How the Arizona Cardinals managed a COVID-19 outbreak and won without Kliff Kingsbury

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers had just finished a bike ride around the canals near the Arizona Cardinals' practice facility on Friday afternoon and was back in the office when he ran into Kenny Bell, the assistant to the head coach.

Bell gave Rodgers the news: Cardinals' head coach Kliff Kingsbury might be out for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns because of a positive COVID-19 test.

After three tests confirmed Kingsbury’s COVID diagnosis, all but ruling Kingsbury out, the Cardinals found themselves in for one a chaotic and stressful weekend.

"I mean, from my vantage point, we've been in this thing for a year and a half, so you kind of expect the unexpected," said Rodgers, who also serves as the assistant head coach.

Kingsbury missed Sunday's game and has yet to be cleared of COVID-19 protocols as of Tuesday.

The unexpected part of last weekend was the most stressful to defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who, along with Rodgers, assumed the head-coaching responsibilities in place of Kingsbury.

On Thursday, the Cardinals were in intensive protocols because of an unknown positive test on Wednesday, according to Joseph. Linebacker Chandler Jones had already gone on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday. Reports surfaced over the weekend saying that multiple Cardinals executives had also tested positive. The Wednesday test triggered the move to intensive protocols, which led to testing on Thursday and Friday, when Kingsbury got a positive test. Normally, the Cardinals’ coaches test Monday and the players on Tuesday.

At 8:21 p.m. ET Friday, the Cardinals sent out an email announcing positive tests for Kingsbury, quarterback coach Cam Turner and defensive lineman Zach Allen.

With Kingsbury likely out for the game on Sunday, the Cardinals' coaching staff met on Friday night to go over the offense and work on a proper way to call it, Joseph said. The staff had talked through various scenarios in the past so the coaches had an idea of what their roles would be if something like this happened.

Fridays are usually early days for the coaching staff because the game plan is done by the afternoon. With Kingsbury and Turner out, assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple, who was still in the Cardinals' building when he heard about Kingsbury’s COVID-19 diagnosis, was chosen to call the passing plays. Run game coordinator and offensive line coach Sean Kugler would handle the ground game, as he always does.

"It was a good meeting," Joseph said. "It was really focused on how the guys can call a game the same way that Kliff would call the game. Coach had his call sheets set up that way, and it was really seamless on game day. No one was obviously panicked about it. Coach was upset he couldn’t be there for the guys, but Whipple was excited about being a communicator to the quarterback.

"But that meeting was good. It spoke to Kliff and his offensive staff being ready to go at any moment, and obviously, he’s coached those guys on his side of the ball to see the game his way."

Kingsbury texted Whipple at one point Friday: "Just let it rip." The two talked about schematic ideas before the game but Kingsbury gave Whipple the reins. Between Friday night and kickoff Sunday, all three Cardinals’ quarterbacks -- Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy and Chris Streveler -- helped get Whipple up to speed.

"It was great," Whipple said. "Just the conversations we had about how they see each play working out, how they see the defense reacting and those are the conversations that we had helped a ton for Sunday to call the plays, just getting on the same page with those guys."

But with the daily testing continuing into the weekend, there were more chances for positive tests, as Joseph found out Sunday afternoon. He was on the first bus from the Cardinals’ hotel to FirstEnergy Stadium when his phone rang. That morning’s testing wrapped up around 10:30 a.m. and discovered defensive tackle Corey Peters had tested positive. Joseph hung up and called Jonathan Ledbetter in his hotel room to tell the practice squad defensive lineman that he would be dressing against the Browns.

"We kind of knew that someone was going to be positive," Joseph said. "We had no idea who it was going to be, so that added to the stress."

Ledbetter played 12 snaps, Whipple called a game that resulted in the Cardinals scoring 37 points and Rodgers, who was in charge of game management, called for McCoy to kneel three times in the final two minutes instead of kicking a field goal and giving the ball back to the Browns.

The biggest hiccup was avoided before the game when Whipple had to learn how to use the communicator so he could radio in plays to Murray’s headset.

By the time the Cardinals flew back to Arizona after the game, they had a 37-14 win and remained the NFL’s only undefeated team at 6-0.

"There wasn't anything that came up that we felt like we weren't prepared for," Rodgers said. "It's hard anytime that the head coach isn't there. We all kind of filled our roles and did them the best we could."