College football and the NFL have fused schematically.
The styles of play aren’t exactly the same at the two levels, of course, nor from team to team at each. But the big concepts popular at one level are also popular at the other, whether that’s the Chiefs running the shotgun triple option with Patrick Mahomes or Alabama installing an ambitious downfield passing game for Tua Tagovailoa.
The last Super Bowl was loaded with Xs and Os that used to be considered college’s domain. The option has permeated all levels of the sport. Spread offenses have gradually filtered upward. NFL teams have looked to Oklahoma’s coach for ideas. Lamar Jackson just won an NFL division while running option plays his foes used to think were a fad.
How much does the NFL want to tap the offensive innovation that’s swept college football? A fired Big 12 coach is getting NFL head coach interviews.
That’s Kliff Kingsbury, the 39-year-old former Mike Leach quarterback whom Texas Tech fired in November after six seasons and a ton of points — when Tech had the ball and, more problematically, when Tech was playing defense. The Red Raiders’ pass-heavy scheme produced Mahomes (and Baker Mayfield, sort of) and led to a handful of the best offenses in the country. But defense was a perpetual problem and eventually got Kingsbury fired.
A bunch of NFL teams expressed interest, but Kingsbury caught on with USC as offensive coordinator after Tech cut him loose. His arrival in Los Angeles signals a shift from a run-centered offense to a pass-centered one. Previously, what we’d known of NFL teams’ pursuit of Kingsbury was that they were looking at him as a coordinator. It made sense that he’d pick USC, where he could have elite college talent and maybe become head coach one day.
But it’s uncertain that he’ll actually coach a game for the Trojans, because NFL teams might really want Kingsbury to be a head coach. The NFL Network reported he’s getting head-gig interviews with both the Cardinals and Jets.
Those teams both have recent college stars at QB, so it makes sense that they’d want a guy with a college background to work with them.
The Cardinals’ Josh Rosen (UCLA) and the Jets’ Sam Darnold (USC) both played in college offenses that leaned more toward the “traditional pro-style” end of the spectrum. The spread is everywhere now, but neither QB spent much time in Kingsbury’s beloved four-wide sets. Big formations and power running were key parts of both their college systems. Chip Kelly didn’t get to UCLA until Rosen was on his way out.
Both QBs have big arms, though, and it’s easy to figure why an NFL team would be enticed by the idea of Kingsbury working with one of them. Mahomes is probably Kingsbury’s most famous QB success story, but he’s not close to the only one.
He coached Johnny Manziel during his Heisman year at Texas A&M and later got some production out of Davis Webb, who had a few good years at Tech before Mahomes unseated him. Webb transferred to play in another air raid system: Sonny Dykes’ at Cal. He’s now with the Jets, where he could reunite with Kingsbury.
That’s been Kingsbury’s track record. QBs who play for him put up huge numbers, and not just because they’re throwing a lot. For instance, Bowman averaged 8.1 yards per throw this year at Texas Tech, and that was pacing to be a top-25 rate nationally if he didn’t get hurt. His offenses have usually been efficient and not just obsessed with volume throwing.
NFL teams’ interest in Kingsbury signals one more thing.
It suggests they’re open to hiring a head coach who a) has no defensive background himself, and b) had a lot of really bad defenses in the Big 12.
That can work with the right defensive coordinator and on-field talent. But it mainly speaks to how tantalized NFL teams are by coaches whose offensive tactics worked in college and aren’t that different than what’s now done in the pros.
It’s not a coincidence that one of the Jets’ other interviews is with Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs offensive coordinator who’s run a college-like offense to devastating effect with the QB who used to play for Kingsbury. Whether Kingsbury gets an NFL job or not, the sort of spread offense he favors is only going to reach further into the highest level.