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Checking in on Kyler: Observations from his first two pro games

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Kyler now has two NFL games under his belt. How has he looked so far? Here are a few observations on what he’s done well and what he needs to improve.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens
Kyler Murray has looked as advertised as a passer thus far. Will the running element of his game show itself soon?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Redbirds have yet to earn their first win this season, it’s hard to understate how improved the offense has been from last year. Through two games, the 2018 Arizona Cardinals averaged just 3 points and 175 yards of offense a game. (Egads, even I forgot how bad we were last year.)

This year? Those averages are 22 points and 368 yards of offense, both in the top half of the league. Lemme do some quick calculations... yep, that’s more than TWICE as many yards and SEVEN times as many points.

The engine driving this offensive success is, of course, Zane Gonzalez (jokes!) Kyler Murray. Murray has thrown for 300 yards in each of the first two games (averaging 337 YPG), a number not seen since Carson Palmer was starting games in the desert. He’s also only the second rookie ever to accomplish that particular feat, after his (possible?) Week 3 opponent.

Yeah, he’s been just about as good as advertised through two games.

But just how good? And what can he improve on? With two games of stats and tape, let’s check in on the #1 overall pick to see how he’s adjusting to real live NFL football. Here are three things I like and three I don’t from Kyler’s first two games.

Three Things I Like

He’s Using the Whole Field

The offense we’ve seen from Kliff and Kyler in the last game and a half or so has been—as promised—nothing like the bland preseason version. Kliff has Kyler utilizing a complete arsenal of throws to all parts of the field, mixing in plenty of screens along with several intermediate throws and deep shots. Left, center, right, short, medium, long—Kyler will target the open man wherever he is on the field. And given the speed on the field on most plays for the Redbirds, there’s usually someone open… although whether Kyler has time to get the ball to them is a different story. But imagining him throwing behind a good (or even competent) line has me excited for the future of this offense.

His Chemistry with Fitz and Kirk

Kyler’s lack of preseason reps with our main weapons is looking to be an non-issue. Larry Fitzgerald is having a throwback year, going over 100 yards in both of the first two games. He also has FOUR receptions of over 40 yards in two games, after having (you guessed it) none last season. Kirk had a quiet game against the Lions (4 receptions for 32 yards), but he did have 12 targets. He came out strong against the Ravens with 6 catches for 114 yards, looking like the breakout player many pegged him to be in the preseason. Both guys are on pace for over 1,000 yards (also a mark no Cardinal hit last season). And while we’re here, don’t forget Damiere Byrd’s 80-reception pace either. Kliff’s tempo and Kyler’s arm will keep our pass catchers happy all season.

He Has (Mostly) Avoided Negative Plays

Okay, his 1st-quarter interception against the Lions was pretty brutal. Blame first-start jitters, blame the pass rush, blame him trying to do too much with a busted play—blame whatever you want, but he can’t make that throw. And after learning his lesson, he hasn’t made a throw anywhere near as bad. In fact, he smartly sailed the ball out of bounds multiple times in Baltimore rather than trying to force a play. And as bad as that interception was, it’s his only real bad pass among his league-leading 94 attempts. And one interception on 94 attempts gives him an INT% of just 1.1%—which would have been good for third in the league last season, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but it’s not that small. If you had asked me before the seasons how many interceptions Kyler would throw, I probably would have bet on double digits. Now, I think the smart money is on single digits.

Three Things I Don’t Like

He’s Not Running Yet

Through two games, Kyler has just 6 rushing attempts for 17 yards—and remember this is a guy who rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 TDs at Oklahoma last year. It remains to be seen whether this aspect of his game will translate to the pro level. He’s certainly shown himself to be a capable runner on a few scrambles, but you can count on one hand the number of designed rushes Kingsbury has called for his QB thus far. Perhaps that’s smart given his slight frame, but even the threat of the QB running could open up the offense even more—especially in the red zone (see below). Just look at his opponent last weekend, Lamar Jackson. He’s not that much bigger than Kyler and has shown himself to be a more-than-capable runner at the NFL level. While I don’t want Kyler running quite as much as Jackson (16 attempts Sunday), I’d like to see him use his legs a bit more than he has so far.

His Poor 3rd-Down Efficiency

The Cardinals are a woeful 11-for-33 (33%) on 3rd down thus far. Kyler doesn’t deserve most of the blame for that (penalties and playcalling are more at fault), but he’s not entirely blameless either. Against the Ravens, Kyler converted only two 1st downs on eleven 3rd-down plays. The other nine plays looked like this: a fumbled snap, a throwaway, four incompletions, and three completions short of the sticks. This offense is at its best when it’s humming along and picking up good yardage on 1st and 2nd down (when the defense can’t really predict what’s coming), but it seems to falter when Kliff’s playcalling is limited on 3rd down. Now, most of the failed 3rd-down attempts were 3rd-and long, and even most veterans struggle in those situations, but even Kyler would tell you he has to do better here.

The Lack of Touchdowns in the Red Zone

Even more concerning than the 3rd-down woes are the team’s struggles in the red zone thus far—we’ve scored just two TDs on eight red zone trips. That’s second-worst in the league, ahead of only the Cincinnati Bengals. Kliff Kingsbury’s beyond conservative decision-making deserves all the scrutiny he’s getting and the lion’s share of the blame for this issue, but his quarterback deserves some blame as well. On Sunday, for example, Kyler was 0-for-3 on throws into the end zone. All three misfires were to Fitz, ostensibly the team’s best red zone target. Again, play design is part of the issue here, but Kyler’s throws weren’t accurate either. What’s funny, though, is that the Redbirds are 2-for-2 on 2-point conversions—so we obviously have plays that work in the short field. But the team needs to get a LOT better on the 6-point plays in the red zone if they want to start winning games. And that starts with the guy who touches the ball on every play.

Final Thoughts

All that said, Kyler has done far more right than wrong in his first two starts. He has energized the offense and has put the team in position to have won each of the first two games. And the three dislikes that I listed above are all at least somewhat related to coaching. I’ll have more to say about Kliff at a future date, but for now I’ll say that while his overall offensive concepts have shown they can work in the NFL, there are still some serious questions about his gameday coaching acumen.

I don’t any such serious questions about Kyler. At least not so far. The kid’s been good.

How about you, Redbirds fans? What are you seeing out of Kyler so far? Tell us what you like and what you don’t. It’s only been two games, but our new quarterback has already given us a ton to talk about. Let’s hash it out in the comments.