The Case for NFL Offensive Coordinator Kliff Kingsbury
Kliff Kingsbury is a 39-year-old former head coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders of the Big XII Conference who went 35-40 (19-35 in conference play) in his six years at his alma mater. That is what Wikipedia and Google will tell you if you are an NFL fan looking into who is now the hottest name to become an NFL offensive coordinator. If all you see is Kingsbury for his 19-35 record in conference play, will not see the forest for the trees.
Let me explain why Kingsbury is one of the best candidates to turn an NFL offense around in 2019.
The NFL Landscape in 2018 and Access to College Coaches
As Optimum Scouting has noted earlier in the year, the NFL is going through a passing boom that is fairly unprecedented without a major rule change (like in 1978 when modern pass blocking was legalized or in 2004 when defensive pass interference enforcement changed the game.) According to Pro Football Reference’s expected points model, 31 of 32 pass defenses have been in the negative this season. Passing has become so much more efficient than running in the NFL to the point that electing to run against an NFL defense on an average down and distance is a negative across the board.
In the current state of the NFL, running games do not make a major difference in gaining leads but do help situations to close out games (often called the four-minute offense.) To put the NFL into perspective, every team is averaging between 5.3 yards per carry and 3.6 yards per carry. In the FBS level of college football, the NCAA’s top division, the difference in yardage between the top and bottom team in that stat (7.0 yards to 2.1 yards) is well over 300% of what it is at the professional level.
The same is true defensively. Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) is a passing stat that is more correlated with wins than passer rating, or any volume passing that you can imagine, at the NFL level. Currently, ANY/A in the NFL ranges from 8.6 to 4.5. At the FBS level, it ranges from 11.5 to 2.9, more than double the umbrella of the NFL.
This is all to say this: Running games and defensive play are much more likely to win or lose you games at the college level, not because they have better players, but because talent inequality is more varied. Teams have more identity than just their offensive passing game, which just is not the reality of most NFL teams.
While the NFL has transitioned to becoming a league mostly based on offensive passing success, they have been pretty reluctant of making true college coaches, ones who have never coached at the NFL level, the faces of their organization. That is where Chip Kelly was a special circumstance. This is how the disconnect between college and NFL passing innovation comes about. NFL teams do not want to use college coaches to fill out their head coaching roles, but when most major college football coaches have eight-figure buyouts, more job security at the college level and have the potential to make just as much money at that level of football, it does not make sense for them to take NFL offensive coordinator jobs seriously.
At the moment, only one NFL offensive coordinator, Todd Monken who went from Southern Mississippi’s head coach to Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator, has made the direct jump from being a college head coach one season to an NFL offensive coordinator the next. The NFL is not willing to make college coaches head coaches. College head coaches generally make more than NFL offensive coordinators. Because of this, offensive innovation is staying in college football’s bubble. Why would Kevin Sumlin, who was let go by Texas A&M last year, take an NFL offensive coordinator job when he can take home $2 million as Arizona’s head coach and has the potential to make three times that (in Arizona or elsewhere in college football) if he succeeds?
Kliff Kingsbury, Specifically
With Kingsbury currently out of a job, the NFL finally has a chance to make a big splash with access to a major passing game mind on the table. To really see why he would be so valuable to the NFL, though, you have to divorce the success of his passing offenses from his record.
As mentioned previously, college football has more variables to it than just the offensive passing game. There are more times when a defense or a run game costs a team a win at the collegiate level than in the NFL. That is the nature of a league which does not have built-in parity mechanics like a draft or free agency, which tends to normalize non-quarterback talent in the NFL. In Lubbock, Texas, Kingsbury did not have access to the same players that Alabama had access to. The talent disparity in college football is unlike anything in the NFL.
So if we isolate Kingsbury’s offensive passing production, his specialty, we can measure his impact in the air at all of his stops at the college level, which is really what the NFL is looking for league-wide.
The best way to do this, in my opinion, is by tracking the Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) Value at stops when he was either a passing game coordinator, offensive coordinator or head coach.
Adjusted Yards per Attempt: (Passing Yards + (Passing Touchdowns *20) - (Interceptions * 45)) / Pass Attempts
Adjusted Yards per Attempt Value: (Team AY/A - FBS Average AY/A) * Pass Attempts
This will give us a value, in yards, of how well his team has performed on the relative scale of the rest of college football. It is important to juxtapose it to the yearly rate because, like the NFL, college football passing efficiency has also risen as of late
Here are the results of Kingbury’s seasons in those qualifying roles:
In nine years in qualifying roles, he has never had a single below-average offense, despite moving around to three different programs. In total, his teams have been worth 6,719 passing yards of value above the FBS average.
In an effort to put that number into context, I tracked the career (dating back to 2002) numbers for the 87 offensive-minded FBS head coaches and the 145 FBS offensive coordinators for the 2018 season. Out of the 232 careers, Kingsbury ranked 13th in AY/A Value, despite the fact that he has only participated in a qualifying role starting in 2010.
If you are looking at the college level for a passing-orientated mind, there are really few coaches who have the resume of Kingsbury. Eight of the 12 coaches ahead of him are already coaching Power 5 programs. Here is what they make this season:
Chris Peterson, Washington: $4.8 million
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia: $3.6 million
Urban Meyer, Ohio State: $7.6 million
Kevin Sumlin, Arizona: $2.0 million
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: $5.0 million
Mark Richt, Miami: $4.1 million
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma: $4.8 million
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: $6.7 million
Even Boise State’s Bryan Harsin makes $1.7 million, not including bonuses. The big money paid to these college coaches is why there is only one Monken in the NFL. If you are looking at the college coordinator level, there are only two career resumes who look more impressive than Kingsbury’s at the moment: Ohio State’s Kevin Wilson and Houston’s Kendal Briles.
It’s worth noting that Wilson resigned his position as Indiana’s head coach in 2016 after an external review of the program after reports of mistreatment by players. Briles, son of Art Briles, was noted as telling a player "Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor and they love football players,” during a time period when Baylor’s football program allegedly had a rampant sexual assault problem.
Between the optics of the coordinators who have the best on-field passing resume and the fact that the NFL cannot really steal college football head coaches to be their offensive coordinators, Texas Tech’s firing of Kliff Kingsbury presents the league a unique opportunity of having access to a valuable passing mind who might actually be interested in filling in an NFL offensive coordinator role. In a time where passing efficiency is the be-all-end-all at the professional level, Kingsbury makes sense as a potentially game-changing offensive coordinator who does not often fall into the NFL's lap.