With about a minute left in the first half of the Arizona Cardinals’ Week 4 thumping of the Los Angeles Rams, Kyler Murray showed off. It was third-and-long; the pass rush converged; Murray slipped upfield. Linebacker Kenny Young had been covering speedster Rondale Moore, but now he stepped up to corral Murray, who initiated a game of keep-away. The undersized quarterback veered left, teasing the line of scrimmage but staying behind it, drawing the defender nearer and letting Moore drift into open space. Then, in a split second, Murray whirled his hips to the right and snapped a pass to the receiver: first down, Cards.
“You can do everything right,” Fox analyst Daryl Johnston marveled as the replay of Young’s torment rolled, “and he still makes you wrong.”
The next down was as ordered as the prior one had been chaotic. Murray took a three-step drop and drilled a 9-yard pass into the chestplate of running back James Conner, whom the Rams had been a moment late in marking. It was as if he were adding a bullet point to a resume. Other Skills: Being Tom Brady.
Whatever your criteria for MVP candidacy, Murray has met them through a third of the 2021 season. Traditional stats? He’s already thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns. Advanced metrics? The league’s fourth-best QBR will do. Good old wins and losses? The Cardinals entered the season picked last in their division and are now the league’s only remaining undefeated squad.
More exciting than what Murray has done over the season’s first seven games is how he’s done it. Even in this liberated quarterback age, certain traits — the ability to be a cartoon on one play and a diagram on the next — aren’t supposed to coexist. Growing up means settling down, swapping a share of highlights for consistency. But in his third year, Murray has built an approach with room for everything he can do. He’s a highwire improviser who has refined the act into a sure thing.
The question for mobile quarterbacks has always been one of proportion: where best to allocate their skills, when to deploy them, how to minimize danger. Murray, with his rumored 40-yard dash time of 4.3 seconds and his confirmed height of 5-foot-10, underscores both risk and reward. Over his first nine games in 2020, he threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for 10 more as Arizona raced out to a 6-3 record. Nursing a shoulder injury over the final seven, he threw for nine scores and ran for just one. His average quarterback rating dropped from 98.2 in those first nine games to 89.4 in the rest, and the Cardinals ended the year 8-8.
“My legs should be a luxury,” Murray said over the offseason. “And it kind of wasn’t like that last year. It was me having to run for us in a sense. Once my shoulder was banged up and I wasn’t trying to put myself out there and take those hits, we hit a lull. Honestly, I think it was a lesson for us. We can’t be one-dimensional.”
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At first glance, Murray’s start to this season seems to reflect a familiar pattern of maturation, a young passer becoming more comfortable in the pocket and less inclined to turn tail at the first sign of trouble. He’s running the ball far less; his 6.1 carries per game, for a career-low 18.0 yards a game, are down from averages of 9.7 and 67.1 during that nine-game start to 2020. His completion percentage, a middle-of-the-pack mark over Murray’s first two seasons as a pro, now sits at an NFL-best 73.5. Anyone who’s tuned into a Cardinals game this season has been treated to displays of classical quarterbacking: sideline shots feathered between layers of defense to DeAndre Hopkins, right-on-the-shoulderpad touchdown strikes to A.J. Green.
But happily, for football fans who prefer their dynamos dynamic, Murray hasn’t cast aside his wheels nor relegated them to emergency use. He’s simply pointed them to a different purpose. Murray’s average time to throw this season is 2.84 seconds, which represents a slowdown from last year and lands him in the lower half of the QB quickness charts. For some passers, the figure might indicate indecision or hesitance. For Murray, it often means he’s spotted some imminent opportunity downfield, and it’s up to him to dodge the defense until the timing’s right.
Maybe the Cardinals’ most jaw-slackening play, among many candidates, came against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5, when Murray arced a pass over a patch of sideline, and Moore, 33 yards downfield, anchored his toes to the turf and reeled it in. The throw and catch were improbable in the extreme; per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Moore had less than a yard of separation as the ball arrived, and Murray’s attempt had a better than 88 percent chance of falling incomplete. What these numbers don’t say is that even getting the pass off was an accomplishment. The Niners’ five-man pressure had bullied past the Cardinals’ line, so Murray had to scramble to his left and backpedal, launching the ball off his back foot. Avoiding a sack in such a scenario is a feat in itself, but the ability to top it off with a chunk play earns lofty comparisons.
“That’s like coaching Patrick [Mahomes],” Arizona coach (and onetime Mahomes playcaller) Kliff Kingsbury said earlier this season of Murray, after he had pulled off a similar flee-and-fire routine against the Minnesota Vikings. “You give him the green light, when you got a cat like that, that can do those type of things.”
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The policy has worked. The Cardinals’ 22 pass plays of 25 of more yards are the second-most in the NFL. For the first time during the Murray/Kingsbury regime, the Arizona offense ranks among the league’s elite, having jumped from 11th in scoring average last year to third (31.1 points per game) in 2021. No quarterback is an island; the offseason arrivals of Moore, a second-round pick, and the veteran jump-ball artist Green have spread out defenses that previously crowded Hopkins. But Murray’s 7.5 completion percentage over expectation puts him second in the NFL. He’s not only made use of his pass-catching corps but elevated it.
There remains a whiff of unsustainability around Murray and the Cardinals. It may be the case that nothing short of a Super Bowl can fully eradicate it. His great plays are too unlikely looking, his physical shortcomings too visible, to seem like a sturdy foundation for an every-week NFL attack. In that way, watching Murray shares something with the experience of trying to stop him. He’s just beyond grasp, and then his team is in the end zone.
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