Kliff Kingsbury – Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Kliff Kingsbury – Challenging Conventional Wisdom


If you’ve been scouring the internet for fantasy analysis all spring and summer, you’ve likely heard or read some version of this sentence in your travels:

Kliff Kingsbury will bring his Air Raid offense to the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, and they will run a record-setting number of plays as a result.

And frankly, for good reason – his prowess coaching the offense at Texas Tech has been well documented. His Texas Tech offense ranked top 9 or higher in total plays per game in each of the last four CFB seasons.

With a 2018 offense that ranked 31st in total number of plays per game, it makes sense to come to the conclusion that this Cardinal offense has nowhere to go but up.

But just how far up can they go? This is the important secondary question we don’t seem to be considering enough as a community.

NFL Play Ceiling

The ceiling for number of plays run per game is far lower in the NFL than it is in NCAA D1 football. Looking through the plays per game pace stats linked above, top NCAA offenses regularly approach 85-90 snaps a game.

Over the last six NFL seasons, the most plays run on a per game basis by an NFL offense was Denver’s 72.3 plays/game the year Peyton Manning tossed 55 touchdown passes and led the Broncos to the AFC Championship. This amount of plays is nearly 20% lower than the average top offense in NCAA football.

But that’s just the best offense of the last several NFL seasons. The number of times an NFL offense averaged 70+ snaps per game in that time span? Just 5 times – total. Considering about 4% of those plays will be special teams related (punts, field goals), that shaves another 2-3 fantasy relevant plays off of the high watermark.

Chip Kelly Deja Vu?

The last up tempo head coach that was highly touted coming into the NFL was Oregon’s Chip Kelly, who coached the Eagles from 2013-2015. In his first season, they ranked 13th in total plays run before elevating themselves to top rankings in each of the following seasons.

Ranking highly in total plays run isn’t exactly everything, either – Kelly’s teams got worse in terms of yards gained per play every season (6.3 in 2013, 5.6 in 2014, and 5.3 in 2015).

While we expect Kingsbury’s scheme to mesh well with what rookie QB Kyler Murray’s college coach Lincoln Riley (another air raid disciple) asked him to do, we won’t know for sure until we see it on the field.

Kingsbury will have to adjust his scheme to NFL defenses, and further adjust along the way as his opponents prepare for what the Cardinals initially put on tape. The fall in yards per play efficiency that Kelly experienced is likely in Kingsbury’s future if he can’t.

Projecting Kingsbury

I have faith Kingsbury will elevate Arizona from it’s 31st overall ranking in 2018. He should challenge for a top 10 spot in total plays/game as a rookie head coach.

That firmly places them in a range of about 64-70 plays per game. Pegging it at around 65 (on the conservative side), is likely a fair place to peg this offense in 2019.

Automatically assuming they’ll reach the top spot, or set records for plays run, is not something I’m willing to do though. After all, Kingsbury himself has told us it’s not his goal to focus on tempo over efficiency:

“It’s not like we’re going super fast every play. I think there is a little bit of a misnomer there.” – Kliff Kingsbury

Even if this offense hits the absolute ceiling for plays run, I don’t expect it to have a dramatic effect on how we should be drafting fantasy teams – save for one position.

Kyler Murray has a chance to be a top 5 QB with his skill set if they’re able to reach peak efficiency. At ~65 plays per game, I have him as QB7 on the year.

But beyond that, David Johnson, Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella, Larry Fitzgerald – they’re all being drafted (potentially too high) right around where they should be based on projections, so there’s not much value to be had in fantasy drafts here.

In fact, the real value may lie in totally avoiding this well-hyped offense in drafts. That part is up to you.