How Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury has grown into the job

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Last week Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury adjusted the team's Wednesday schedule to give players an easier day. Instead of a full practice, they had a walk-through.

Kingsbury had read the room. He knew his team was ravaged by injuries, beat up and needed a break. He changed course and made Wednesday a lighter day, something he hadn't done in 2020. It didn't work.

The Cardinals got blown out by the Carolina Panthers, 34-10, prompting Kingsbury to declare his Wednesday experiment a failure.

"We will never do that ever again," Kingsbury said.

But making the decision showed Kingsbury's players how much he's grown into the job, defensive tackle Corey Peters said. It showed them Kingsbury can be flexible -- which Peters said will "work well for us." It was a sign of Kingsbury's evolution after three years on the job.

In the back of Kingsbury's head was how the second half of last season unfolded, when Arizona finished 3-6 after starting 5-2 thanks to multiple injuries to quarterback Kyler Murray.

The shoulder injury Murray suffered in Week 11 of 2020 nagged him for the rest of the season, but Murray, as Kingsbury put it, "toughed it out." Murray "probably wasn't able to be 100% most of the back half of last season," Kingsbury said, and, as a result, the Cardinals weren't winning games.

When Murray sprained his left ankle on Thursday night in Week 8 of this season, Kingsbury took the lessons of last season and applied them. Murray has watched from the sideline the past two weeks and the Cardinals have gone 1-1.

"You learn as you go," Kingsbury said. "And last year, obviously we didn't finish the season as well as we would've liked, so we wanted to make adjustments and make sure that we're healthy and energized each Sunday when it comes around and we have a veteran group.

"We want to make sure this year [Murray] can feel as good as possible. We have the bye coming up and hopefully it gives us all a time to rest and recover and hit that homestretch as full-go as possible."

The Cardinals travel to play the Seattle Seahawks Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) before the Thanksgiving week bye. Kingsbury said the Cardinals will have a couple of workouts during the bye week but he doubts there'll be much football activity.

That's a contrast to last season, when the players had the mandatory four-day weekend off -- Thursday through Sunday -- before coming back from the bye to lose to the Miami Dolphins in game that kick started Arizona's run of four losses in five games. Arizona is 0-2 in the games coming off a bye in Kingsbury's first two seasons -- and looked awful in the process -- so he knew he needed to try something.

Kingsbury continues to learn. He's been an active coach during this time in Arizona, constantly walking around the facility and talking to all his players. That's helped make him approachable, especially for one-on-one conversations, and since he's always around, players see him and know he's just as invested as they are -- maybe more.

"That makes the culture really transparent and honest when he's always available for players," Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said.

Kingsbury also makes sure to greet every player by a name, a philosophy he picked up as a rookie quarterback in New England. Hearing Patriots coach Bill Belichick say, "Hey, Kliff, how are you doing?" meant a lot to him. When Kingsbury got into coaching in 2008, as quality control at the University of Houston, he made sure to start calling players by their first names as well, and his players appreciate it.

"It means everything," Peters said. "We're a family here and that's not just from player-to-player, coach-to-coach, it's from coach-to-player, as well."

It hasn't always been easy for Kingsbury to be open and friendly with his players. Kingsbury admits he's "pretty introverted by nature" but he had to force himself out of that shell, especially after becoming the head coach at Texas Tech in 2013.

For the 42-year-old Kingsbury, his development has been a process. Some of his growth has been a necessity and some has been natural. Joseph, who has been a coach in the NFL since 2005, said the league moves fast and if a coach can't adjust, they'll get left behind.

"He's grown an awful lot," Joseph said.

It's gone beyond giving guys an easier day on Wednesdays. Peters has watched Kingsbury get more comfortable overall, from his leadership style to his game management to his playcalling.

"I've been places and in situations where the game plan goes in and players feel like, 'I don't know if this is the best way to go about it,'" Peters said.

"So, to be able to express how you feel and have them adjust as well and put you in situations so when you're on the field you feel comfortable, you feel confident about what's being asked of you, you feel like you're in a position to do it, to actually succeed, that's incredibly important."

Kingsbury credits the continuity on his coaching staff. Since he was hired in 2019, only five coaches -- three offensive and two defensive -- have left. The philosophies are the same, the verbiage is the same, the understanding is the same. That all helps, he said.

But Kingsbury's ability to read his players is a large part of why they're 8-2, leading the NFC West, and in a position to make not just a playoff run but a run at the Super Bowl.

"He has a good feel for the players and that's the job -- the players are the job," Joseph said. "If you can have a feel for what the players need and want, you can coach in this league outside of X's and O's. He has a great feel for the players."