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  • As the deadline arrives for players to enter their name into the NFL draft, Kyler Murray has the baseball and football worlds watching his every move, and no player has ever had as many good options as he does from here. Plus, Steve Sarkisian's return to Alabama, Tex-Mex in Oklahoma and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
By Andy Staples
January 14, 2019

I was very wrong last summer, and I was very wrong in the fall.

When the Oakland A’s chose Kyler Murray in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in June, I assumed Murray’s lone year as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback would be the last we’d see of him in a football uniform. Murray had a baseball signing bonus of around $4.6 million in hand, and he wasn’t getting any taller or thicker, so he would have to be truly extraordinary at football to even entertain the notion of turning his back on a baseball future that could provide him with generational wealth if he made it to the majors.

Then, as Murray was proving that he is truly extraordinary at football during Oklahoma’s season, I still doubted he would turn his back on the sport that offers guaranteed contracts and huge money for quality outfielders. I started to realize my mistake while watching Murray close in on the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season and while watching former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield have one of the best seasons a rookie QB has had in recent memory. By the time Murray showed he could put up huge numbers even in an Orange Bowl loss to Alabama and the Cardinals were set to hire fired Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, it became obvious that not only could Murray succeed in the NFL, the NFL seemed to be adapting more quickly than ever to make itself hospitable for a player with his skill set.

The confluence of these two things—Murray’s spectacular junior season and the NFL getting yanked into a new era offensively—has created one of the most fascinating leverage plays in sports history. Murray had until the end of Monday to decide whether to put his name into the 2019 NFL draft, and with a seven-word tweet, he brought an official end to his college career and took another step closer to a pro football career. The A’s would prefer he didn’t, but Murray is now in the position to demand more money to keep his name out of the NFL’s draft. He’s also in the position to potentially make even more money than that if some NFL team believes in him enough to take him near the top of the draft.

MLB.com's Jane Lee reported on Sunday that a group of A’s executives had traveled to Dallas to try to talk Murray into keeping his name out of the football draft. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Sunday that the A’s have been cleared by Major League Baseball to offer Murray a long-term major league deal that would give him more guaranteed money to choose that sport.

But as the NFL’s coaching carousel continues to spin, the likelihood that Murray could find a team willing to take him in the first round continues to increase. To become a first-round pick, Murray likely would have to take a spin through the Draft Industrial Complex, which would include a trip to the combine in late February and a pro day in Norman. A’s players report in Arizona on Feb. 15, only adding to the drama of this decision.

So what are Murray’s options?

• He could take more guaranteed money, report to the A’s and play baseball.

This is the route former Michigan quarterback/Yankees draft pick Drew Henson chose. In 2001, Henson received a six-year, $17 million contract with the Yankees to leave Michigan before his senior season. Less than three years later, Henson left $12 million on the table and left the Yankees to play in the NFL. Henson had only a cup of coffee in the majors and only started once during a five-season NFL career that included stints with the Cowboys, Vikings and Lions.

Murray, a Heisman Trophy winner, has had a more successful college football career than Henson did. (Henson’s problem was he couldn’t beat out some guy named Tom Brady.)

Murray’s price point for the A’s should be about what he should reasonably expect in guaranteed money from a first NFL contract. At issue is what that dollar figure could be. Murray’s former teammate Mayfield received a deal that included $32.7 million in guaranteed money, but that was as the top pick in the draft. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, the last pick of the first round, received a deal that included $7.6 million in guaranteed money.

But where might Murray get picked? Would it be in the first round? And if so, how high?

• Murray could turn down any new A’s offer, enter the draft, repay his Oakland signing bonus and play football.

The A’s are fighting hard against this option because they would receive no compensation for losing Murray, meaning they would have spent the No. 9 overall pick on nothing. But this option seems more intriguing for Murray by the day.

Consider this…

An NFL team just hired as its head coach a guy who went 35–40 in six seasons at Texas Tech and got fired. Power 5 teams weren’t considering Kingsbury as a head coach candidate, but two NFL teams (the Cardinals and the Jets) interviewed him and the Cardinals hired him. That’s an indication of how badly some NFL franchises want to run an offense that looks like the ones run by the Rams and the Chiefs. It’s also an indication of how badly some teams want a coach who can work with a young quarterback like the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes or the Browns’ Mayfield.

When you play One Degree of Separation with all these people, the Kingsbury hire makes some sense. The Cardinals noted in their press release that Kinsgbury is a friend of Rams coach Sean McVay, whose model much of the NFL wants to follow. Kingsbury also played for a team where Rams quarterback Jared Goff’s eventual college head coach (Sonny Dykes) was an assistant. Kingsbury recruited Mayfield to Texas Tech, where he played one year before transferring to Oklahoma, and Kingsbury recruited and coached Mahomes in Lubbock. Kingsbury and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley—who had Mayfield and Murray when they were on the Sooners’ roster at the same time—both come from the Mike Leach coaching tree.

And then there’s this from Kingsbury, which when uttered last fall was just an honest answer before a game against a player everyone in his league had coveted as a high schooler.

Now, that statement is providing even more leverage for Murray because Kingsbury—a guy who probably had no idea in October that he’d be coaching an NFL team in January—coaches the team with the first pick in the draft. That leverage only goes up when ESPN’s Adam Schefter suggests that it is “not implausible” the Cardinals might trade 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen, who could be a valuable trade chip because this is a thin quarterback class and most of the teams that need QBs are drafting lower, so they can take Murray either at No. 1 or at a lower spot (which also would net the Cardinals more draft capital thanks to a trade down).

Of course, there is a massive distance between “not implausible” and “likely to happen.” But the A’s only have to believe the idea of Murray as a top-10 pick falls closer to the latter than to the former. That’s the beauty of leverage. Sometimes the fear of what might happen is all it takes.

There also is the distinct possibility that Murray would prefer to play football and an NFL team does want to select him in the first round. If that’s the case, playing football might be Murray’s best bet.

• Murray could enter the NFL draft, continue gauging his potential position and then cut a deal with the A’s just before the Feb. 15 report date.

Murray can train for the NFL draft for a month while his representatives keep tabs on his likely draft position. If teams truly do have qualms about his size (about 5'10" and 190 pounds), then Murray’s reps should be able to sense that. Before he would have to go to the combine, Murray could report to the A’s—presumably for a little bit sweeter deal but not the kind of deal he’s trying to get now.

If he goes to the A’s with his name in the draft, it would be interesting to see where an NFL team might draft Murray. If he goes undrafted, he’d become a free agent and offer himself to the highest NFL bidder. But that isn’t likely to happen because some team would take a flyer on Murray at some point in the draft just in case Murray’s baseball career isn’t what he’d hoped and he chooses to give football another chance.

• Murray could have returned to Oklahoma for his senior season.

With two professional sports interested in paying him far more, playing for tuition, room and board seemed like the least likely option before Murray declared. Plus, Oklahoma already seemed to be planning for life without Murray. Alabama graduate transfer Jalen Hurts reportedly visited Norman this weekend. Rising redshirt junior Austin Kendall placed his name in the NCAA’s transfer portal Friday. That doesn’t necessarily mean Kendall intends to leave, but it suggests he knows something we don’t. The only QB on the roster and not in the portal is redshirt freshman Tanner Mordecai. Five-star signee Spencer Rattler will arrive in Norman this summer. A Murray return would have changed the math for all of these people.

Murray has the athletic gifts to be a star at the professional level in either sport. It will be fascinating to see what he ultimately chooses and how much he gets paid to play the sport he does pick.

A Random Ranking

Glass opens Friday, and it’s the first M. Night Shyamalan movie I’ve been excited to see in years. It’s a sequel to Unbreakable, which was outstanding. The most outstanding part, of course, was Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price. He reprises that role here, and that—not the idea of any wacky twist at the end—is why I want to see Glass. But before that, it’s time to rank Sam Jackson’s best roles.

1. Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction
2. Elijah Price, Unbreakable
3. Carl Lee Hailey, A Time To Kill
4. Lazarus, Black Snake Moan
5. Richmond Valentine, Kingsman: The Secret Service

Three and Out

1. Steve Sarkisian is reportedly heading back to Alabama as the Tide’s offensive coordinator after turning down the same job with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Sarkisian, you’ll recall, was set to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator in 2017 following the departure of Lane Kiffin to be the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Sarkisian got that job after spending most of the 2016 season as an analyst working alongside longtime friend/fellow fired USC coach Kiffin. Sarkisian called plays for the Crimson Tide in a 35–31 national title game loss to Clemson in Tampa, but shortly after that game, he took the Atlanta Falcons’ OC job. Alabama hired Brian Daboll from the New England Patriots, and Daboll, now the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator, helped Alabama to a national title in his only season in Tuscaloosa.

A few months ago, this turn of events would have seemed preposterous. But then Alabama OC Mike Locksley got the Maryland head coaching job. Then Alabama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, the odds-on favorite to replace Locksley, took the Miami OC job. Also last week, Alabama receivers coach Josh Gattis was hired by Michigan to be the offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach Brent Key left for the same job—plus an assistant head coach title—at alma mater Georgia Tech. 

Here’s the logic behind a Sarkisian return: Nick Saban doesn’t like to put people in critical positions who don’t already understand how the Crimson Tide operate on a day-to-day basis. (Daboll had worked for Bill Belichick, and the work environments are fairly analogous.) The Alabama staff has been raided so thoroughly over the past few years by people trying to get a few drops of the Crimson Tide’s secret sauce that the list of people who are a) qualified to be Alabama’s offensive coordinator and b) don’t already have a better job is very short. Sarkisian did spend a season with the Tide. He has called plays for the Tide. That checks the boxes, even if it seemed he’d never return after his abrupt departure.

2. If you haven’t read Michael Rosenberg’s story on former USC quarterback Todd Marinovich, take some time and read it now.

3. Of all the things we learned last week as players fired their names into the gaping maw of the NCAA’s transfer portal, the most shocking was that soon-to-be-former Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell’s real first name is Tathan.

Back in 2016, David Schoen of the Las Vegas Review-Journal explained the origin of the name.

What’s Eating Andy?

We figured that nearly 30 years after the The Simpsons (non-Tracey Ullman Show interstitial version) premiered, we’d have flying cars. Nope. We’ve got self-aware Simpsons gifs instead.

What’s Andy Eating?

I’m quite picky when it comes to barbecue. The same goes for steak. Ditto for burgers. But for some reason, I’ve never been particularly choosy about Tex-Mex.

It’s some combination of carbohydrate, protein and melted cheese. Sometimes it comes with beans. It’s usually pleasant but not spectacular. Friends from Texas and Oklahoma tried to explain the subtle variations to me, but I refused to listen. They would explain that my evaluation of the genre would be akin to me saying that barbecue was just some protein smoked at a low temperature that sometimes comes with beans. I remained stubborn.

Then USA Today’s George Schroeder introduced me to Tarahumara’s Mexican Cafe and Cantina in Norman. Other than the packed tables, it looks like any other Tex-Mex place in any other town. The menu looks like the menu at any Tex-Mex place in any other town. But Tarahumara’s is just different. Maybe it’s the fresh salsa that doesn’t skimp on the heat. Maybe it’s the free queso* that just comes to the table with the chips and salsa the moment you take your seat. Maybe it’s the giant cups that ensure you have something to cool your throat after you’ve dipped 30 chips into that salsa even though you swore you’d only dip five.

*This isn’t unique to Tarahumara’s. Free queso apparently is a thing in Oklahoma City and the surrounding communities. I have no idea how the concept that queso is extra has bypassed this particular three-county area, but bless these people for their generosity.

More than likely, it’s that giant fajita platter. It’s supposed to serve two but could probably serve four. It comes out sizzling just like the fajita platter at any similar place, but the steak and chicken juicy and tender and rolled in the juices of the surrounding vegetables. Often the meat on a fajita platter tastes like the cheapest thing the wholesaler had on his truck. This tastes like quality cuts sliced and seasoned and then served with beautiful, hot, fresh tortillas that you’ll keep dipping into that salsa and eating long after you’ve told yourself you must stop and take about two fajitas worth of meat home.

Andy Staples

I realize this doesn’t sound any different than the place down the street from you. The accompanying photo probably doesn’t look like anything different than five places in your town would serve. Just as my friends couldn’t explain it to me, I’m failing to choose the words that might properly explain to you why Tarahumara’s is so much better than those places. Because it is.

But you’ll never believe me unless you taste it.

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