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A Look Behind the Curtain of Cardinals Sunday from Albert Breer

All Cardinals on FanNation logo All Cardinals on FanNation 10/19/2021 Howard Balzer
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Albert Breer of provides his reporting on the Cardinals dominating win over the Cleveland Browns.

Much has been written about the Cardinals stunning performance Sunday in Cleveland. 

Here is reporting from Albert Breer of

Kliff Kingsbury may have been 2,000 miles away. But to all the Cardinals players and coaches on the other end of the Zoom feed on Saturday night, he might as well have been right there with them in the team’s Cleveland hotel. And that’s not only because they were all on Zoom anyway, since nothing could be in person, per NFL-mandated intensive protocols enacted after Arizona turned up a handful of positive tests at the end of last week.

It was also because his message drilled home a simple point that quickly alleviated the shock of a football team losing its head coach the day before a game.

“He told them that we had worked for this,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told me on Sunday night. “And that the work was already done.”

COVID Cardinals

No one in Arizona asked for 2020 to rear its head again, with the Cardinals' 2021 season going the way it has. But if the pandemic’s shown us all one thing, it’s that COVID-19 doesn’t mind being an unwelcome guest at an inopportune time. So it was that Chandler Jones and a couple of executives returned positive tests last week. That sent Arizona into the intensive protocols, and on Friday, resulting daily testing turned up positive tests for Kingsbury, quarterbacks coach Cam Turner and defensive lineman Zach Allen.

Kingsbury received the news about his own test on Friday afternoon.

About 48 hours later, Arizona backup quarterback Colt McCoy was taking knees and Kingsbury’s Cardinals were salting away a 37-14 road rout of the favored Browns.

In between, there was a real-life scramble drill by the coaching staff on Friday, decisions made on splitting responsibilities that night, changing travel plans and a couple more rounds of tests that led to just one more player being shelved in Cleveland. Then, there was a game played, and a team that found out just a little more about itself and how far it's come in getting from 5–0 to 6–0.

And after that, owner Michael Bidwill brought Kingsbury into the winning locker room via FaceTime, and the players exploded when they saw their coach.

Kingsbury smiled. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to, of course.

What he’d said on Saturday night had come true. By the time all hell broke loose on the Cardinals, the work was done and Kingsbury’s team was ready to show the NFL, again, just who it was. Most of all, they were ready for whatever came their way.

“I’m just really proud of how they all rallied together and got it done,” said Kingsbury, via text from Arizona on Sunday. “Nobody even blinked. Just went out there and got the win."

Friday Night Lights

Joseph was already home when he got word from Kingsbury on Friday afternoon, a little bit after the staff had finished work for the week ahead of Saturday’s trip to Ohio. Kingsbury was already in what Joseph calls “fix it” mode—both arranging for the staff to divvy up his responsibilities and putting together a call sheet for the offensive coaches that would help them call the game as he would have.

The offensive coaches, sans Kingsbury and Turner, returned to the office after dinner on Friday, to go back over the game plan and play sheet, so their handling of Sunday would sync with Kingsbury’s. And then Saturday morning, Joseph would deliver the team the news, with a message that was similar to the one Kingsbury would give them that night.

“It's our job to coach these dudes and give them good plans, but once it hits Saturday, Albert, it's a player’s game,” Joseph told me. “So thank God that Kliff didn't pop until Friday because the work was done. Once it's Saturday and Sunday, man, the players play. I told them Saturday, 'Look, leaders lead. Ballers, you guys go ball. And coaches, you coach.' It's Saturday. It's on. The plan's already done. All the work was in, so again, it was our job to keep it as normal as possible and to allow those guys to play good football.”

So Joseph would take the reins as far as being the voice in front of the room on Saturday and Sunday. Special-teams coach Jeff Rodgers, who’s very involved in game management anyway, would handle the big-picture decisions in that department, and carry the red challenge flag. Both Joseph and Rodgers would maintain their normal responsibilities in leading the defense and special teams, respectively.

But on offense, things were a little more complicated—and while there was an assumption run-game coordinator Sean Kugler would call the offense, as sort of the next man up on the staff list, things didn’t quite go down that way. Kugler’s the voice in Kingsbury’s ear on any Sunday when Kingsbury needs a run call, and he remained in that role on this Sunday, again, to give the players some stability.

Whipple a Rising Star

Meanwhile, 32-year-old assistant receivers coach Spencer Whipple—regarded on the staff as a rising star in the industry—carried the play sheet and was the voice in Kyler Murray’s ear, effectively taking the offensive coaching portion of Kingsbury’s role.

“He's been with the passing game the longest in the room,” Joseph said. “He spends his time obviously with Kliff and the receivers and the quarterbacks, and he's been here the longest. His background was in this offense, and again, he wasn't calling it by himself. But as far as terminology, as far as what the formations should look like with the quarterback, it was natural for him to do it because he spends the most time with Kliff.”

From there, other pieces fell into place.

Veteran center Rodney Hudson, placed on injured reserve on Saturday, was planning on staying back in Arizona to rest his rib and shoulder injuries. But when he found out that Kingsbury was out, he asked to make the trip so he could help the coaches with the linemen on the sideline. And around the same time, Kingsbury’s chief of staff, Kenny Bell, suggested traveling an extra defensive lineman, because the team was thin there with Allen out and another positive test could put the Cardinals in a bind.

Sure enough, Corey Peters tested positive on Sunday morning, and that extra defensive lineman, Jonathan Ledbetter, had to dress for the game and wound up playing.

“Our two or three days, it was hectic,” Joseph said. “But again man, no one panicked and it's a clear sign that we have great leadership.”

Leadership Mantra

Leadership was something that Kingsbury, general manager Steve Keim and the Arizona brass were looking to inject into the team in the offseason. As the coaches saw it, last year’s 7–9 team might’ve made the playoffs if they played smarter ball. So the team imported playoff-tested guys like Hudson, J.J. Watt, James Conner, Colt McCoy and A.J. Green to accelerate the growth of its younger guys.

It’s fair to say that on Sunday morning, as Joseph sat inside his Cleveland hotel room, waiting for test results to come back, it’s the one thing that gave him peace.

“I was on a couch just tapping my feet for two hours,” he laughed.

And so as he got the news of Peters’ positive test, and a handful of others that had to be re-run, his players were honed in on the 4:05 p.m. local time kickoff. They were ready, and it showed right away, and not just in Arizona taking a 20–0 lead before there were even 20 minutes off the clock.

It was also apparent in how the way the team was set up helped buoy a defensive front that was without Jones, Peters and Allen. In the first quarter, the Browns’ potent, well-rounded offense could muster just 47 yards and three first downs, with just seven of those yards coming on the ground.

“It’s unit-based systems in all three phases, so you can plug guys in here and there and not lose your standard, and that's what good football teams have to do in this league,” Joseph said. “You can't lose one or two players and then say, 'OK, two guys are out, let's lose the game.' It can't work that way. The systems that we've built with Coach Kliff, we can plug-and-play players and not lose the standard.”

On this day, it made Kingsbury himself replaceable too.

There were, of course, tweaks. When Joseph’s unit was off the field, he’d check in with Whipple, while receivers coach Shawn Jefferson and running backs coach James Saxon were there to help the first-time play-caller. Kingsbury’s rules on certain things transferred over—right down to a decision to go for it on a fourth-and-2 with 2:20 left (Jonathan Ward converted with a 6-yard run).

“Kliff would've gone for that, so we're going for that,” Joseph said. “That wasn't my call. That was Kliff's call. Everything that Kliff would've done, we did today.”

But most important, again, was the players taking care of their business, and taking care of business those guys did. Murray was a tidy 20-for-30 for 229 yards and four touchdowns, keeping himself very much front-and-center in the MVP discussion. DeAndre Hopkins scored twice. Arizona rushed for 144 yards. The defense, without maybe the league’s best pass-rusher, sacked Baker Mayfield five times and held Cleveland to 73 rushing yards.

The Cardinals also won the turnover battle (3-0) and had fewer penalty yards (88-45) than the Browns. And then when it came time to close the deal, Arizona emphatically did that, going 93 yards on 11 plays, eight of them runs, to chew 7:18 off the clock and leave the Browns down 37-14 with less than five minutes left. When the Cardinals got the ball, it was a two-possession game and a Browns comeback was plausible.

When they gave it back, it was over.

“You have a three-, four-receiver offense that's a high-flying passing team that’s finishing that game with James Conner with [eight] runs. And to burn eight minutes and punch that ball in? That's good football,” Joseph said. “That's good football, man. If we continue to do that—stop the run, run when we want—that's gonna pay dividends for this football team moving forward.”

The funny thing about that drive is Kingsbury missed all of that. Back home in Arizona, he actually decided to use the three-hour block the game was played in to work ahead on the Texans, the Cardinals’ opponent next week, while keeping track of the score of his team’s game on his phone.

Finally, with about three minutes left, he decided to tune in, most because he was happy for the guys and wanted to see them celebrate a win they’d so richly earned.

Of course, now, the byproduct is going to be the rest of the world considering how real the Cardinals—a team that was last in the playoffs six years ago—are at 6—0, and if the league’s only unbeaten really is its best team. And how the team got through the last few days will certainly be part of that story.

But I can tell you that conversation is not one the Cardinals are going to participate in. Mostly, because avoiding getting sidetracked by that sort of thing is exactly where the growth in the team is showing up. So when I asked Joseph if the team he led Sunday should be considered the NFL’s best, his was, well, just what you’d expect.

“That's not our call, man,” Joseph said. “I'm gonna tell you this: Kliff coached this team like we're 0—5. So now it’s 0—6, right? No one even talks about that stuff. We are literally day-to-day man, especially now with the COVID stuff. We are day-to-day, and this team's mature and they get it. So no one's talking about being the best team in the league. That ain't our concern, man. We are on to the Texans. That's our only concern.”

Of course, Kingsbury, Joseph and the rest of them really don’t have to be worried about how the rest of the world looks at them. Because days like Sunday have shown pretty clearly who they are.


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