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Beginning of an era: A look back on Kyler Murray’s rookie season

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Kyler Murray played as well as anyone could have expected in his rookie season. Let’s take a look back on his first year in the desert.

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NFL: DEC 29 Cardinals at Rams
Kyler Murray looked every bit the part of a franchise QB during his rookie season.
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last weekend’s Divisional Round of the playoffs were a bitter affair for Cardinals fans. There was the usual tinge of frustration that every team that misses the playoffs feels, but it went deeper than that for the Cardinals.

In the NFC, there was a chance for an all NFC West NFC Championship game—utterly unappetizing for Cardinals fans. Although the 49ers won and will host the conference championship game this weekend, at least the Seahawks lost.

But things were a bit more interesting over in the AFC, with a trio of young superstar QBs all in action—Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson. From the Cardinals perspective, all three of these names were linked to the team in their respective drafts—and, indeed, the Cardinals had a chance to take all three. It was bittersweet watching those guys compete for potential Super Bowl appearance.

Fortunately, the Cardinals finally have a QB who can lead us to the promised land in Kyler Murray. Like Jackson, Mahomes, and Watson, he’s an exciting, dynamic playmaker, the latest in the trend of freakish athletes who are revolutionizing the QB position. He might just be good enough to make us forget we could have had the other three.

So with those three would-be Cardinals franchise saviors still getting a lot of pub, I thought I’d take some time to look back on the rookie season of the man who will hopefully be the team’s long-sought savior, broken down into four clear-cut chapters.

Early Frustration Tinged with Promise

Kyler Murray – Weeks 1 to 4

Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
1 vs. DET T 27-27 29 54 308 53.7 5.7 2 1 5 75.2 24.7 3 13 4.3 0
2 at BAL L 23-17 25 40 349 62.5 8.7 0 0 3 90.5 66.8 3 4 1.3 0
3 vs. CAR L 38-20 30 43 173 69.8 4.0 2 2 8 73.1 61.9 8 69 8.6 0
4 vs. SEA L 27-10 22 32 241 68.8 7.5 0 1 4 77.7 28.3 4 27 6.8 1

The 2019 season started almost identically to the 2018 season—our 1st-round rookie QB struggling mightily while losing at home to a middling opponent. Going into the 4th quarter, we were down 24-6 to the Detroit Lions, and Kyler Murray wasn’t looking anything like the #1 overall pick as Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid hadn’t really got off the ground.

Then, something clicked when the clock turned to the 4th quarter. Kyler led four straight scoring drives, looking every bit the part of the Heisman winner and potential franchise QB, extending plays and dropping dimes. Only the defense and some suspect coaching prevented a Redbirds win (a running theme for most of the season). But, win or not, it was clear that Kyler had that indefinable “it” factor.

The next few games were mostly in the same mold—flashes of strong play mixed with some rookie jitters for Kyler, and another winless September. On the road against Baltimore, he threw for a season-high 349 yards… but no TDs as the team fell in a surprisingly close game against Jackson and the Ravens. The next week was a home dud against Kyle Allen and the Panthers, with Kyler throwing for a season-low 4.0 YPA, although he did have 69 yards rushing. Then a largely ineffective performance in a sound loss to the Seahawks, but he did have his first rushing TD. Strikes and gutters, ups and downs—another running theme for the season.

Breakthrough and Winning Streak

Kyler Murray – Weeks 5 to 7

Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
5 at CIN W 26-23 20 32 253 62.5 7.9 0 0 1 87.1 78.9 10 93 9.3 1
6 vs. ATL W 34-33 27 37 340 73.0 9.2 3 0 0 128.2 85.0 11 32 2.9 0
7 at NYG W 27-21 14 21 104 66.7 5.0 0 0 2 78.3 48.7 10 28 2.8 0

Fans and observers were growing restless after the 0-3-1 start, but Kyler and the Cardinals woke up when September ended, rattling off a three-game winning streak. It came against subpar opponents, yes, but two of the games were on the road—never easy in the NFL, regardless of opponent—and Kyler had to overcome late lapses by the defense in all three.

In the team’s first win, against Cincinnati, Kyler was efficient as a passer (7.9 YPA, no INTs), and had a breakout game with his legs, racking up 93 yards and a TD. His true breakthrough and the high point of his season statistically came the next week at home against Atlanta. He outdueled former league MVP Matt Ryan, putting up 340 yards and 3 TDs in an absolutely masterful performance—one that won him NFC Offensive Player of the Week. This was what everyone envisioned with the Kliff and Kyler pairing. The rookie QB cooled off mightily the next week in dreary New Jersey, but that was more weather/gameplan than anything. Both Kyler and Cardinals fans alike we more than happy with a third-straight win.

Miraculously, the team was .500 after 7 games. Kyler was almost single-handedly (-armedly?) responsible for two wins, and could have easily had two more (against Detroit and Baltimore). His play was also improving—no INTs and only 3 sacks taken in those 3 games, compared to 4 INTs and 20(!) sacks in those first 4 games. Things were looking up. No one was talking about playoffs, of course, but maybe this could be a .500 team?

Growing Pains and Losing Streak

Kyler Murray – Weeks 8 to 14

Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
8 at NO L 31-9 19 33 220 57.6 6.7 0 0 3 77.8 43.9 2 13 6.5 0
9 vs. SF L 28-25 17 24 241 70.8 10.0 2 0 3 130.7 36.4 5 34 6.8 0
10 at TB L 30-27 27 44 324 61.4 7.4 3 1 2 97.2 69.7 3 38 12.7 0
11 at SF L 36-26 24 33 150 72.7 4.5 2 0 4 101.8 88.2 8 67 8.4 1
13 vs. LAR L 34-7 19 34 163 55.9 4.8 0 1 6 56.4 11.1 4 28 7.0 1
14 vs. PIT L 23-17 20 30 194 66.7 6.5 2 3 5 67.2 20.3 6 2 0.3 0

Everyone knows what came next—the season killing 6-game losing streak. This was basically a supersized version of the 0-3-1 streak to open the season—a mixed bag from Kyler, defensive letdowns, and growing discontentment from fans and observers. The road loss to New Orleans can largely be given a pass—it’s hard to win in the Superdome no matter who’s under center (although that certainly didn’t stop the Vikings in the Wild Card round). Kyler took care of the ball, but big plays were hard to come by and he couldn’t get the team into the end zone.

Next came the most frustrating three-game stretch of the season—ever more so than the first three games. The Thursday night game against the 49ers was maddening. Kyler wasn’t at his best most of the night, but the recently acquired Kenyan Drake shouldered the offensive load and the Redbirds jumped out to a quick lead. But the defense gave up three straight touchdowns before Kyler began to heat up, culminating in the 88-yard TD pass to Andy Isabella to cut the Niners’ lead to 3. It was one of the most exciting plays of the season. But coaching mistakes and bad defense prevented the Redbirds from touching the ball again after that. A deflating loss to one of the hottest teams in the league.

Another letdown was in store the next week—through no fault of Kyler, who put up 324 yards a 3 TDs (and one questionable INT) against Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers. That loss was all on the defense. Ditto the next game, a rematch against the Niners. Kyler played efficient football (3 combined TDs, no turnovers), but the defense once again let a late lead slip away, giving up two 4th-quarter TDs, including a late backbreaker after Kyler and the offense had briefly reclaimed the lead. Cardinals fans were exasperated—and Kyler likely was himself, although he never showed it.

What came next was Kyler’s worst two-game stretch of the season—a combined 4 INTs and 11 sacks in home losses to the Rams and Steelers. Coming out of the bye week, he fell flat on his face against the Rams—19/34 for 163 yards and a pick, good for a Rosen-esque QBR of 11.1. He played a bit better against the Steelers the next week, but made several uncharacteristic mental errors, including probably his worst play of the season. These were the games when Kyler looked most like a rookie—even more so than the first few games of the season. Cardinals fans were having flashbacks to last season’s 3-13 disaster.

Gritty Late-Season Performances

Kyler Murray – Weeks 15 to 17

Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
Week Opp Result Score Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD INT Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
15 vs. CLE W 38-24 19 25 219 76.0 8.8 1 1 0 98.6 89.8 8 56 7.0 0
16 at SEA W 27-13 11 18 118 61.1 6.6 1 0 1 98.8 51.5 6 40 6.7 0
17 at LAR L 31-24 26 42 325 61.9 7.7 2 2 1 81.9 29.2 2 0 0.0 0

But Kyler and the Cardinals righted the ship in a big way next week in their home finale. Drake’s 4-TD game was the big story, but Kyler also outplayed Baker Mayfield, his one-time Oklahoma teammate and last year’s #1 overall pick. The losing streak was over and the team had eclipsed 2018’s win total.

But the most satisfying win of the season came the next week, as the Redbirds went up to Seattle and ended their rival’s hopes for homefield advantage in the NFC. Kyler had a modest statistical game but did outplay Russell Wilson, who had one of his worst games of the season. Kyler also hurt his hamstring in the game, but the Cardinals were able to secure the victory behind Drake and Brett Hundley.

Facing his fist injury adversity as a professional, Kyler was able to suit up the next week on the road against the Rams in a meaningless game. He had an up-and-down game, piling up yardage and tossing 2 TDs, but he also threw 2 INTs and lost his first fumbles of the season. It remains to be seen whether the effort will be enough for him to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Final Thoughts

Kyler Murray – Final Rookie Statistics

GS Record Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD Int Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
GS Record Att Cmp Yds Cmp% YPA TD Int Sacks Rating QBR Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD
16 5-10-1 542 349 3722 64.4 6.9 20 12 48 87.4 56.0 93 544 5.8 4

Add it all up and you have the best rookie season by a QB in Cardinals franchise history. He put up good numbers and easily passed the “eye test”—just watch the highlight video linked in the intro. So far, he’s exactly the player Kyler supporters hoped he’d be.

And there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

So what does he need to do to improve? A natural leap from Year 1 to Year 2 and adding more talent around him should make improvement all but automatic, but there are a few things he could work on himself. For one, I’d like to see him push the ball downfield more—that 6.9 YPA is a tick or two below where it needs to be for this offense to really click. Again, a lot of that is playcalling/talent at WR, but Kyler almost got the ball out too quickly at times.

On a similar note, Kyler did a great job of avoiding big hits both in the pocket and on the run, but he also gave up on plays way too early at times, leaving yardage on the field when he ran and taking far too many sacks by dropping down or running out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. Take this nugget from PFF: “No quarterback was charged as at fault for more of their own sacks than Murray this season (23).” That number needs to come way down.

Finally, there’s been a bit of a vocal leadership void on offense since Carson Palmer retired. That hasn’t really been Kyler’s M.O., but I’d love him to try to take on that role a bit in 2020—especially as it seems the unit is going to keep getting younger and younger.

How are you feeling about Kyler after his first season, Cardinals fans? Although the season was sometimes (okay, more than sometimes) frustrating, it was a big improvement from last season and the team seems to be heading in the right direction with its new franchise QB. Let us know how you’re feeling about Kyler in the comments!