TEMPE, Ariz. -- After Kliff Kingsbury was drafted by the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2003 NFL draft, he couldn't avoid overly optimistic comparisons to another quarterback on the same team who also was drafted late.
Kingsbury was selected with the 201st pick. Three years earlier, the Patriots took Tom Brady 199th overall.
"We loved [Kingsbury's] intelligence," said Scott Pioli, the former vice president of player personnel for the Patriots. "We loved his production. We loved that he was with a smart football coach and was really good in the system. He was talented. He threw the ball well. There were a a lot of things to like about Kliff, there really were."
Brady had already won one Super Bowl and was about to begin the quest for his second. Could the Patriots strike quarterback gold twice in four years and have a home grown backup for Brady? Was Kingsbury, the gun-slinging quarterback out of pass-happy Texas Tech, the next late-round Cinderella story?
"I had heard that a few times," said Kingsbury, now coach of the Arizona Cardinals. "They were talking about, 'Could lightning strike twice?' And it did not, in fact, happen."
Kingsbury's football-playing aspirations in New England ended prematurely thanks to an August arm injury before the regular season began. He played in just one preseason game -- the first -- and completed 1 of 4 passes for 11 yards and was sacked once. He was cut before the 2004 season and bounced around the NFL, playing in just one game for the New York Jets in 2005. Then, he played in the CFL and NFL Europe over the next two years.
But in many ways Kingsbury's future coaching career started in New England, where Kingsbury's Cardinals travel to play the Patriots on Sunday (1 p.m ET., Fox). While he was still getting coffee and Dunkin Donuts for the Patriots' other three quarterbacks -- Damon Huard, Rohan Davey and Brady -- coach Bill Belichick transitioned Kingsbury into a new role. Kingsbury started working alongside the quality-control coaches -- an entry-level coaching job. They broke down film, projects, game prep and practice prep.
"He was trying to learn, trying to learn the game, learn the NFL, learn pro football," Belichick said.
Kingsbury worked under coaches such as offensive coordinator Charlie Weis but also alongside guys like Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels. Patricia became an offensive quality control coach after the 2003 season and is now coach of the Detroit Lions. McDaniels was a defensive quality control coach in 2003 and is now the Patriots offensive coordinator.
Patricia described the work of quality-control coaches as being in a "foxhole together," and while Kingsbury didn't put in the same hours as the full-time coaches he certainly contributed.
"Those guys were in there every day just trying to help the team while they were playing," Patricia said. "It was pretty cool, actually, to watch them go in there and watch them do the stuff that a lot of the coaches were doing, especially with Kliff, knowing that that would be his future profession.
"He got a very early start at it and I think he learned the process of what it takes to get ready for a game, from not only the players side but from the coaching side while we were at New England."
Kingsbury said he was "100%" not going into coaching -- he was planning on a long NFL career. But plans changed after that NFL career "didn't go as swimmingly as I had hoped," Kingsbury said. Now, in his second season as the Cardinals coach -- his first real NFL coaching experience -- Kingsbury called his time in New England "incredibly valuable."
"I learned probably more football in that short time than at any, maybe, stop along the way, just when it comes to coaching and pertaining to coaching and the work that's put in and the game planning and the preparation day-in, day-out," Kingsbury said. "I really got to see behind-the-scenes there and it was phenomenal being around all those coaches that went on to be head coaches and won a bunch of Super Bowls."
For as much as he learned from Belichick and the rest of his staff, they were learning about Kingsbury. And what they saw out of a 24-year-old quarterback-turned-assistant is what they see now out of a 41-year-old NFL head coach.
"I would say the thing about Kliff that I thought was great -- especially as a young guy playing and trying to learn the game from the standpoint of a coaching level while he was playing -- I just think that he really understood concepts, he understood situational football and he was able to put his mindset and mentality into those situations and really be able to understand the things that he was trying to do," Patricia said. "A lot of it from a quarterback position, you have to have to look at the game from different perspectives of concepts, down-and-distance and game clock management and all the rest of that. He just could really handle all of that at a high level, which is pretty unique."
Huard, who was Brady's back-up that season, could tell when Kingsbury asked questions that he knew what he was talking about.
"To be around him in that short time, you certainly saw he had 'it,'" Huard said. "Like, there's just something to this guy, he gets it. He loves ball. He's been around this thing. Football is going to be a part of his life in some shape, form or another."
Even Belichick praised Kingsbury's intelligence.
"Kliff is a sharp guy, works hard, likes football, was always around and engaged and wanted to learn," Belichick said. "He is really a pleasure to work with and a really good person to have as part of the team."
Brady, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after spending 20 seasons with the Patriots, called Kingsbury a "good friend of mine for a long time," deomonstarted by the fact that the pair were photographed together at the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
"I loved the time when I'm with him," Brady said. "He loves football. He loves preparing and he does a great job."
Kingsbury got to peek behind the Patriots' iron curtain in ways most players don't. So what did he learn about two future first-ballot Hall of Famers -- Brady and Belichick -- operating on a daily basis at close proximity?
"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.
"If you just start to analyze what he knows and what I know, we'd be in trouble. He's forgotten more football than I'll ever even try to comprehend. He's probably the one person in the NFL that could coach every position at an elite level -- and that's not an exaggeration. That's how much he knows about the game."
With Brady: "Every part of his life was dedicated to being the best quarterback in the history of the game," Kingsbury said. "He already knew it then where it was heading.
"It was insane."
Looking back on his season with the Patriots, Kingsbury now understands the value of what he learned.
"At the time, I didn't realize what a blessing it would be moving forward going into coaching and things of that nature," Kingsbury said. "You really get your Ph.D up there when you're involved in the coaching side of it all."