DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa meet again in NFL

Nov 4, 2020, 6:44 PM | Updated: Nov 5, 2020, 8:05 pm

Kyler Murray #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners congratulates Tua Tagovailoa #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tid...

Kyler Murray #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners congratulates Tua Tagovailoa #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tide after the Alabama Crimson Tide defeat the Oklahoma Sooners 45-34 to win the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Quarterbacks live under pressure. They feel it from pass rushers. They get it from the size of their paychecks. They hear it from coaches, critics and cities they represent.

Only the boldest compound their issues by putting a No. 1 on their chest, choosing an additional target, embracing a numerical bullseye.

Cam Newton did it. So did Warren Moon. So did Jeff George. It doesn’t always work out.

And for the first time in history, a pair of ascending NFL quarterbacks will square off as dueling No. 1’s: Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa.

“That’s just who I am, part of me,” Murray said of his choice in numbers. “I’m not really with trends. I don’t know. I think certain people look good in it. Some people look better than others … it is what it is.”

The two quarterbacks are very similar in spirit: serious-minded, supported by great families, fueled by a sense of destiny, representing something bigger than themselves. Murray is a Texas schoolboy icon and champion of undersized underdogs. Tagovailoa is a Samoan legend, from a proud Polynesian culture that reveres its football heroes. Both have carried a heavy weight on their shoulders.

They are also different. Tagovailoa wore No. 13 in their previous matchup, when Alabama beat Oklahoma in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinals. He switched to No. 1 after landing in Miami, where No. 13 is untouchable.

Murray is also at a different place in his career. Unlike Tagovailoa, Murray was given the keys to the Cardinals’ offense from Day One. It was an impossible task, asking an unproven, undersized rookie to lead a huddle of grizzled men.

“We threw him into the fire,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “The first day he was in the facility, he was the starting quarterback. But he knew he could get through it.”

Murray absorbed an unhealthy share of rookie lessons, many of them painful. His NFL baptism also steeled him as a competitor, and he sounds dramatically different in 2020. DeAndre Hopkins said that Murray even barked at him to spend more time in his playbook, challenging an established NFL superstar.

And now he’s in charge of the No. 1 offense in the NFL, a statistic that surprised Murray during a Wednesday press conference.

“Is that real?” Murray asked a media relations director.

Indeed.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. “But I guess it means we’re doing something good.”

For a superstar-in-progress, Murray has many great attributes. His ego doesn’t need a private masseuse. He sees the good and the bad with great clarity. He has committed himself to greatness and knows what the pledge entails.

He lays low, lives a football life and puts in the requisite work.

“First impressions when I met him? He’s really jacked up,” Tagovailoa said earlier in the week, marveling at Murray’s muscular physique. “For as short as he is, this guy is rocked up.”

Murray is also acutely aware that looks and statistics can be deceiving. He knows the Cardinals offense hasn’t always performed like a top-ranked unit, and much of that is because of his own shortcomings. But it’s reassuring that Murray never seeks out praise or hides behind delusion. He stiff-arms hype and faces hard truths as well as any young quarterback in memory.

He is also why the Cardinals are longshots in the Super Bowl conversation. No other NFC contender has as much untapped potential. The Wild Cards are 5-2 after winning successive primetime games in the span of six days.

They have looked flawed, erratic and lethargic, often playing down to the quality of the opponent. They have also risen to the biggest occasions, scoring 30 or more points in three consecutive games, handing Seattle its only loss of the season.

In the process, Murray has helped his team respond to the criticism of general manager Steve Keim, who called out his stars and highest-paid players following losses to Detroit and Carolina.

“I don’t really have a comment,” Murray said about Keim’s comments. “This is the NFL. It’s not easy to win. Obviously, everybody in the locker room … the past is the past. We felt like we let those two games slip away. We could be undefeated but shoulda, coulda, woulda …

“We are who we are, we are where we are, in this moment, in a good position.”

Murray is still unrefined as a passer. Kurt Warner says his technique needs some serious tweaking. He hasn’t always looked comfortable playing the position at its highest level, his head often swimming in the NFL fishbowl. But you can see the rapid growth and the expanding horizons. In his last performance, he threw a touchdown pass after breaking a smile in the pocket.

“It’s just a player in Year 2, more comfortable in his own skin, more comfortable in his role, and he looks like that on the field,” Warner said. “There were times last year when he just going way too fast with everything.”

In other words, Murray remains faster than almost everyone in the league. But the game is finally slowing down. These days, he’s capable of just about anything.

“I think the rest of this year, he could really take off,” Kingsbury said.

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