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Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury’s beautiful mind



TEMPE, Ariz. — While other kids his age spent their summer in New Braunfels, Texas, going to the river or playing with their friends, Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, then 9 years old, spent his on the football field at two-a-days.

Tim Kingsbury, Kliff’s father, was defensive coordinator at New Braunfels High School, where he’d later become head coach and Kliff would go on to star as quarterback. A young Kliff and longtime friend, David Simmonds, whose father was the New Braunfels offensive coordinator, were staples at practice.

The two were ball boys and never missed a day, Simmonds said. If they weren’t at practice, they were inside watching film. And when they weren’t watching film, they were drawing plays up on a white board.

“Who does that as a 9-year-old?” Simmonds asked. “That’s ridiculous.”

It’s not that different from what Kingsbury does now as coach of the Cardinals. Over the past 12 years, Kingsbury has climbed the ranks: from quality control coach to offensive coordinator at Houston, to Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator in 2012, to six seasons as Texas Tech’s head coach, to his second season as an NFL head coach. On Monday, Kingsbury leads his 3-2 Cardinals against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Kingsburys’ reputation as an offensive savant has grown with each stop thanks, in part, to his willingness to be creative and adapt.

“There’s a lot of offensive coaches who spend an extreme amount of time figuring out what the defense does,” said Cardinals wide receivers coach David Raih, who also coached with Kingsbury at Texas Tech in 2013. “He’s more concerned about what we do, which is a very aggressive way to play offense.”

To Kingsbury, that was a natural way of approaching offensive football. “It always made sense to me that we’re the one with the snap count, we’re the one who controls the tempo, so make them react to us,” he said.

It has led to high praise.

Cardinals running back Kenyan Drake described him as a “mad genius.”

Cornerback Patrick Peterson said he’s a “mad scientist.”

Left tackle D.J. Humphries called him “the wizard.”

Texas Southern coach Clarence McKinney, who coached with Kingsbury for five years at Houston and Texas A&M, said: “It’s like the Rain Man.”

Brandon Jones, the Houston Cougars offensive line coach who held the same position with Kingsbury at Texas Tech in 2017 and 2018, said, “It’s like something I’ve never seen. It’s like ‘A Beautiful Mind.'”

Playcaller from the start

Kliff caught the football bug early. At a young age, his dad set up a tire and a trash can in the backyard so Kliff could work on his passing accuracy and touch. Kliff was self-driven even when he was young and played everything from T-ball to track to baseball to flag football to soccer, Tim said. It got to a point, though, Tim was concerned Kliff was taking everything too seriously.

Kliff watched ESPN rather than cartoons, his dad said. And if he saw a play on a highlight he either didn’t understand or didn’t think was the right play, he’d ask his dad about it and explain what the right play should’ve been.

Kliff also watched film with his dad on occasion, and started to work on his own offense.

“He would draw stuff up on napkins and show them to me,” Tim said. “He was very creative when it came to that.”

Back on the practice field as a 9-year-old, Simmonds remembers he and Kliff discussing what would happen with the plays they designed if the other team ran Cover 2 or a 46 defense or had a spy who shaded to the left. “And we loved it,” Simmonds said.

On game days in the fall, Simmonds remembers he and Kliff would go on the field two hours before kickoff and run their plays — just the two of them, against air — up and down the turf. Kliff was always the receiver and Simmonds was always the quarterback — until they got deep in the red zone. Then Kliff would take over at quarterback.

“We tried to play a little bit of everything,” Kliff said. “But, yeah, we were eaten up by it, just the game, the strategy of it, and we’d want to draw it up and then go try to make it work on the field.”

Coming up with plays

The foundation of Kingsbury’s offensive philosophy was built during his high school and college years. He began running the Air Raid while playing quarterback at New Braunfels and continued it at Texas Tech as a quarterback under Mike Leach.

From there, Kingsbury’s offensive education took off. Kingsbury said he was “fortunate” to learn a “ton of offenses” from various college and pro leagues.

“It started with the Air Raid, Mike Leach,” Kingsbury said. “A lot of those base concepts really made sense to me, and I like the way we operated in that system. And then I bounced around, NFL, NFL Europe, CFL, wherever, just any concept that I saw that, ‘Hey, this makes sense to me, this is quarterback friendly, it’s a great read,’ I would carry that and install it at a different place.”

Each stop added another layer to Kingsbury’s offensive encyclopedia. But one of the most important lessons came as a player on injured reserve during the 2003 season with the New England Patriots, coached by Bill Belichick.

“With Bill it was his ability to adapt to his personnel year in, year out,” Kingsbury said. “Whoever he signed or drafted, it didn’t matter, they were going to find a way to utilize those guys in different ways and maximize who they were with their personnel group, and you saw that year after year.”

What Kingsbury runs on the field can be the result of something he saw during his hours of film study, something he stole from another team or something he came up with on his own. Those ideas come both on the practice field and while he’s out fishing.

“It should be the last place that happens, but I remember some distinct plays, so I don’t know,” he said.

Whenever a play idea lands in his head, Kingsbury tries to write it down so he doesn’t lose it. After the plays get jotted down, they used to end up on a white board in Kingsbury’s office that has been slowly replaced by stacks and stacks of notepads.

Pete Robertson, a former Cardinals linebacker who played for Kingsbury at Texas Tech, walked into Kingsbury’s office in Lubbock, Texas, one day and found two white boards full of plays.

Those plays on those boards were the “greatest hits,” Kingsbury said. Throughout the offseason, anytime he saw a play he liked, Kingsbury put it on the board. Then he’d go through all of them, pairing them with different teams. It was a tedious process that’d often leave him trying to remember why he liked a play or what team he wanted to use it against — if he couldn’t recall either answer, he’d erase them.

Now that he’s using note pads, it has become a weekly ritual for Kingsbury to throw out or scratch out a play, leaving him with a list. Kingsbury likes to insert new plays every week, said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who said they usually include some sort of new design or way to get the Cardinals’ playmakers involved. And every play also comes with a corresponding hand signal so Kingsbury has to find a new one for each addition.

“I love the fact that you come in here on a Wednesday morning, you got to have your nose in the book because there’s going to be some things that are thrown at you that you haven’t seen before,” Fitzgerald said.

During the week, Kingsbury has been known to show film of a Texas Tech play from four years ago or a play Houston ran 10 years ago or even black-and-white film from offensive assistant coach Jerry Sullivan’s days with the San Diego Chargers from the early 1990s.

He’ll run new plays on Wednesday, when he throws “it all out there, see what fits.” Because Wednesdays are the Cardinals’ walk-through day, he can evaluate a play in slow motion, which allows him to take a longer look at alignment, spacing and timing. If it doesn’t work after a couple tries or if quarterback Kyler Murray doesn’t like it, Kingsbury will trash it.

“I can think it’s the best play in the world, but if he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m not feeling it,’ then we take it out,” Kingsbury said.

That communication between Kingsbury and Murray has “definitely progressed” in the 17 months they’ve been together with the Cardinals, Kingsbury said. Murray called Kingsbury’s offense “very quarterback friendly,” in part because Kingsbury, a former quarterback himself, understands what the quarterbacks go through.

Kingsbury is a strong believer that the key to getting his players to buy into a play is how he presents it during installation.

“I’m not going to have it in unless there’s a reason and I try to explain that reason, try to show them on tape this is why we’re doing it,” Kingsbury said. “Always have a why.”

Fitting the offense to the QB

In his one season coaching with Kingsbury at Texas A&M in 2012, former Aggies wide receivers coach David Beaty learned an important lesson watching Kingsbury.

“That dude builds the confidence of quarterbacks,” said Beaty, who would go on to become the head coach at Kansas. “Those guys know that’s their team, and he does such a good job of teaching them to be accountable for their team. … When a guy feels like he has some say-so in it, when there’s some ownership there, that quarterback is the king of the castle.”

Kingsbury wants to fit his system to his players, not the other way around. At Texas Tech, when quarterbacks Davis Webb and Patrick Mahomes brought a play to him that they liked, he’d always be receptive.

“He’s very easy to talk to input wise, as long as you have a good reason,” Webb said. “He allows the quarterback to have not total free rein but more than anybody I’ve ever been around, where they can check at the line of scrimmage and kind of be the coordinator behind the scenes and get us into the right play as long as you have a good reason and he trusts you’re able to do that.

“That’s something that’s pretty unique, especially for a guy that is so smart and has such a good system.”

Kingsbury showed his flexibility in 2012, his only season as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator.

He inherited an undersized, little-known quarterback named Johnny Manziel and prepared to install the same Air Raid-style offense Kingsbury orchestrated at Houston — the same one that helped Case Keenum, who coaches said ran the scheme to perfection, throw for an NCAA-record 19,217 yards during his career. Except Manziel wasn’t the traditional drop-back passer; he was a shifty, crafty, mobile quarterback.

“With Johnny, it looked nothing like what it was supposed to look like, and our offensive staff was like, ‘What the hell man? We look like s—,'” McKinney said. “But Kliff’s like, ‘All he do is move the chains.’ Which made sense. It don’t matter how you do it. You just keep getting first downs, eventually you’re going to get some touchdowns.”

Kingsbury kept the offense simple for Manziel, which allowed him to master it. Texas A&M went from 7-6 to 11-2, from seventh in yards per game to third, and from 27th in yards per play to first. On his way to a Heisman Trophy, Manziel and the Aggies led the SEC in rushing.

“I thought that showed that he was very versatile as a coach,” McKinney said. “He adjusts to his talent. I thought that showed that he could coach anybody.”

Kingsbury credits Kevin Sumlin, now the University of Arizona head coach. Sumlin was Kingsbury’s first boss, and they worked together for four years at Houston and then for a season at Texas A&M. At both schools, Sumlin gave Kingsbury “complete freedom.”

“That has really helped me because I was never told, ‘You have to run the ball this many times or do this type of personnel group formation,'” Kingsbury said. “So, it’s allowed me to just look at the game from a different perspective.”

‘Film junkie’

Kingsbury developed a reputation for being a film junkie when he played at Texas Tech. There, he watched film “better than any young quarterback I’ve ever been around,” said SMU coach Sonny Dykes, who was an assistant at Texas Tech during Kingsbury’s playing days.

Confined to his home this offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kingsbury wasn’t left with much else to do but watch film, especially of college offenses.

“It’s definitely a deeper dive into offensive football this offseason with all the down time,” he said.

It paid off in Week 2, when the Cardinals ran a dizzying play on fourth-and-1, shifting from a split-back shotgun formation with Murray at quarterback to a double-wing flex triple option with backup Chris Streveler under center. Kingsbury stole the play from Navy, who ran it in the Liberty Bowl last season against Kansas State. It worked for a first down.

Now that the season is going, Kingsbury will watch film of offenses from around the league to see what other teams are doing. Most defenses around the league, he said, are the same, so if a play worked for one team, it’ll likely work for the Cardinals.

But Kingsbury can be picky.

“I’m a big first instinct guy,” Kingsbury said, “so if it doesn’t strike me like that as being a fit, I’ll move forward and go on to the next one. I think that just allows me to kind of really get through more volume of them.”

At Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Houston, Kingsbury didn’t just limit his film watching to what everyone else around college football was doing, he dove into what high schools were doing, some of his former players and coaches said. He doesn’t have a limit for the level of football he’ll watch.

With the Cardinals, Kingsbury has his staff do “deep dives” for trick plays every week from college football. And sometimes they come up with a play or two from unlikely sources, such as one taken from Abilene Christian University, a Football Championship Subdivision school with about 5,300 students, that Arizona ran last season.

Kingsbury has been open about having “no shame in ripping plays.” But sometimes he has gone deeper than just replicating a play he saw on film.

Late in his tenure at Texas Tech, Kingsbury called Purdue coach Jeff Brohm and told him he was intrigued by some concepts Brohm was running and wanted to install them. Kingsbury didn’t just ask about the ins and outs of the plays, he asked Brohm about the specific teaching points.

That, Levine said, is rare. Most times, coaches call each other and ask about general concepts and packages — what’s working for you on first-and-10? How can I get better on third-and-long? But for a coach to call another coach and say he has dissected a concept every which way — studied the depth of the running back, the eyes of the quarterback, the offensive line splits — and wants to know the details of installing and teaching it, is almost unheard of it, Levine added.

“He’s studying in the offseason, when I know a lot of coaches [say], ‘Hey, it’s our offseason,’ at the college level, ‘we’re recruiting.’ At the NFL level, ‘We got some time off, getting ready for the draft, it’s not as intense,'” Levine said. “The intensity level, to me, is increased with Kliff because now he loves, as much as anything, the opportunity to sit down and scout and evaluate and study what some of the top offenses and top offensive minds in the NFL and college football at any level are doing.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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