For a while this season, Kliff Kingsbury looked like a front-runner for 2021 Coach of the Year honors. After failing to eclipse .500 in his first two years as Cardinals coach, the former Texas Tech coach oversaw a 7-0 start -- and apparent MVP campaign from quarterback Kyler Murray -- this fall. Since then, however, Kingsbury's Cardinals have lost five of eight games, slid out of the No. 1 NFC playoff seed they once held tightly, and are squarely in danger of losing a would-be NFC West crown.
It's now a legitimate question whether Arizona will even make noise in the 2021 playoffs, what with Murray and Co. looking out of sync in back-to-back losses to the Lions and Colts. It's at least possible now that the Cardinals could miss the postseason entirely, with the Rams, 49ers, Vikings and Eagles all capable of passing and/or staying ahead of them. And it's increasingly fair to ask: is Kingsbury actually safe beyond 2021? Is there a scenario where he doesn't survive a collapse?
One of the main reasons it's not wild to entertain such doomsday possibilities is Kingsbury's own track record. As The Athletic's Mike Sando recently documented, finishing with a whimper is something of a Kliff Kingsbury trademark. In each of his nine seasons as a head coach at the college and NFL levels, his teams have started well and ended poorly -- sometimes catastrophically so:
|Season (Team)||Start||Finish||Final Record|
2013 (Texas Tech)
2014 (Texas Tech)
|2015 (Texas Tech)||5-2||2-4||7-6|
|2016 (Texas Tech)||3-1||2-6||5-7|
|2017 (Texas Tech)||4-1||2-6||6-7|
|2018 (Texas Tech)||5-2||0-5||5-7|
Note: * = The Cardinals still have two games remaining in 2021.
By itself, Kingsbury's coaching record was already mediocre: over nearly a decade, he's logged exactly three winning seasons, counting this year. Put that aside and consider that Arizona hired him chiefly for his offensive prowess as the overseer of Texas Tech's "Air Raid" attack, and there's still literally nine straight years of evidence that his teams struggle to finish on a high note. If you excuse 2019 because it was his first NFL season, Cardinals fans have still witnessed -- or are on the verge of witnessing -- two straight late-season collapses after his team opened like a clear favorite to win the division.
Kingsbury, of course, can't be faulted for the entire Cardinals experience since he arrived. Kyler Murray's injury late in 2020 stymied the offense, and the star QB has been erratic since returning from another injury this year. DeAndre Hopkins' absence down the stretch this season hasn't helped, either.
But Kingsbury is the head coach, and late-year crumbles have been a constant, not an aberration, on his resume. Chances are ownership will sign off on a 2022 return regardless of how the Cardinals close this season. Even losing out -- ending the year on a five-game losing streak and 3-7 stretch -- would put Arizona at 10-7, which is a two-win improvement from 2020. That would technically mark a second straight season of improvement for Kingsbury in the desert. But if some doubt about his ability to not only build but maintain a winner isn't creeping in by now, that'd be even more stunning than Kingsbury's own history of collapses.