The football world scoffed at the proposition when the Arizona Cardinals signed Kliff Kingsbury to be their head coach after a 5-7 season at Texas Tech. What they didn’t know, which Cardinals management did, is that Kingsbury was the right man for the job. When Kingsbury was fired from Tech, it was presumed it would be his first and last head coaching job for awhile. He didn’t succeed at the college level. What made the Cardinals think he could remotely succeed at the pro level? Less than three seasons later, he’s on top of the football world, running the undefeated Cardinals towards a Super Bowl.
Really, it’s more like he’s ‘passing’ the Cardinals. Arizona went from the NFL’s 32nd ranked offense in 2018 to 16th in 2019 and then to 6th in 2020. The Cardinals went from the NFL’s 32nd ranked run game in 2018 to 10th in 2019 and then to 7th in 2020. Through six weeks, the Cardinals are 4th in points per game and have scored over 31 points in all but one contest. They clear an average of 60 more yards per game than their opponents.
Even their defense has been solid. They’re ninth in yards allowed and third in points per game. They have a whopping 17 sacks and are second in the league in turnovers (8). Their pass rush has been relentless, as they have multiple players who can rush the passer. The combined performance from their offense and defense makes Arizona one of the most complete teams in the NFL.
They’ve done it the right way, too. They’ve drafted well, with three straight classes who have all immediately contributed. They cleansed the roster of expensive vets who weren’t contributing. Most poignantly to Texans fans, they’ve added talent in free agency and via trade.
Meanwhile, the Texans hired an equally untested and unproven head coach. Houston’s coach, however, doesn’t have the longevity or upside of Kingsbury. Arizona at the very least knew they were taking a gamble that could yield a high reward. The Texans took a gamble with virtually no reward, unless that reward was the casting of a fall guy.
What the Cardinals have done best is built an environment players want to come to. To acquire J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson, James Conner, and now Zach Ertz is a pure feat of organizational prowess. Talent wants to play with talent, and talent wants to win.
While the Cardinals amassed good players hand over fist for months, the Texans have been shedding and re-shedding their talent at a historic pace. Watt himself said he “doesn’t recognize” the team he’ll play on Sunday. The players who built the Texans franchise in the past three to five years have been traded, cut, or generally disregarded. Now the dearth of talent has left the team as a blackhole of talent. Players’ careers aren’t taking off here. Instead, players arrive in Houston to disappear. The Texans don’t even have to worry about re-signing their 2018 rookie class this offseason; they’re almost all gone, except Justin Reid, and he’s almost guaranteed to walk.
These are two teams heading in two different directions. The Cardinals hit bottom and had the organizational leadership, capital, and effective decision-making to build one of the most competitive teams in the league. The Texans, on the other hand, currently sit with little-to-no long term talent, a franchise quarterback who refuses to play for the team, and a low talent pool. At least they have their draft picks in 2022.
All of this comes back to management and vision. The Cardinals sent a signal to the league when they signed Kingsbury—that they were going to shake things up and make moves worthy of the risk. They followed it up with consistent excellence in the draft and then leaned into their own momentum with an all-time offseason.
Oh, and it also helps when another team is self-administering a swirly and trades away arguably its best player for your third string running back on an expensive contract.