The Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray gambles look good after 1st year

Dec 31, 2019, 11:37 AM | Updated: 11:44 am
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)...
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. — When Arizona Cardinals first-round pick Josh Rosen stepped onto the Arizona Cardinals practice field for the first time in 2018, the rookie’s teammates and coaches loved how he commanded the huddle.

When Oklahoma product Kyler Murray did so a year later, he was in command.

To no fault of Rosen’s, Murray’s understanding of his team’s offense was lightyears ahead. That was what the Cardinals sold themselves on before making the moves to fire Rosen’s head coach, Steve Wilks, and hire NFL newcomer Kliff Kingsbury. It’s what they sold when they drafted the more able-footed Murray No. 1 overall and traded Rosen a day later.

So on the first day of Cardinals practice before the 2019 season, Murray directed Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense using terminology from what he ran in college. The quarterback was ahead of every one of his veteran teammates. The result was an impressive start to his NFL career.

Murray threw for 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, completing 64.4% of his passes. His quarterback rating ranked 15th in the NFL, and his passer rating 21st.

The rookie set a Cardinals quarterback rushing record with 542 yards on the ground on 5.8 yards per tote.

And like the Chiefs with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, Arizona general manager Steve Keim and Kingsbury put the franchise on the back of a quarterback by marrying the offense to him — not vice versa.

Most indications hint that the future is bright regarding the Murray-Kingsbury duo, even after a 5-10-1 season.

After going 35-50 in six years as Texas Tech head coach and then pit-stopping as OC with the USC Trojans, Kingsbury joined the Cardinals and showed adaptation as a play-caller. He held a locker room together through a difficult year.

“I hope we can take a big step,” Kingsbury said of the future. “Last year, you get here, and you’re trying to keep your head above water getting all of your processes in place. Now you have a chance to fine-tune some of those processes and hopefully figure out what you did good, what you want to change and aren’t spending so much time just getting it in. That’s exciting to see how much improvement we can make.”

In Year 1, Kingsbury was quick to go away from heavy 10-personnel personnel packages that were featured in his Air Raid offense in college.

He gave the keys of the defense to coordinator Vance Joseph, and assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers helped him map out day-to-day duties.

Kingsbury deferred to offensive line coach Sean Kugler, running backs coach James Saxon and tight ends coach Steve Heiden when orchestrating the rushing attack. That, by the way, ended up being the identity of an offense that set a franchise record by averaging 5.0 yards per carry, which was second best in the NFL this season.

Maybe what Kingsbury doesn’t know bites him down the road.

Maybe his willingness to veer far from the Mike Leach Air Raid makes him appear like just another NFL play-caller.

But his willingness to change empowered him as a rookie coach. He saw enough success that a much-criticized leap from offensive innovator of the college game to the pros has more teams considering such moves.

Kingsbury at times this season let on that he heard the criticisms about his resume.

But usually, he was open about the challenges of learning the NFL. In lockstep with Murray, the early returns are promising.

“I think the more we’re together, the more on-field, in-game, live situations you get with somebody, the more comfortable you get,” Murray said before the Rams game. “I think that once we get this thing rolling, it’s going to be fun. I think everybody will see how good we can be.”

The quarterback, like his coach, went through early struggles.

The speed of the NFL caught up to him. It took four games for Murray to cut down on taking sacks as he attempted to extend plays that weren’t there. A two-game stretch in Weeks 13-14 saw those bad habits return, and the rookie ended up tying for a league-high 48 sacks.

But after that fourth game, it already became clear that Kingsbury had gotten through to Murray: Throw it away when the party’s over, as the head coach likes to say.

The 10 losses on the year, which included a six-game losing skid, maybe answered one big question about Murray: How would the Texas high school legend and Heisman winner act in the face of adversity?

“I’ve won my whole life,” Murray told reporters Sunday after a season-ending loss to the Rams. “Understanding that I’m young, it’s a new coach, new system — you’re going to have ups and downs, and we understood that. But I think that we’ve come a long way from the beginning of the season. I think that’s what matters. Carrying that on to next season, I think we’ll just continue to get better and better.”

Around his own learning curve, the offense protected Murray. He got rid of the ball quickly, 12th-fastest in the NFL, and averaged the eighth-fewest air yards intended per throw, according to Next Gen Stats.

Murray didn’t go deep often. His targets were more than 20 yards downfield just 11.5% of the time (37th in the NFL). But he threw a lot — 62 such passes — and completed 26 of them for 944 yards, a total ranking seventh in the NFL.

As the year went on — especially against lesser defenses — Kingsbury sprinkled in designed runs for Murray. The quarterback tallied 10 or more rushes during a three-game winning streak against sub-.500 Bengals, Falcons and Giants teams in Weeks 5-7.

As the interceptions and sacks subsided, the rookie grew comfortable.

Murray’s solid game management spearheaded victories against Cleveland and Seattle in Weeks 15-16, and he won even more respect in the locker room playing through a hamstring issue in the 2019 finale, a loss to Los Angeles. Murray threw for a career-high 325 yards with two scores and two picks in a 34-27 loss to the Rams on Sunday.

At year’s end, Murray is the second rookie and sixth quarterback to ever surpass 3,500 passing yards and 500 rushing yards in a season. He had a stretch of 211 passes without a pick, a rookie record. He and Andrew Luck are the only quarterbacks to pass for 300 or more yards in a rookie year five times or more.

With all that, hindsight makes the pre-draft worries about Murray’s game and Arizona’s plan to hire Kingsbury sound petty.

Murray’s rushing abilities didn’t put him in physical danger unless you count the hamstring pull.

Remember the combine hoopla? His height measurement of 5-foot-10 and 1/8 inches didn’t lead to more batted down passes (12). Taller quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Wentz or Matt Ryan threw more. Philip Rivers, Jared Goff and Murray all finished with 12, per Pro Football Focus.

Murray’s marriage with Kingsbury proved immediately impactful for a team that put together by far the worst offense in the NFL a season prior.

The No. 1 pick’s play spoke for itself, and his competitiveness stood out starting with a rally from 18 points down in the Week 1 tie against the Detroit Lions. Murray’s “keeps-to-himself” personality showed in the locker room as he scrolled through his iPad or phone, but he still earned the respect of opponents and teammates.

“He opened up a little bit,” center A.Q. Shipley said during locker cleanouts on Monday, before smiling. “He’s still got to get those headphones out of his ears but he opened up quite a bit. He doesn’t show nearly as much to you guys as he does to us on the field.

“He grew a lot and he’ll continue to grow. He’s going to be a heck of a player, he’s one of the most special talents I’ve ever seen. Being in this league for 11 years, seeing a lot of gold-jacket-type players come through, he’s got the opportunity to be one of the better ones I’ve played with.”

The Cardinals no doubt have a list of holes to fill if they’re wanting to sniff the top of the NFC West next season.

But their biggest gambles in the past year of hiring an out-of-the-box coach and drafting a non-traditional quarterback appear to be the least of their problems. Like it was when Murray stepped on the field for the first time as a Cardinal.

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