All the highs and lows we thought we’d see from Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury’s offense in Year One happened in Week 1. All summer, discussions of the Cardinals centered around speculation regarding their new, mystery offense. Having never faced Kingsbury, the NFL had no idea what to expect. But we forgot that Kingsbury’s offense, which was kept behind the curtain all preseason, had never faced the NFL, either.
And so as much as we fantasized about the college coach’s offense bursting onto the NFL scene a la Chip Kelly’s Eagles on a Monday night in Washington six years ago, it was equally plausible that Arizona’s offense would sputter. And, for the first three quarters against Detroit, it did—even though the Lions did nothing fancy, mostly playing Matt Patricia’s hallmark man coverage concepts. After a hot start, Detroit’s pass rush went quiet, as the Lions eschewed pressure designs in favor of spying (quite successfully) the mobile rookie QB.
As many suspected, four-receiver sets were prominent for the Cardinals, though even from these looks, Kingsbury early on still strived for run-pass balance. But Detroit’s 5-1 front was sturdy inside and disciplined on the edge, eliminating the read-option game that Arizona will almost certainly become dependent on in 2019. It wasn’t until a 24-6 fourth quarter deficit forced the Cardinals into a pass-only mode that Murray came alive.
Much of offensive success stems from establishing rhythm. Early in a game, you do that through play design, which can inadvertently burden a young QB with a weighted emphasis on thinking and executing precisely. But in comeback mode, your playbook shrinks, and offensive rhythm derives more from what happens after the snap. This taps into a quarterback’s inner athlete. For Murray, the only man ever drafted in the top 10 for both professional baseball and football, that is more than welcomed.
The Cardinals came from behind operating almost exclusively out of spread formations (especially 3x1), which can tax receivers to win one-on-one. That’s unideal for a receiving corps that’s not particularly big or fast, but Arizona’s wideouts consistently did just enough. Murray aided the cause with patient reads and the enticing downfield touch and accuracy that got him drafted high but eluded him for the game’s first three quarters. Naturally, the ageless Larry Fitzgerald headlined the receiving corps, beating long-bodied safety turned sub-package slot corner Tracy Walker with several vertical routes inside. (The Lions finally put No. 1 corner Darius Slay on Fitzgerald late in overtime, but not before Fitzgerald’s 45-yard catch against Walker set up a field goal on the first drive of OT.) Murray knew who to count on down the stretch.
More importantly, Murray showed a willingness to play from within the pocket in crunch time. Maybe the biggest story from this game is that the rookie QB’s legs were not the weapon that they were at Oklahoma. Murray could simply could not run away from people, and he did as much harm as good outside the pocket. The question—and it’s a big one—is: Will Murray’s legs gain potency once the young QB acclimates to the unfamiliar looks, angles and speed of the NFL? Or, will he simply be unable to rely on his mobility in the pros the way he did at Oklahoma?
Time will tell, but whatever the answer, Murray’s long-term success, like any QB’s, hinges on his ability to play from within the pocket. And on Sunday he showed the same acumen here that he did at Oklahoma. Frankly, that’s surprising, as QBs who have always been much faster than opponents rarely develop a strong foundation of pocket fundamentals, simply because they’ve never had to. This would presumably be especially true with a quarterback who is only 5’ 10”. Murray’s height is still a bit of a concern—Detroit batted down four of his passes at the line of scrimmage, including on a crucial 3rd-and-7 late in overtime—but it is far from the insurmountable weakness that NFL observers would have guessed it’d be as recently as three years ago. Murray shows the patience to move from within the pocket and, though unrefined here at the moment, the capacity to hang in there late into his progressions. It’s an encouraging start.
With Sunday’s comeback, the Murray hype train is leaving the station, but it won’t immediately roar down the tracks. Murray struggled to identify overload blitzes on the few snaps when Detroit did bring pressure, and disguised overload blitzes happen to be the forte of the Baltimore D that he faces in Week 2. It’s possible—perhaps even likely—that Murray next week will look more like the QB he was in the first three quarters on Sunday. But even so, Cardinals fans need not worry. Down the stretch against Detroit, Murray showed scintillating snippets of what’s possible for his unique talent in the NFL.
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