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Kyler Murray has “It.” Josh Rosen doesn’t. But what is “It”?

The Kyler Murray vs. Josh Rosen debate has taken over the Arizona Cardinals’ offseason. One writer—finally—weighs in. WARNING: Longread.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma Spring Game
Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray took college football by storm last season. Can he do the same in the NFL this season? And will he be in a Cardinals uniform if—when?—he does?
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago, I did an in-depth statistical analysis on rookie QBs who struggled to the extent Josh Rosen did in 2018. The main takeaway from that article was this: Since 2000, no rookie quarterback taken outside of the #1 overall pick who struggled as badly as Rosen did has gone on to become a franchise QB.

The numbers don’t lie. And the numbers say that Rosen is far more likely—by about a 3:1 margin—to be a bust than a franchise QB.

Nothing that’s happened in the past three months—the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury, the retooling of the offensive line, the meager WR/TE signings—has changed the likelihood of that outcome for me.

Now, I’m not saying that Rosen *is* a bust—it’s obviously premature to say that—but his dismal rookie year combined with statistical precedent make it very difficult to have much confidence in him as the Cardinals’ starter moving forward. Is that necessarily fair to Rosen, who was thrust into one of the worst situations a rookie QB is likely to face? Not particularly, but as Dave Burns said on 98.7 the other day, the “F” in NFL doesn’t stand for “fair.”

With all that said, and after much soul searching, I must make an admission on a topic that I’ve been avoiding writing about for most of the offseason:

I am on the Kyler Murray bandwagon.

Why? Because he has… “It.” No, he’s not a shapeshifting demon clown who preys on children (although surely someone in the RotB commentariat has accused him of such by now). What I mean by “It” is… well, it’s hard to say, exactly. “It” is that indefinable spark a player gives off, both on and off the field, that feeling in your gut that says, “Yeah, this guy’s a player.” You feel unbelievably lucky when your team gets a player who has “It” (like Larry Fitzgerald), and there’s a hollow feeling that never quite goes away when you miss out on one (like Terrell Suggs or Adrian Peterson or Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes II… there’s a long list of these players for the Cardinals).

Admittedly, “It” is a nebulous concept. And if you came for a deep, data-driven analysis like the above-linked article… well, this is not that article. Although I do use some stats.

My point is this: Not a lot of players have “It.” Josh Rosen doesn’t. Kyler Murray does. Join me as I explain what I mean.

But First, A History Lesson

Josh Rosen had “It,” once upon a time. I vividly remember when Rosen was the #1 QB recruit in the nation. I hoped against hope that my Sun Devils could land him. They obviously didn’t, and I was resigned to the fact that division rival UCLA would have a stud QB for the next 3-4 seasons. Heismans and Rose Bowls would surely follow.

Except that Rosen never really put it together in college. He had a nice 8-5 season as a true freshman in 2015, but he was in a bit of a sophomore slump the next season when he hurt his shoulder against my Devils and missed the rest of the season. He came back healthy in 2017 and started the season with that amazing 45-44 comeback win against Texas A&M—his signature moment as a college player—but the Bruins would go on to finish under .500 in a mediocre Pac-12 that season. His numbers as a junior in what would be his final college season were only marginally better than what he put up as a true freshman.

The end results of his time in Westwood were hardly impressive: 17-13 record as a starter, no bowl wins, a completion % of only 60.9, a TD:INT ratio of 59:23, and a career QB rating of 140.1, which would barely crack the top 50 in the nation in most seasons. And this against some of the worst defenses in the country. (Gotta love Pac-12 football!) Oh yeah, and he only went 1-2 against my Devils. It’s hard to call Rosen’s college career anything but a disappointment.

Simply put, he lost “It.” Which is why he was never really in the conversation for the #1 overall pick in 2018 and fell to the Cardinals at #10—the 4th QB off the board at that point in the draft.

Not too far behind Rosen in those 2015 QB recruit rankings was Murray. Unlike Rosen, Murray’s debut in College Station was anything but auspicious. He lost the Aggies’ QB competition to sophomore Kyle Allen, but wound up starting later in the season anyway, only for Allen to take back the starting gig once again. The results of Murray’s first stint as a starter were decidedly mixed (2-1 record but a negative TD:INT ratio), and the season ended with both Allen and Murray transferring from a chaotic Texas A&M program.

His second stint as a starter would go better—much better. After sitting out 2016 due to NCAA transfer rules and spending 2017 as Baker Mayfield’s backup at Oklahoma, Murray took college football by storm in 2018, leading the Sooners to 12-2 record and a CFP semifinal appearance while winning the Heisman (a trophy that Rosen never came close to even sniffing). Oh yeah, and he was also drafted in the first round of the MLB draft somewhere in there. Anyone who watched college football last season could clearly see that this was a guy who has “It.”

His 2018 numbers looked like they were out of a video game on easy mode (although, to be fair, playing against Big 12 defenses was basically like playing a video game on easy mode): 69.0% completions, 4,361 yards, 42:7 TD:INT ratio, 199.2 QB rating, 1,001 yards rushing with 12 more TDs. In fact, Murray’s numbers are actually better than Mayfield’s in 2017—when the latter also won the Heisman then went #1 overall in the NFL draft to the Cleveland Browns.

Check out the numbers:

Kyler Murray 2018 vs. Baker Mayfield 2017

QB Completions Passing Attempts Completion % Passing Yards YPA Passing TDs INTs QB Rating Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs Total Yards Total TDs
QB Completions Passing Attempts Completion % Passing Yards YPA Passing TDs INTs QB Rating Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs Total Yards Total TDs
Murray 2018 260 377 69 4,361 11.6 42 7 199.2 140 1,001 12 5,362 54
Mayfield 2017 285 404 70.5 4,627 11.5 43 6 198.9 97 311 5 4,938 48

While we’re at it, let’s do a similar comparison between Murray’s and Rosen’s college careers. Both played in mediocre conferences and were saddled with terrible defenses (acknowledging that Murray had the advantage of playing in a better-coached and more talented offense while Rosen had more playing time).

Kyler Murray vs. Josh Rosen (Career Stats)

QB Starts W/L Completions Passing Attempts Completion % Passing Yards YPA Passing TDs INTs QB Rating Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs Total Yards Total TDs
QB Starts W/L Completions Passing Attempts Completion % Passing Yards YPA Passing TDs INTs QB Rating Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs Total Yards Total TDs
Murray 17 14-3 350 519 67.4 5406 10.4 50 14 181.3 140 1001 12 6407 62
Rosen 30 17-13 712 1170 60.9 9340 8 59 26 140.1 109 -154 6 9186 65

The numbers show that Rosen was a mediocre college QB (which isn’t a death sentence—anyone remember Tom Brady’s career at Michigan?), while Murray was one of the best players in the game when he finally got a chance to undisputedly lead a team. These numbers simply have to be taken into account when deciding between these two players—which the Cardinals are very much doing.

But, like I said above, this article isn’t about the numbers—well, not entirely anyway. This article is about “It,” and numbers are only part of “It.” Let’s talk about narrative.

The Narrative Factor

The Arizona Cardinals weren’t just bad in 2018—they were boring. The defense, converted to a 4-3 by the milquetoast, one-and-done Steve Wilks, played lethargically and was routinely bullied. The offense took after Mike McCoy, the OC who was fired midseason for the second season in a row—bland, predictable, and ineffectual.

Moreover, this was a team that largely lacked compelling personalities. Players like Fitz and David Johnson are high-character guys and A+ citizens, but they don’t exactly help with the perception that the Redbirds are a boring group. (Remember how much attention Fitz’s first-ever spike got last year?) About the most exciting thing to happen was when Patrick Peterson—the team’s most outspoken player by far—requested a trade. By the end of the season, it was clear that the team missed Bruce Arians’s outsized personality and high-flying offense more than anyone cared to admit.

Most concerningly, for the first time since the venue now known as State Farm Stadium opened, there were large swaths of empty seats on Sundays (despite nominally “selling out” every game). The narrative of the 2018 Cardinals was that they were uncompelling off the field and unwatchable on it.

And, like it or not, Josh Rosen was part of the problem on both fronts. On the field, he was putrid—no doubt a factor of the AAF-level offense around him (we hardly knew ye!), but putrid nonetheless: 55.2 completion %, 11:14 TD:INT ratio, 26.6 QBR. Flashes of potential (his starting debut, the 4th quarter of the Packers game) were few and far between the scattershot throws, the indecisiveness in the pocket, the pick-sixes.

Off the field, Rosen seems like a genuinely interesting guy, with strong opinions on a wide range of topics, but he hasn’t exactly been a dynamic personality in his short time in the desert. It’s not really his fault. Most rookies don’t want to rock the boat, there was probably a directive from upstairs (or his agent) to rein it in a bit, and we already know the team has intentionally kept him away from the media this offseason. But the point stands—Rosen has been kind of a… bland presence. That’s not something you say about guys who have “It.”

Michael Bidwill and GM Steve Keim have already made one bold move to kickstart the moribund offense and rejuvenate the fanbase: the Kliff Kingsbury hire. That move created a lot of buzz around the league, and there’s optimism that Kingsbury can help Rosen elevate his game.

Even so, it’s hard to see how this offense will improve much given that Keim has barely added any weapons to the team’s arsenal, and the Kingsbury/Rosen dynamic isn’t exactly the most compelling narrative, not with what teams like the Browns, Jets, and Raiders have done this offseason. With Rosen under center in 2019, the Redbirds will likely again be an also-ran, a curiosity, a sideshow.

Enter Kyler Murray.

Murray is a dynamo on the field and a compelling persona off it—the Heisman winner who spurned the MLB for a shot at the NFL with a readymade “No one believes in me” chip on his shoulder because of his stature. He’s got “It.” The narrative writes itself.

That, combined with the splashy Kingsbury hire, would instantly make the Redbirds one of the most fascinating teams in the league, right up there with the Browns and the rest—and those empty seats at State Farm Stadium would quickly become a thing of the past. And you could almost guarantee that Hard Knocks would come calling in 2020. That’s a helluva narrative.

None of that happens with Rosen.

Of course—and this is an important point—narrative doesn’t win you football games. I do think it can lose you games, however—and the narrative around Rosen right now sure isn’t good. And it could get even uglier quickly.

In today’s NFL, narrative doesn’t win you football games—quarterbacks win you games. Which is why we’re having this entire debate in the first place. Is Kyler Murray an upgrade over Josh Rosen? That’s the question facing the Cardinals right now. There’s obviously no way to answer that, since Murray hasn’t played a snap or started a game in the NFL.

But Rosen has—781 snaps and 13 starts, to be exact. So what have we learned about him in that time? Turns out, not much, as we’ll see below.

Into the Unknown

First, it’s worth pointing out that Rosen wasn’t supposed to play much last season—if at all. But unfortunately, the bridge guy fell into troubled waters and the Sam Bradford era was over almost before it began, thrusting Rosen into the lineup sooner than the team was planning. But if the rookie was gonna play, at least he’d get most of a season’s worth of development.

At least, that was the thinking.

In reality, Rosen didn’t really develop as the season went on. If anything, he got worse over the course of the season. For example, his four highest QB ratings of the season came in his first five starts. He didn’t get above a 75 QB rating (the magic number from the article mentioned in the intro) in any of his final eight starts.

Obviously, there was more going on with the offense than bad QB play from the rookie—a midseason OC change, myriad injuries along the O-line, lack of talent at WR/TE, bad game scripts. But some of the other rookie QBs dealt with similar issues—notably Sam Darnold and Josh Allen—and they vastly outplayed Rosen.

The rest of the 1st-round rookie QBs all had something to hang their hats on in 2018. Baker Mayfield set the rookie record for passing TDs. Darnold had the highest QBR in the league in December. Allen was just a game under .500 as a starter and rated well in the advanced metrics. Lamar Jackson led a team to the playoffs.

What does Rosen have to hang his hat on? What did he show us in 2018? He didn’t have a single 300-yard game (season-high of 252), and he only threw for more than 2 TDs once (a 3 TD/2 INT game in a loss to the Raiders in which he went 9-20).

I’ve heard time and time again that Rosen showed that he can “take a hit”—which is true, as he was sacked 45 times behind a makeshift O-line last season. But that’s a meaningless “Ol’ Ballcoach” aphorism and isn’t indicative of any skill or talent, and it certainly shouldn’t be a major point of defense in any argument for why he should be the starter moving forward.

Rosen did lead the team to three wins, including a sweep of the 49ers and a 4th-quarter comeback win in Lambeau against Aaron Rodgers. This game-winning TD to Christian Kirk against the 49ers is probably the signature moment of his rookie year. It’s a dynamite throw in the clutch, and a prime example of the unflappability that Rosen consistently showed—probably his best trait.

But… the 49ers were on the road and playing with a backup QB, and Rosen went just 10-25 for 170 yards in the other 49ers win. The win in Green Bay was a huge upset, but… rumors were swirling before the final whistle even blew that the Packers had quit on their coach (who was fired almost immediately after the game).

It’s tough to say how much credit Rosen deserves for those wins—especially considering that we had to stage comebacks in two of them in part because of how poorly Rosen played earlier in the games.

And that’s been the theme of most discussions about Rosen this offseason. “It’s tough to say…” “It’s hard to evaluate…” “It wasn’t his fault…” “He didn’t have a fair chance…”

Which leads me to say this: We really don’t know how good—or bad—Josh Rosen really is at this point. We know almost nothing more about him than we did when we drafted him. He’s still a giant unknown.

He and Murray are alike in that regard. We don’t really know how either of them will pan out as NFL quarterbacks.

But we do know a few things. For one, Murray was the demonstratively better college QB. (Please, keep your “one-year wonder” comments in your pocket—he won the Heisman.) Two, our new coach has an obvious affinity for him and the consensus is that he’s a great fit for his offense. And three, Murray is an electric playmaker on the field and would make the Cardinals one of the most captivating narratives in the NFL.

In short (pun intended), Murray has “It.”

Yes, he’s only 5’10”, and drafting him with the #1 pick would mean giving up on Rosen and passing up the opportunity to draft a defensive stud like Nick Bosa or Quinnen Williams (and potentially stockpiling extra picks). But...

But you’re dead in the water in today’s NFL if you don’t have the right guy playing QB. Cardinals fans know better than most what that’s like—remember the Kolb/Skelton/Hall/etc. doldrums between Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer? Now, quick—compare Rosen’s numbers to some of those guys.

Or you can look at the NFC’s Super Bowl representative last year, just one state over. They had their young defensive stud for years but didn’t win squat until they had the right guy under center.

Now, if we stick with Rosen and draft Quinnen, could we have a Jared Goff/Aaron Donald kind of situation on our hands? Maybe.

If we draft Murray instead, could we have an RGIII (burn brightly but briefly) or *shudder* a Johnny Manziel (overhyped and not ready for primetime) situation on our hands? Maybe.

We really have no way of knowing how any of these scenarios will turn out. But—and this is just one man’s mostly unscientific opinion—I’d rather we swing for the fences at the most important position in the game, take the guy with the clear higher ceiling, get the guy who could have the whole country buzzing about our Redbirds.

The guy who has “It.”

Kyler Murray.