Dilemma in the Desert
The Kyler Murray Dilemma- it's complicated
Seldom do we see the kind of dialogue that has taken place recently between Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray and the rumored response and posturing from his current employer. This somewhat cryptic, and yet public, professing of who is to blame for yet another late season meltdown in the desert needs to be explained. The rhetoric got turned up a notch when Murray’s agent sent out a letter explaining his demands earlier today. I jumped into the film room and, as what usually happens when I analyze an NFL team, I discovered there is plenty of blame to go around in this situation.
At last check, Murray was seen struggling mightily in a regular season finale home loss to the Seattle Seahawks. What followed was a meltdown of all things leadership and came in Murray's first EVER playoff game vs the Los Angeles Rams, a loss which obviously ended the Cardinals season.
The first thing I saw was a Cardinals offense whose playmakers showed a sense of resignation, disappointment and bad body language throughout the game. And I’m not just talking about the team's quarterback. Sure, I saw Murray shrugging his shoulders at the end of many negative plays or shaking his head while walking off the field after an unsuccessful third down. But I also saw receivers hanging their heads after an inaccurate pass or turning palms up when Murray's target was someone else when they thought it should have been them. I saw a group of playmakers on a team who don’t believe.
To my surprise, I saw a very functional offensive line made up of three guys with cap numbers over $10 million each. Initially, I thought these cap numbers would make them targets to move on going forward. What I found was something different. The Cardinals are stout inside (at OG and OC), using consistent technique, and their players are athletic enough on the edges (at OT) to handle the speed and agility of the pass rushers in their own division. The Cardinals can tweak but don’t need a major overhaul upfront. They do need to add a tough blocking TE to take the run game where it needs to go. Last year, the team acquired former Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner and while he gave Arizona additional TD’s, he really is no longer a top quality every down back. Speed and ability to make defenders miss is a missing part of this scheme. The trenches are not where this team struggles.
My assessment of the Cardinals offense comes back to an overall lack of belief and not enough quality personnel on the perimeter. I realize they were missing top receiver DeAndre Hopkins for some important stretches during last season, but this group as a whole showed me doubt and indecision on tape. I also saw a QB who has not developed his game to any higher level beyond where he was in college. I see many pre-defined throws and limited processing and anticipation. Slow developing routes don’t help Murray and there is very little fear of this team’s receivers running by defensive backs. As a result, opposing defenses are able to cover the underneath stuff easily. The Cardinals have plenty going on between the lines on any given play that can be improved, but their deficiencies with negativity influence perception and narratives outside the lines as well.
Another trend that defenses have established vs Murray is blitzing him less than almost any starting QB in the league (per Pro Football Reference). Defenses want him in the pocket where he must process and read coverage. It’s clear, they don’t want him escaping the rush and getting on the edge where he can use his legs.
Murray is eligible for a contract extension in the coming league year. It's clear now, with his letter today that this off-season drama all started when he (and his agent) were told by the Cardinals not to get their hopes up anytime soon. It’s the WHY that makes things in this situation murky and convoluted. The public commentary had seemed to have simmered down but now, it's been put on BLAST. The two sides appear to realize that their best options are probably solved by keeping this marriage intact for the time being, but the relationship is rocky, to say the least. I don’t see a top 10 QB at this point in his career.
At 5’10”, Murray was originally a surprise choice to most traditional NFL thinkers who didn’t think he deserved to be the first pick in the draft. Cardinals Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury championed his cause, even though there was no history of a QB with this lack of size being picked that high before. The fact that Murray was the first pick in the draft certainly did not ensure that he had what it took to be a top tier player at the hardest position in pro sports. What it did insure was that he and Kingsbury were tied at the hip and now both will be on one of the hottest seats in the NFL come next season.
My evaluation tells me that Kyler Murray is really the same guy now as he was when drafted. His strengths remain the same. He has a live arm, can get it out of his hand quickly, and is very capable of throwing accurately on the run. Murray’s arm strength is unquestioned. Most of his targets are LIVE no matter where they are on the field. He has the ability to get the ball from point A to point B at the NFL level. He is a rare and exceptional athlete for the quarterback position and his skills give him the ability to make game-changing plays at any given time. Murray can elude a rush with suddenness and his speed is like no other when he is flushed from the pocket.
However, his inconsistencies are: 1) his inability to locate open receivers (from the pocket), 2) his lack of accuracy when throwing from the pocket, along with some of his questionable decision making, especially late in downs (from the pocket). Both criteria are explained most easily because of his limited vision. He really struggles to see through the bigger trees. Murray must have a definite throwing lane to operate. He therefore misses identifying targets who are open all too often. He also gets balls tipped when the throwing lanes are not clean. Football is a big man’s game, especially at the NFL level. I also do not like the way he consistently fades backward vs pressure. This reduces his arm strength and increases his degree of difficulty when attempting to make certain throws.
Murray is a great example of why sub-6-foot QB’s are not a sure thing in the NFL. and why it is risky business going “all in” to acquire one. His health and vision will always be an uphill battle. He has definitely worn down at the end of seasons (physically) and his inability to consistently make all the throws from the pocket gives me cause for concern in the future. A passer's pocket is not for everyone, especially the guys with smaller stature and frames to start with. NFL defensive coaches will eventually make you beat them from the pocket, history shows that to be a fact more than my opinion. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson are the extreme exceptions to the norm as pocket passers who are 6’ or less and have proven they can make all the throws.
Insert note to self: Remember this when considering this year’s draft class of QB’s as well. It’s a thing, believe me.
I do not solely blame Murray for his inconsistency in these parts of his game. I do question the fact that his game has not grown at all since coming to Arizona. The ability to develop his craft to a 2nd and 3rd level status will determine his future in the league. The evaluators of Murray have to take some of the blame. Kingsbury, who had zero experience or skins on the wall to make a choice of this consequence at the time, picked him. At the time, Coach Kingsbury had yet to coach a single game in the NFL. I really question allowing someone to make that choice who had no prior NFL experience and who lacked perspective of what it takes to play and exist in an NFL pocket.
I think it’s as simple as this. Murray's comfort level in the pocket can improve. It will have to happen in 2022 in order for him and Kingsbury to sustain their employment. Extensions for either make no sense at this time which is saying a lot after a 7-1 start to the 2021 season.
The other factor in play is this. Murray has to change his leadership style. This style was the source of rumored criticism coming from the Cardinals front office last week. And yes, leadership ability can show up on film as well as off the field. And yes, leadership style DOES matter. He has to find a way to improve his body language and not show his emotions every time something goes bad. Some of this will come with maturity, but he needs to carry himself with a more positive nature. Murray is wired to wear his emotions on his sleeve, and it can become a negative drain on others. He needs to pattern his actions and words after the Dak Prescotts or Jalen Hurts of the world. Those guys, both relatively young, carry themselves, both on and off the field, like leaders and faces of an NFL franchise. They do it in a way that lifts others and it's easy for teammates and fans to get in line behind them.
Starting quarterback jobs are BIG JOBS in the NFL. However, they are also organizational successes and failures. The Cardinals front office has its work cut out to re-tool its team. Kingsbury has to show improvements in his offense and his players must show confidence in his plan and vision. The negative body language of his players has to halt. It also wouldn’t hurt if Murray grew about three inches during this offseason ☺