Kyler Murray is a Super Bowl-caliber QB
The Arizona Cardinals are in possession of a quarterback who can take them all the way. Homework or no homework, that's what matters most.
Five months without a football game is a slog that makes us all stir crazy. By late July, we’re all curled up in a fetal position with a twitch in our left eye.
There’s no drama like professional football, so what happens when that drama lacks games? Substance? We obsess over bizarre subplots. And first thing’s first — we can all agree the “homework clause” in Kyler Murray’s contract is certifiably bizarre. It’s ridiculous that an NFL team felt the need to not only instruct its franchise quarterback to watch more film but literally put in the writing of a five-year, $230.5 million pact for that quarterback to spend — Are you sitting down? — not one… not two… not three… but four hours of “independent study” on football.
We rightfully assume starting quarterbacks take their work home with them for triple this amount.
The mockery was so deafening that Murray held an impromptu press conference to defend his honor, the Cardinals announced they’ve removed that provision from his contract and both sides essentially blamed the media for a mess of their own doing. The whole PR disaster was peak NFL, yet another case of a team making a heaping pile of feces appear out of thin air. Because what’s sadly gotten lost through the top storyline from the first week of training camp is the fact that these Cardinals possess what all 32 teams are perpetually chasing: a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
On the list of what’s important, No. 1 would be the fact that this is an MVP candidate of a quarterback and somewhere way, way, way down the list would be the stopwatch denoting how many hours that MVP candidate is watching film at his house.
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The ice-cold facts bear repeating.
Murray is a 1-of-1 talent. Nobody in the sport plays the position remotely similar to him. The 5-foot-10, 207-pounder is as close as we have to an abstract Picasso painting with a spastic playing style that’s wildly unpredictable. At his finest, Murray zigs, zags ‘n zigs some more from every inch of the field before gunning the ball 40 yards downfield as if the dizzying theatrics were in his plans all along. Whereas Lamar Jackson is more apt to sprint from Point A to Point B with decisiveness, this QB plays in a maze.
Murray has undeniably improved in each of his three seasons. Playing video games is a senseless time-suck beyond the age of 21, but it’s even more senseless to label this particular video-gamer lazy when his completion percentage jumps from 64.4 to 67.2 to 69.2. No metric points to work ethic quite like this one and only Joe Burrow (70.4) was more accurate in 2021. Didn’t we all collectively praise Josh Allen’s work ethic for improving in this department?
Murray is the rare talent worth serving as the center of an organization’s solar system. In personnel, scheme, style, the Cardinals have operated with his name at the forefront of everything. Opposing defenses don’t care how late Murray stayed up on a Wednesday night trying to decipher their disguised blitzes when they’re trying to huffing and puffing and chasing him all over the field on Sunday.
The optics of the “Homework Clause” are obviously terrible and hints at a mistrust between both sides but, eh. I feel like this all warrants a chuckle, not an all-out conniption. Please spam me if I’m proven dead wrong by January, but the substance of Kyler Murray is worth every penny of that contract because he’s on the short list of quarterbacks fully capable of taking over the league this season. Everything else is, by and large, daytime TV pontification.
His personality likely fed the frenzy. Murray closes himself off to the public as much as any starting quarterback — he’s been four words and a cloud of dust from Day 1. One predraft sitdown was Dan Patrick, you may recall, was ultra-cryptic and cringy. It takes time for Murray to trust anybody, yet he did offer a rare window into his mind last season to the New York Times when he said the following: “I think I was blessed with the cognitive skills to just go out there and just see it before it happens. I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit there and kill myself watching film. I don’t sit there for 24 hours and break down this team and that team and watch every game because, in my head, I see so much.”
Naturally, this quote made the rounds hand-in-hand with that homework clause.
There is one man who did have the ultimate vantage point the last two seasons. Jordan Hogan worked with the Cardinals offensive staff the last two seasons, serving as an assistant coach right in that quarterbacks room. This fall, he’s coaching the wide receivers at Colgate University and I’d bet money we see Hogan on an NFL sideline soon. He’s not one to stump or sugarcoat. We caught up at the height of the Murray mania last week and Hogan began by citing that cognitive ability. He calls Murray another offensive coordinator on the field. “His recall,” Hogan says, “is unlike anything I’ve ever been around.” Backup Colt McCoy, a 13-year vet, was always impressed with how much Murray could remember about defenses. Inside the building, he claims Murray was always attentive in the film room.
Here’s how the gameplan is instituted in Arizona, too. Other teams likely follow the same trusty protocol.
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterbacks coach Cam Turner watch every single game that was played the previous week in the NFL and handpick the plays that worked. They’ll then attach their own terminology to those plays, draw them up and present them to the offensive staff. Then Murray. Then Murray chooses which plays he likes. If he doesn’t like a play? That play is immediately eliminated.
From there, Arizona’s meshes its fastbreak tempo to those plays and off they go.
Murray is a “very instinctual football player,” Hogan adds. The Cardinals know this, so they’re always trying to build a gameplan around what makes him most comfortable.
“I love Kyler,” Hogan says. “He’s extremely smart. He knows the offense. Could he have watched a little more film? Sure. There’s gives and takes to every superstar player in the league. I don’t think that’s why we lost to the Rams (in the playoffs). Because of him not watching film enough. When we were in meetings, he was engaged. A lot of that had to do with Colt McCoy being in the room. I know it was really big for the organization to bring back Colt. When Colt would suggest something or bring note of something, that was definitely something that Kyler would pay attention to. He’d always ask, ‘Colt, what do you think on this? What do you see?’ Rightfully so. Colt has been in the league for a very long time and that’s not a coincidence. He was a great sounding board for Kyler.”
That “gives and takes” comment is telling, and true. We see this with the best of the best at the most important position all the time. The Chiefs and Ravens both built offenses that accentuate the gifts of their young quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability and Patrick Mahomes’ improvisation are schematically woven into the X’s and O’s. When Matt LaFleur took over as the Packers head coach, he brought a new playbook with him but also gave Aaron Rodgers full autonomy at the line of scrimmage. The Packers have won 13 games three straight seasons with Rodgers winning a pair of MVPs.
By now, the Cardinals know Murray is at his very best playing liberated.
This is a team that has not won much of anything. Back to its inception in 1920, the Cardinals are a whopping 200 games below .500. There’s no such thing as the good ‘ol days for any generation of Cardinals fan, Chicago to St. Louis to Phoenix. Thus, Hogan remembers the team speaking often about the organization’s lack of tradition. Kingsbury is determined to alter the course of history.
Yeah, they caught Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer at the end of their careers and there was a brief Jake Plummer high.
But it’s not even close: Murray is as good of a shot as the Cardinals have ever had to actually string some winning seasons together.
Last season, the Cardinals were the last undefeated team standing at 7-0 and remained in firm control of the NFC at 10-2 after a 33-22 win at Chicago. Then, the wheels came off. They lost five of their last six games. Here’s thinking it had more to do with injuries than the NFL solving Murray. And the injury Arizona probably “didn’t really put a lot of stock in,” Hogan admits, was the knee injury to DeAndre Hopkins. Initially, the offense rolled right along with Christian Kirk, AJ Green, Zach Ertz and rookie Rondale Moore. Coaches thought they could survive without their No. 1 and welcome back Hopkins for the playoffs. However, the drop-off between Hopkins and Antoine Wesley proved too steep. Wesley is a solid fifth wideout but, Hogan says, “there’s only one DeAndre Hopkins.”
“We found that out pretty fast,” he says. “There’s always going to be four eyes allocated to D-Hop. And when you don’t have D-Hop, that means there’s going to be more eyes on Kyler or more eyes on the field. That’s an area where we might’ve been foolish to think, ‘We can survive without D-Hop.’”
The Cardinals will be without Hopkins again to start the 2022 season. He’s suspended the first six games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. This time, Arizona should better weather his absence thanks to the trade for Marquise Brown. Not too long ago, “Hollywood” lit up scoreboards at Oklahoma with Murray. While prone to the occasional drop, few receivers fly like him. Brown is exactly what Murray needs.
And to put it kindly, this roster is… imperfect.
Frankly, there’s a dearth of foundational pieces because the Cardinals’ drafts have been so-so. Selecting Andy Isabella over DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson and Terry McLaurin is shaping into an all-time gaffe. Budda Baker is a star at safety, but is often forced to cover up deficiencies elsewhere on defense. The team needs star production out of Hopkins when he does return considering his price tag. Hopkins makes $27 million per year and is suddenly on the wrong side of 30 years old. Neither the offensive or defensive lines are too imposing which could be a problem in the same division as the rugged 49ers and Rams.
Murray is the ultimate equalizer. When you look around the NFL and see the state of other franchises, that’s a perfectly fine way to live.
Most quarterbacks require a perfect set of circumstances. Every conceivable factor must be worked in their favor. If Brian Daboll can just oil this engine and rotate that tire then maybe… perhaps… possibly… there’s a chance Daniel Jones elevates. Nobody knows. Nobody’s ever seen it out of Jones. Back to high school and college, he’s always been a C+ quarterback. Philadelphia had itself a gem of an offseason, landing A.J. Brown the same weekend Arizona acquired Brown. But nobody has a clue if Jalen Hurts will maximize all the talent around him. San Francisco managed to pull every lever for a while. Jimmy Garoppolo was at the vortex of a QB’s dream — elite playcaller, top 3 defense, top 3 run game — and won a ton of games. But even here, Kyle Shanahan eventually realized he needed to take a big swing to get over the Super Bowl hump and traded away three first-round picks for the right to draft mystery-man Trey Lance.
Players like Jones need to watch film in their living room after dark because they lack elite physical gifts to simply hijack a game in the fourth quarter.
Murray, on the other hand, has always been a different breed.
At renowned Allen High School, he famously went 42-0. He won the Heisman. We’ve seen him dominate.
More importantly, he knows what it takes to take over.
“Kyler is a gamer,” Hogan says. “He just wants to hurry up and get through Monday through Saturday and get to the games. He takes practice seriously. He’s locked in when we do competitive stuff. 7 on 7. Scout-team periods. But you can definitely tell he lives for gamedays. They’ve been playing high school football for a very long time in the state of Texas. When you can say he’s arguably the best player to come out of that state of football, that’s saying something. He never lost. … He has one year as the starting quarterback and he’s the Heisman. Obviously, he played baseball at Texas A&M and Oklahoma. He gets drafted into the MLB. He’s the first overall pick in the NFL. He’s just a winner. If we’re not winning, he’s a super competitive person. Any type of small drills we’re doing at practice or if we’re playing hangman, anything competitive throughout the practice week, he wants to win. He does not like losing. He gets that look in his eye — and I’ve seen it a couple times coming out of halftime — where, ‘We’re not losing this game.’ We may be down going into halftime but he has that look in his eye, like ‘Just give me the ball and I’ll make something happen.’”
Up close, it never seemed like the game was too fast for Murray or that defensive coordinators were able to trick him. Arizona’s offense is predicated more on creativity and improvisation than timing and rhythm but, Hogan adds, “every offense needs playmakers.” And this is an offense piloted by arguably the game’s preeminent improv artists. True improv is different than a scramble drill, too. It’s a skill. It’s an ability to process moving parts in real time. To Hogan, the list of QBs who can play this way is short: Murray, Jackson, Mahomes, Rodgers, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson. And the cherry on top, to him, is the fact that Murray throws the “prettiest” ball in the NFL.
From a mechanic standpoint, it’s Murray, Rodgers and Russell Wilson above all else in his book.
The real question is how in the hell any defense prepares for him week to week, not the other way around. There are countless plays to choose from. Imagine the Tennessee Titans are still wondering how Murray escaped this chokehold.
“He can take the league over,” Hogan adds.
That being said, he’ll probably need to win from the pocket to win in the playoffs.
One of the team’s best players ever, Warner, has made that point to us before. Winning deep into January does require hitting your “layups,” and Murray’s first playoff performance was ugly. In a 34-11 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, he went 19 of 34 for only 137 yards with two interceptions and only ran twice for six yards. His leadership was a major point of criticism the 48 hours that followed that night. He was ripped as aloof.
Publicly, Murray is a borderline mute at most of his press conferences. Privately, he’s just as quiet. Even Kingsbury once said having a conversation with Murray was “like pulling teeth. I just badger him to constantly try to get him to talk about something.”
Asked if this is an area Murray needs to work on, Hogan pauses.
He calls him a “different” leader, but one the team absolutely follows because he wins.
“They know who he is,” Hogan says. “They’d rather have him on their team than to go against him. He’s a leader because guys on the team are going to follow him. We know we’re better with him. Could he be a little more vocal? Sure. But I’m not going to knock Kyler. I’m not going to knock a person if that’s not in their DNA. Kyler, he does not talk. You can’t make somebody be something they’re not. If I’m a vegetarian and I don’t want to eat meat, I don’t eat meat. I’m not going to become somebody different just to please you. Obviously, there’s different territories that come with the position you may play. There may be some prerequisites you need to do. He has taken the necessary the steps to become a better leader. But he’s never going to be the vocal person. The rah-rah guy. As far as leading with his play on the field, I’d rather have somebody lead with their play on the field than someone who’s always barking out and talking stuff and whatever you say doesn’t have any substance behind it.”
He is 100 percent correct. Teammates want authenticity out of their QB and — most of all — teammates want to win.
The league is a lavish drama with cameras always capturing mannerisms of its main characters.
True characters who are often playing specific roles. One of Hogan’s duties was to watch the TV copies of games in addition to the All-22 coaches’ copy. He’d look to see which of Arizona’s signals —hand or verbal — the broadcast exposed for other teams to steal. And the other thing he’d look for is how Murray was being portrayed. To him, it’s obscene how many times the broadcast cut to a shot of Murray when he’s distraught while omitting the many times he was high-fiving a teammate. He believes networks portray Murray “in the worst way possible,” and it really, really pisses him off. These snippets add up to paint the portrait of a leader who’s too distant.
Quarterbacks are the face of the franchise, he adds, and should be aware of their body language. But Jordan Hogan is also right when he says every competitor is bound to lose their cool 2 or 3 percent of the time. It’s football. It’s emotional. All the homework clause did was further feed this narrative. Obviously, it’s a strange demand and it’s even stranger that Murray signed off on such a contract if he had a problem with it. But also remember that Murray had 230,500,000 million reasons to sign that dotted line and did not imagine we’d ever see the fine print.
Either way, we’ve wasted far too much oxygen on the matter.
Without Kyler Murray, this is a team spiraling right back to the bottom of the food chain. Back to being an irrelevant franchise. With Kyler Murray, the Cardinals have a legitimate chance to go on a Super Bowl in 2022 and beyond.
Folks can laugh about homework all they want right now.
Next month, there will be actual football games.
“Over the course of four quarters in critical situations,” Hogan says, “the cream always rises to the top. I’m a K1 believer.”
Miss last week’s three-part series on Chase Edmonds? Catch up right here: