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OP-ED: Understanding Kyler

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Background: Nov 15, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) celebrates Wirth wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) after defeating the Buffalo Bills at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In this opinion piece, I am going to take the risk of trusting my intuitions about Cardinals’ QB Kyler Murray. Obviously, I have never met the young man, nor have I chatted with him face to face.

However, like many of you, I have spent a great deal of time watching and listening to Kyler—-and I have spent a good deal of time listening to what pundits and fans think of Kyler—-and after all of the watching and listening, I have arrived at the conclusion that Kyler is enigmatic and widely misunderstood.

As a former high school English teacher and football coach, for the past 40 years, I spent most of my days working with young men and women. A handful of the young men I worked with went on to become professional athletes, the most famous of which were Mo Vaughn (AL MVP—-Red Sox), Juan Nieves (pitched a no-hitter for the Orioles), Brian Leetch (USA Olympic captain who led the NY Rangers to a Stanley Cup Championship) and Chris Hetherington (Yale QB who became the starting FB for the Panthers, Raiders and 49ers).

There were a number of other student athletes whom I worked with that had the talent to be successful pro athletes, but what I learned is that the ones who make it seem to have a number of common denominators such as having an indefatigable work ethic, a basic, driving sense of humbleness and a fierce determination to battle through adversity and all of the obstacles standing in their way.. Making it to the pros is a story of utmost perseverance and unwavering commitment.

Look at Kyler Murray—-having to wait three years to get his shot to start at QB in college.

In recent days, I have been wondering what it would have been like to have Kyler Murray as a student. My instincts tell me that he would have been a joy to have in class and that he would have been very low maintenance. I say low maintenance because he would be in class every day and he would be an autonomous learner (highly self-motivated).

I think that in many ways Kyler would have been an ideal AP English student because he would not only understand the material, he would generate a command of the concepts—-and best of all—-he would manifest the creativity to hit the proverbial curve ball on an AP test out of the park. Some of the most intelligent and diligent A+ students I had in AP over the years were superb fastball hitters—-but throw a curve at them and many of them would whiff.

I think I would have been fascinated with Kyler’s affinity for playing chess and would have relished the opportunity to discuss the game of chess in metaphorical terms. And while I am fiercely competitive myself, I would have relished watching him checkmate me in stunning fashion. I imagine that Kyler and I would have shared a lot of good laughs.

I have also been imagining what it would have been like to coach Kyler. My instincts tell me that it would have been best to give Kyler as much say-so and autonomy as possible to the point of giving him the keys to the offense. As hard as Kyler is on himself, he is a player I would have never had to kick in the butt or yell at.

The ultimate goal of any teacher or coach, at least in my opinion, is to see the students and players take ownership of the curriculum and the program. It always sticks in my craw to see over-zealous coaches behave like they want to win more than the players. I have always felt like the players should want it more. After all, they are the ones playing the game.

Kyler would have wanted me to be a super organizer of practices—-the more structured, the better. And then once he was able to take command of the offense, he would have wanted me to back off and let him do the leading.

Recently I have heard pundits question whether Kyler respects Kliff Kingsbury. Some of the pundits have been critical of Kyler’s body language and the fact that he rarely if ever looks Kingsbury in the eyes when the coach is talking to him.

My instincts tell me that Kliff Kingsbury is in many ways an ideal coach for Kyler—-largely because Kingsbury is eager to let Kyler be himself and to afford him the autonomy that he craves. Kyler has recently stated how much he appreciates his head coach and how much faith and understanding Kliff has in him. Plus, as often as Kingsbury has been asked about Kyler’s body language and brooding, he always says that “Kyler wants to win. He holds himself and the team to very high standards.”

Kingsbury and Murray share three common bonds that make their coach/player relationship work: (1) exemplary work ethic; (2) fascination with the creative “chess game” aspects of innovative offenses; (3) a love for the lore and pageantry of Fridaty Night Lights football in the state of Texas.

For those wondering why Kyler rarely looks Kingsbury in the eyes—-if Kingsbury had a problem with it, he would ask Kyler to look him in the eyes. What I believe Kingsbury understands, just as I believe I would, is that Kyler’s mind is constantly swirling and, like the chess player in him, he’s constantly pondering his next move. Thinkers like Kyler tend to look off into the distance when they are processing their thoughts. It has nothing to do with disrespect.

This is why Kingsbury allows Kyler as much free time on the sidelines to gather his thoughts.

This is why Kingsbury doesn’t want too many coaches or players in Kyler’s ears.

As a former high school coach, at first i wondered about these things. I mean, why isn’t QB Coach Tom Clements sitting by Kyler’s side looking at formations on a tablet the way Tom Moore always did with Carson Palmer?

But, then it occurred to me that Kyler and Kliff think it is best to let Kyler collect his own thoughts.

This doesn’t mean that Kyler shouldn’t be coached and corrected when necessary—-it just means that at times, it’s a good thing to give him his space.

The reason why this makes so much sense to me now is that I have had students and athletes that are such in-depth thinkers and autonomous learners that the very best thing you can do for them is to give them the space to figure everything out for themselves.

As an educator, I know that there is no better learning than when the students figure things out for the themselves, because that kind of learning is instantly and forever engrained.

I will never forget the day I was asked to teach AP English. The first thing I did was call my favorite teaching mentor, Tom Trevisani, who was the most inspirational AP English teacher I have ever known. The sage advice that Trev gave to me was, “The best thing you can do for the students, Mitch, is to put them in small groups, hand them the questions and let them figure out the answers on their own.”

Some question Kyler’s body language and facial expressions—-certainly I can see why they would. But, from my experience, I know that some people (including myself, I have been told) look upset or down in the dumps when they are pondering the most profound of thoughts. Such expressions are actually often a hint—-”please leave me alone to let me think.”

What’s unique about Kyler is that he arrived at team headquarters for his first day of practice with the Cardinals knowing more about the offense than his teammates. Usually it is the other way around.

His understanding of Kingsbury’s passing game principles and terminology gave him a head start on everyone else and it thrust him immediately into a leadership position. Wisely, Kyler understood that he needed to win the trust of his teammates first, before he would get after them, But, you can see that this year, as a captain, he is holding himself and his teammates accountable.

Accountability is at the heart of the conflict that Kyler now is dealing with. It is Week 14 and the offense is now trying to work its way out of a slump. Opposing teams have found ways to slow down the Cardinals’ running game. They are now sending multiple blitzers after Kyler on passing downs and are not giving him some of the easier escape routes he had earlier in the year.

I believe that a large part of Kyler’s current frustration is how poorly some of his teammates handled the bye week again this year—-and how some teammates do not appear to be as committed to making the sacrifices that it takes to win games. I think this is why he was so down in the dumps after the loss to the Dolphins.

Another aspect of Kyler’s frustration, I believe, is how the offense has morphed into being so run-heavy that he is finding it difficult to get into a rhythm in the passing game. Kurt Warner always insisted that getting in a passing rhythm as early and often as he could was a key to his and the team’s success.

I will never forget a game earlier in Tom Brady’s career when Charlie Weiss was the Patriots’ OC, where Weiss called 19 passing plays in a row to start the game. This quickly got Brady into a rhythm, it got the Patriots up 14 points on the scoreboard and, with the lead comfortably in hand in the second half, the offense still managed to rush for 120 yards.

Kyler has been insisting that “I do not need to run for us to win.” While, to this point, the numbers suggest otherwise—-I believe that Kyler is correct—-therefore, once he is able to prove that he can win when relying more heavily on his arm, then the offense will take the next important step forward.

As head coach, Kliff Kingsbury is trying to involve and please all of his coaches and his players—-and that is often a tall order. But, this week Kingsbury had the courage to say that after 28 games the offense “is still trying to find its identity.”

I think that’s a good thing. This is an offense that needs to take the next step forward.

I believe that giving Kyler Murray the most input as to what that identity could and should be is of paramount importance. Some might argue that one player shouldn’t be given so much autonomy—-but in the case of Kyler Murray, the ultimate chess player who has the ability to stay three moves ahead of the game—-the Cardinals would be wise to let him take command of the board.

It certainly worked for Kurt Warner when he put his special stamp on Ken Whisenhunt’s offense and took command of the reins.

Some QBs are born to be autonomous.

When the time is right, some coaches are happy and wise to hand over the keys.