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Dan Bickley

New era of Cardinals football begins with Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury

Quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals practices alongside head coach Kliff Kingsbury during team OTA's at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on May 29, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

First practice. Everything feels new except for the predictable, relentless waves of optimism. It all begins with a message from D.J. Swearinger to his teammates:

“If you want to go from worst to first, it starts today,” Swearinger said.

Welcome to the NFL’s greatest dichotomy. Experts and Vegas wise guys are expecting the Cardinals to struggle mightily, built to lose 10 or more games. Yet they’re also considered one of the most compelling teams in football. Something has to give.

This is no ordinary keg of brew. The NFL has never seen a quarterback like Kyler Murray. His appeal crosses cultures and boundaries. His athleticism is unprecedented at the position. His diminutive size resonates with underdogs everywhere. He could spark a new generation of vertically-challenged quarterbacks, the way Steve Nash and Steph Curry did with point guards.

There will be adjustments, mostly between the ears. When asked how he’ll cope with losing games, a rare occurrence in his football career to this point, Murray’s response was perfectly defiant (“I don’t plan on it”). It was everything you want to hear.

But transcendent players like Murray usually end up at programs that don’t lose often, in high school and college. Losing will happen to Murray because it’s the NFL, where the best rookies end up on the worst teams. How will he react to failure? To situations he can’t control?

Still, Murray has all the talent that greatness demands. His quick-twitch throwing motion is more valuable than his speed afoot, and that’s saying something. His leadership skills come easy, from his many victories in the past. He is showing no signs of being overwhelmed or overmatched.

That’s because none of this is new to him. Murray has a history of proving people wrong regarding his size (5-foot-10 and 1/8 inches). He has a history of living up the hype, from the schoolboy legend he spawned in Texas to the Heisman Trophy he won in Oklahoma. He fully expects to succeed, and head coach Kliff Kingsbury said he can envision no scenario that would rattle his confidence.

Kingsbury is the other wild card. He catapulted to the NFL after three successive losing seasons at Texas Tech. He was hired after agreeing to serve as offensive coordinator at USC. His leap to the NFL was an affront to every coach in the Old Boy Network, where the path to glory usually includes decades of grunt work, subservience and dues paid at every stop.

Kingsbury also comes with a certain reputation. Coach Bro. Cool, handsome, manicured, well-dressed … the kind of guy where everything comes too easy. Never mind that he is widely misunderstood, a coach who grinds, schemes and works long hours. But many will cheer for him to fail. Because of his pretty boy image. Or they’ll hate on the Cardinals for hiring a failed collegiate head coach in hopes of finding the next unicorn, the next Sean McVay.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe the Cardinals are going to take down the NFL with X’s and O’s or Kingsbury’s Air Raid offensive scheme. I don’t believe they’re foolish enough to play at extreme tempo all of the time, like Chip Kelly once attempted in Philadelphia. Because officials can control tempo in the NFL, standing over the football until they’re ready. And an ill-timed three-and-out can burn a defense for the rest of the game.

But Kingsbury can further the evolution of head coaches with his interpersonal skills, helping usher out the aging archetype, the megalomaniac who screams and belittles and dictates. Kingsbury does none of those things. He is completely chill with his players, treating them as equals or betters.

Will it work in the long run, in a room of 53 men, where it’s so easy to lose control, when fear and force are such powerful motivators?

This much is certain: It’s going a long way at the moment.

But so was Wilks at this time last year.

“It’s a completely different vibe,” linebacker Haason Reddick said.

I also believe Murray can be a top 10 quarterback as a rookie. Everything is in place, from a user-friendly coach to the terminology he heard in college. He’s the centerpiece of massive change.

The Cardinals have switched back to a 3-4 defense. They have three new vocal leaders on defense: Swearinger, Terrell Suggs and Jordan Hicks. They have an intriguing group of wide receivers. They have an offensive scheme guarded like a government secret.

All of it pales to the ceiling of Murray, who is striking all the right chords as a rookie leader. And if he becomes an unstoppable force in the NFL, we may one day considering the hiring of Wilks as a watershed day in Cardinals history.

Without him, none of this would be possible.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier