardinals (9-2) are in the middle of their long-awaited bye week before they return to prepare for a road game against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 5.

Kingsbury has become one of the leading candidates for NFL Coach of the Year this season, winning football games despite key injuries and COVID-19 absences that have kept some of the team’s best players and coaches — including himself — off the field at various times. The Texan has kept his usual dry wit through the good times and bad, saying Arizona’s hot start hasn’t changed the way he feels about his coaching ability.

"The only thing I like is family members, people that have believed in me forever, them to actually not hear me called a ‘dumbass’ all the time," Kingsbury said with a wry smile. "That’s the biggest positive I take away from all of it."

Kingsbury’s odd resume is partly due to taking over tough jobs. He had a 48-58-1 career record coming into this season after seven seasons in college at Texas Tech and two more seasons in the NFL with the Cardinals. Both places, at least historically, have proven tough spots to win consistently no matter who has been in charge of the sidelines.

Kingsbury was a player’s coach from the moment he walked into the Cardinals facility in 2019. It’s clear that he’s widely liked by just about everyone on the roster, but veteran players such as starting left tackle D.J. Humphries have noticed Kingsbury’s growth over the past three years.

"I like to people watch, it’s one of my favorite things to do," Humphries said. "That’s one thing, every year, he’s gradually been expanding on something he was doing the year before. He’s getting better. The way he can communicate with us as a team, can pull us together as an offense on the sideline this past game, it’s something that I’m not sure he could have done his first year."

Humphries was referring to last Sunday’s game in Seattle, which the Cardinals won 23-13. He said Kingsbury gathered the offense on the sideline in the second half when the team was nursing a tight lead, told the group to quit waiting for the game to end and instead leave no doubt about the outcome.

The victory over Seattle was the exclamation point on an impressive stretch of football. The Cardinals finished 2-1 over the past three games despite missing their two biggest stars: quarterback Kyler Murray and three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Backup quarterback Colt McCoy completed 35 of 44 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks.

"It was a good test for our team," Humphries said. "Just seeing how we respond to adversity, not having such huge pieces. Those guys aren’t role players, they’re cornerstones of our team that we’ve been missing."

The next challenge for Kingsbury is trying to win after the bye week. The Cardinals are 0-2 in games after the break over the past two seasons.

As usual, Kingsbury has tried to evolve and isn’t too proud to seek help, borrowing ideas from other teams.

"We did a lot of research this offseason on how we wanted to handle the bye, looked at different teams that performed well after the bye last year, and adjusted to a similar schedule," Kingsbury said. "They’ll definitely have time to get to wherever they need to get for Thanksgiving, have some down time, rest and recoup, and we’ll get them back.

"We’ll try to keep them locked in the beginning of the week into football."

If the first 11 weeks of the season are any indication, this might be the year the Cardinals break through with a win on the week after a bye. They’re hopeful Murray and Hopkins will be back and the team is ready to make a push for the No. 1 playoff seed — and the only first-round bye — in the NFC playoffs.

Kingsbury isn’t getting ahead of himself and neither are the Cardinals. They know from experience a good start doesn’t mean much: Arizona had a 6-3 record last season before stumbling to an 8-8 finish and missing the playoffs.

"We positioned ourselves well," Kingsbury said. "We’ve just got to find a way to finish now."

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