Former Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury received a contract extension in March 2022, just weeks after the team’s second-half collapse ended in an ugly first-round playoff exit. Less than a year after extending Kingsbury through 2027, a change has been made. Kingsbury has been fired by the Cardinals after four disappointing seasons.
The decision itself to hire Kingsbury in January 2019 generated criticism. He accepted the USC Trojans’ offensive coordinator position weeks earlier after being fired by Texas Tech following the 2018 season. In six seasons as the Red Raiders’ coach, including three with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Kingsbury went 35-40 as a college head coach.
- Kliff Kingsbury coaching record (NFL): 28-37-1
Despite lacking any NFL coaching experience, Arizona took a chance with the hope it found the next Sean McVay. The team looked promising at times, starting 5-2 in 2020 and 9-2 last season, but a lack of second-half adjustments, poor coaching and a fracturing relationship with quarterback Kyler Murray doomed Kingsbury.
Considering general manager Steve Keim is also on his way out, Arizona will hit the reset button. Let’s evaluate the best Cardinals coaching candidates to replace Kliff Kingsbury.
Sean Payton, former New Orleans Saints head coach
The Cardinals’ coaching search will likely begin with the loftiest target. Sean Payton wants to return to the sidelines in 2023 if the situation is right. It’s clear he only wants to coach on the West Coast and he will only consider a franchise with a high-end quarterback. Arizona immediately checks off both boxes, with Murray showing more than enough talent when healthy for Payton to build his offense around.
We’ll start with the biggest hurdle for the Cardinals. Payton’s salary demands are expected to be massive, a price that might make Bidwill very uncomfortable. He is also still under contract with the New Orleans Saints and trade negotiations to acquire Payton’s brilliant offensive mind and well-known leadership start at a future first-round pick.
It could easily all be worth it. Even with a statue quarterback in the declining Drew Brees, Payton orchestrated one of the best NFL offenses for years in New Orleans. He also boasts a great eye for coaching talent, which would also help Arizona. Building an explosive offense and taking advantage of playing indoors is what Payton does best, making him a great fit at a costly price.
Related: Ranking NFL head coaching vacancies
Ben Johnson, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator
Ben Johnson is one of the top NFL coaching candidates in 2023. The 36-year-old Detroit Lions offensive coordinator is the man behind one of the best stories of the 2022 season. Through their first 14 games, Detroit’s offense ranked fifth in scoring (26.4 PPG), fourth in yardage (375.1 total ypg) and 11th in third-down conversion rate (42.3%).
Consider how many around the NFL viewed Jared Goff a year ago. Some saw his contract as one of the worst in football and no one thought he had a future in Detroit. Suddenly, Goff is under consideration for a Pro Bowl selection and he is expected to be the Lions’ quarterback in 2023.
Johnson isn’t just elevating a quarterback who everyone wrote off. He is also responsible for an offense that finished the regular season ranked third in second-half scoring (13.1 PPG), sixth in points per play (0.415), fourth in red-zone touchdown rate (66.2%) and finished as the No. 6 offense Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
This is precisely the type of coach fans should want pulling the strings for the Cardinals’ offense. Johnson isn’t being elevated by a future Hall of Fame passer nor is he making this happen with perennial All-Pro weapons. Someone who can design game-winning plays like this against an elite defense deserves to be a head coach.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines head coach
It’s not unreasonable to think the Arizona Cardinals will want to invest in a proven commodity. The last big gamble didn’t pay off and with $230.5 million invested into Murray, Bidwill must get this hire right to salvage the biggest deal he’s ever made. Jim Harbaugh could fit the bill.
While Harbaugh loves coaching at Michigan, Arizona could offer him a unique opportunity. He stated that there is unfinished business in the NFL, especially after how things ended with the San Francisco 49ers’ organization. Not only could the Cardinals offer Harbaugh the opportunity to coach and build the roster, letting him pick the general manager, it could be done in the NFC West.
- Jim Harbaugh NFL record: 44-19-1
San Francisco’s offense ranked top-10 in scoring in each of his first two seasons (2011-’12) and his work with Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and now J.J. McCarthy speaks for itself. Arizona would need to make him one of the highest-paid coaches in football, but he would be cheaper to land than Payton and the results could be just as promising.
As Harbaugh evaluates his options, Arizona might be the most appealing opportunity. He will be given time to build this team under his vision and he will have a shot to face the 49ers and Seahawks twice a year, two of his rivals. Hiring Harbaugh requires Bidwill spending a lot of money, but this would be a legitimate upgrade and giving Harbaugh some input with the roster in a partnership with executive Adrian Wilson could work out financially.
Brian Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach
Every NFL coaching search has a wild card candidate, someone who fans aren’t familiar with until the person suddenly receives an interview. While Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson might not be as popular of a target as Eagles’ offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, this is a name to monitor closely.
Before landing in Philadelphia in 2021, Johnson served as the Florida Gators’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In his lone season as Florida’s head of the offense, it had one of the best offenses in college football. All of this was accomplished with Kyle Trask (4,283 yards, 43-8 TD-INT) under center.
- Florida Gators offense (2020): 378.6 pass ypg (1st in FBS), 26.3 first downs per game (8th), 7.3 yards per play (9th), 39.8 ppg (13th)
Johnson then saw an opportunity to prove himself in the NFL, working directly with quarterback Jalen Hurts. A season after Hurts completed just 52% of his passes with a 77.6 QB rating across 148 attempts, he became an efficient starter. Now, Hurts is in the NFL MVP race and he has made it clear how big of a role Johnson is playing in this career explosion.
- Philadelphia Eagles offense (2022): 28.1 PPG (3rd in NFL), 99.0 (6th), 8.1 yards per attempt (2nd), 27.5% Pass DVOA (6th)
Johnson did more with Trask in college and Hurts in the NFL than Kliff Kingsbury did with Mahomes at Texas Tech and Murray in Arizona. Turning 36 in February, Johnson is among the best Cardinals’ coaching candidates who should be considered.
Vance Joseph, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator
If we’re evaluating Cardinals coaching candidates, Vance Joseph must be considered. The two-year stint with the Denver Broncos went poorly – 11-21 record – and Arizona finished the 2022 season ranked 24th in Defensive DVOA. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of appeal in hiring Joseph to replace Kingsbury.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Bidwill’s decision-making put it in this situation. An owner who is historically tight with his money spent far too wildly in 2022, signing Kingsbury and Steve Keim to extensions that never should’ve happened. Firing both still leaves them on the payroll through 2027 and that will likely impact what Bidwill does with his money next.
Promoting Joseph and naming Wilson as the general manager, potentially splitting the responsibilities with executive Quentin Harris, saves money and maintains continuity. If Bidwill is looking for people in the building he trusts and doesn’t want to spend to land a top head coach or GM candidate, internal hires make sense. Of course, it also creates a scenario where Joseph could be a one-and-done coach.