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Kliff Kingsbury's offense worked in Arizona, after adjustments

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When coach Kliff Kingsbury arrived about 51 weeks ago to take over the Arizona Cardinals, his players thought they knew what was coming.

But when Kingsbury first started running his version of the Air Raid offense early in the season -- a combination of the run and the pass -- he quickly realized parts of it wouldn't work in the NFL. So he made a series of decisions that would define his first season as an NFL head coach by progressively adjusting his offense.

The result? Kingsbury said this version of the Air Raid was "very different" from the one he imagined back in April. It had to "evolve."

"It wasn't as much what we wanted to do," Kingsbury said. "It's what I felt like we could do at that point. We wanted to grow with [quarterback] Kyler [Murray] and expand."

By Thanksgiving, the Cardinals' offense had found an identity: It was a smash-mouth ... run team. The Cardinals finished the season with 1,990 rushing yards -- ranked 10th in the NFL -- averaging 5.03 yards per carry, their highest rate in franchise history. They also ran for 100 yards in 10 games -- which hasn't happened since 2015 -- and had three games of more than 200 yards.

The Cardinals' final stats showed a fairly even distribution of the ball. Four players ran for 300 or more yards, including 544 by Murray and a team-high 643 by Kenyan Drake. Ten players had double-digit catches and 12 had more than 100 yards receiving this season, with four finishing with more than 300. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald led Arizona with 804 yards and 75 receptions. That type of distribution was similar to Kingsbury's time at Texas Tech.

"We had to switch up some of the stuff," Murray said. "Earlier in the season, we weren't running the ball as much as I think we needed to. We'd get down early and then we had to throw the ball and it just got predictable.

"There has to be a good balance of what we're doing. If you look around the league, the majority of the good teams have a run game and they play defense. I think that's kind of the recipe for success in any form or fashion of football."

But just how far has the Cardinals' offense come since Week 1, when they practiced their game-day scheme in earnest for the first time?

"It's amazing to see how bad we were at the beginning of the year," Murray said. "It's frustrating, but at the same time you see the growth so everybody is kind of optimistic of what we can be and understand that if we do things and we execute, it's hard to stop us. We're optimistic about it.

"But the more we get reps in the system and everybody gets more comfortable, the more dangerous we will be."

Kingsbury won over his locker room, in part, because he is humble. If he didn't know an answer, he wouldn't make one up. Kingsbury would tell his players he'll get back to them -- and he would, Fitzgerald said.

And part of being humble was Kingsbury's ability to adapt. The Cardinals finished the season running three primary formations: 10, 11 and 12 personnel. Back in April, the idea of running 11 and 12 personnel on a combined 59.2% of plays was foreign.

"It shows a coach that is willing to adjust and knows that he's good at certain things and he's learning that we're good at certain things," left tackle D.J. Humphries said.

Next up: How to improve. Kingsbury says the blueprint to answering that question has been laid out by the Baltimore Ravens.

"I know they have a fantastic roster and a great team, and they've been doing it a long time, but you see what Lamar [Jackson] was in that last playoff game, the previous season walking off the field, to what he is now," Kingsbury said of Jackson last year. "We'd love to take that next step with a young quarterback and build it around him and have that type of success.

"That's obviously reaching high, but there's a pretty good example right there at the top of the NFL right now."