The Arizona Cardinals may have fallen short this past postseason, but if anyone thought that they wouldn't give people reason to be talking about them throughout the Super Bowl weekend, and beyond, they were mistaken. Indeed, in spite of the fact that they are typically one of the more low-key teams in the league, at least when it comes to courting media controversy, the Cardinals have somehow found themselves at the heart of one of the early offseason stories.
It began when Cardinals star QB Kyler Murray largely scrubbed his social media presence during the Pro Bowl weekend. Some were quick to point out this included all references to the Arizona Cardinals, his current team, and began to wonder aloud if this was a sign of a major falling out with the team, or a power play to try and force through a trade, or show his displeasure at something they had done to him.
Others -- myself included -- didn't read too much into it initially for a few reasons. First, though he had scrubbed his instagram of all Cardinals references, he had also removed photos of almost everything else too -- his family, friends, pets, video games, sponsor posts, and hundreds of other photos had all been removed at the same time, and until a few days ago, only two photos remained. Second, while it was widely reported that he had removed all references to the Cardinals from all social media this was is not entirely true either -- his twitter had been similarly scrubbed, but still included this tweet from January 2nd, after the Cardinals won in Texas keeping Kyler 8-0 at AT&T stadium, across his high school, college, and professional career, (a tweet that tagged the official Cardinals twitter account) and this retweet from the Arizona Cardinals after the team's 2-0 start, strange choices considering some of the other things removed.
Nonetheless, the fact that he unfollowed the Cardinals on both platforms was undoubtedly a concern for the team and its fans, and as the speculation continued, and his silence lingered -- even in the face of some pretty unflattering reports about his immaturity and leadership concerns within the organization -- even fans like myself began to worry that there was something more to this than we initially wanted to believe.
And when he finally broke his silence a few days later -- posting a photo of himself in Cardinals uniform, and a post reaffirming his love for the game, accompanied by a statement reminding fans that "this nonsense is not what I’m about" -- it was impossible to avoid the fact that he referred to fans, teammates, and "everyone who has helped me get to this position that believed in me & to win championships" without mentioning the team by name, any of it's owners, coaches, or executives, or refollowing the team on either platform. While there is certainly room for Cardinals fans who would prefer to see Murray stick around to be encouraged -- not least of which, his decision to post a photo of himself in a Cardinals uniform, rather than the Oaklahoma Sooners or Pro Bowl uniforms he is wearing in the other two posts still available on his instagram feed -- there is also plenty of reasons still to be concerned.
There is obviously still friction between him and the team, and the fact that he has yet to unambiguously commit his future to the team, nor address the reason the scrub directly -- some, including teammate DeAndre Hopkins had hinted that they believed the reason for the scrub was probably because of an upcoming rebrand, though this seams unlikely as no rebrand has followed -- suggests that he is still likely attempting to use this for leverage against the team.
Clearly friction exists to have triggered this decision, but the simple question is, what is this friction over, and what does Murray hope to achieve from it?
Kyler Murray is about to enter the fourth year of his rookie contract, which he has no choice but to play out, or sit out the season, if the Cardinals refuse to negotiate with him. The Cardinals can also still unilaterally extend his contract for a fifth year in 2023. While some players do indeed lock up lucrative extensions after their third season, we're still several months away from training camp, when a player would have even a little leverage to try and force a team's hand by holding out. If this is a power play to get a contract extension, the timing of this really doesn't make sense. Indeed, the decision for a player entering their fourth year to try and force a team's hand into offering them an extension right now just doesn't make sense, since they just don't have the leverage they need to effectively do so.
So what else could it be? If a trade is what Murray wants, this kind of move, is not at all the way to do it. This kind of choice does very little to give the team a reason to shop him -- indeed until the trading window opens on March 16, the team couldn't trade him, even if they want to -- but what it certainly does to is risk alienating potential trading partners who will look at this kind of snub, the media criticism, and the reports of immaturity and poor leadership that followed, and may now think twice about what, if anything they would even be willing to offer him, even if they were previously interested in pinning their future on the young QB. Again, as a strategy, it just doesn't really make much sense.
Many have suggested that, inside the Cardinals building, a lot of the blame for their late season collapse these past two years has fallen upon Murray. They then suggest that spending time around other players and coaches at the Pro Bowl caused him to realize that the culture in Arizona is not a healthy one for him, and that he may be happier elsewhere. And this may all be true -- though the team's ability to woo veteran free agents like Hopkins, JJ Watt, and Rodney Hudson, in recent years, each consumate professionals and locker-room leaders would certainly challenge that idea -- but again, it's hard to imagine what he hopes to achieve through this stunt, even if that is what he is now feeling. This kind of "power play" still only makes sense if there is a discernible goal at the end of it.
Whatever faults he may have, Murray does not appear to be someone who is unaware of branding and public perception, and making this decision without considering the fallout this would have is not something that makes much sense. It seems that Kyler Murray must know that he will be a Cardinal in 2022, and beyond, if the team still want him, and the damage he has already done to his brand -- especially given the decidedly inopportune timing in play here -- just doesn't make sense if all he's trying to do is force a contract extension, trade, or just to make a point about the way the team have treated him.
It's a decision that people just don't get. It doesn't make sense. Unless, of course, there is something he is looking to get out of this, something that he would need an answer on much sooner than preseason training camp, something he wants the Cardinals to give him, and that he may feel legitimately slighted that they have not.
And the obvious answer may have been staring us in the face all along.
In spite of never playing a single inning in the MLB, Murray's twitter profile picture proudly displays him batting for the Oakland Athletics, in addition to playing QB for Oklahoma. And it's hard to imagine that decision, like any of the others made thus far, is coincidental.
It's no secret that Murray was a two sport athlete in college, and has spoken on many occasions about his desire to do so professionally too -- indeed, three if you also consider his career in E Sports, where he is signed with the ever popular FaZe Clan. He was a first round pick in 2018 for the A's, and while it has always been apparent that football is his first choice right now, that doesn't mean he doesn't still believe he can play professional baseball as well.
In 2020 he lamented to Arizona sportswriter Bob McManaman about the fact that players are forced to choose between football and baseball at a professional level, and in 2021 he told Cardinals staff writer Darren Urban that he was "open" to playing professional baseball alongside football, if the option were available to him.
The reason that option isn't available to him? Language in his contract in Arizona that explicitly forbids it. According to Ian Rapoport, clause 27.B of his Cardinals contract means that participation in any baseball related activities -- even as simple as a workout to see if he can still go -- would allow the Cardinals to void all guarantees in his contract, a very costly, and damaging problem for a player this early in his career.
Right now, the Cardinals are not in a position to pay Murray the way he wants -- and honestly, probably deserves -- to be paid. Offering him the $30+ million a year that a franchise QB in today's NFL pockets isn't on the cards right now. The team already have cap concerns, and if the team want to capitalize on their recent year-on-year growth, and parley that into a deep playoff run, their best chance to do so is going to come while they have a player in their most valuable -- and typically costly -- position on a cap friendly rookie deal. And if he is as serious about winning championships as his most recent Instagram post suggests, Murray knows this.
But you know who can afford to pad Murray's paycheck by a few million dollars extra each season? That's right, the Oakland A's. But if Murray hopes to try his luck this MLB season, he needs this clause removed from his contract before the beginning of spring training camp -- whenever that may be. The timing of the scrub then, certainly makes more sense if we think in terms of forcing the Cardinals hand in advance of the MLB season, which is scheduled to start at the end of March, rather than as a power play linked to the NFL season, where training camps are not scheduled to open until late July.
Of course, right now, this is a moot point -- MLB is in the middle of a lockout over their current CBA terms, with no obvious end in sight, and the start of spring training camp has already been postponed by at least one week. There are no guarantees that the season will happen at all, let alone on schedule. But of course, on the assumption that the two sides do reach an agreement in time to save the season, it seems totally reasonable that Murray may want to ensure that his NFL contract gives him the option to pursue this additional revenue stream, and that his decision to scrub the Cardinals from his social media is an attempt to show his displeasure at the team for their unwillingness to entertain this possibility to this point.
His decision to include a picture demonstrating his baseball prowess in his Twitter profile may be a subtle reminder to the Cardinals that, he still has options, even if the NFL team refuse to discuss trades or contract extensions at this point. At any moment, MLB and the players union could reach a deal to salvage the 2022 season, and if they do, it's not unreasonable to assume that, at this point in his career, he wants to ensure that he has the ability to pursue that option. Indeed, during 2020 interview with Tiki and Tierney Murray admitted that while his current contract didn't allow him to play both sports, he wanted to ensure that his next contract included some "wiggle room"
In today's NFL, its hard to imagine any player pulling a Dieon Sanders, and flying coast to coast to play NFL games on Sunday, and postseason MLB games during the week, let alone a franchise QB.
Even by the time NFL training camp starts, any NFL team is going to want the face of their franchise with them learning the playbook, leading in the locker room, and developing that all-important chemistry with their receivers. Even if they can find a way to come to terms with the added injury risk that comes with participating in the grueling 162 game MLB season, the thought of their most valuable player spending time he should be preparing for NFL opponents flying around the country and expending mental and physical energy on another sport is probably a bridge too far. It's totally understandable that the Cardinals would want to ensure that their leader isn't playing too much baseball once July roles around. And certainly, the team has options for preventing this even if they remove the clause preventing him from participating in baseball activities -- these include the ability to hand out hefty fines for missing mandatory team activities, such as meetings, training activities, and, obviously, games.
But even if the Cardinals insist he cease all baseball activities by the time training camp begins in earnest, the Oakland A's -- or indeed, any team they trade his rights to, including the Arizona Diamondbacks, which would certainly simplify logistics -- this would still give an MLB team up to 90 games with Murray before he needed to report in Arizona. Right now, the average MLB player is only going to start a little shy of 50 games per season -- though these numbers are skewed by a lot of players who only appear a significantly reduced number of games per season for various reasons, including the platoon system, or being regular backups, or minor league callus who only play occasionally when daily starters are unavailable. Even still, its pretty likely that the A's would be happy with even 50-70 games from a player like Murray -- even knowing that these would all come in the early part of the season, and they would be without him by the playoffs -- and would probably still be enough to justify a pretty healthy contract to play with them for as many games as they can. After all, the A's were reportedly ready to offer Murray a contract with guarantees totaling $14 million, in addition to the $4.66 million signing bonus he had already been given, and a guaranteed spot on their 40 man roster, had he chosen to stay and play baseball. There should be no question then that would also find a way to make Murray's contract work financially, were he able to play for them for even the first half of the season.
The Cardinals would probably need to build in some more protections for themselves, including the ability to void guarantees in his contract in the case of baseball-related injuries, insulating themselves against the risk the additional games will take on their star QB, and would likely also want certain other assurances in exchange for allowing the man they have staked their future on the opportunity to pursue this parallel career -- including finding ways to ensure he continues stepping up in his leadership in the locker room, on the field and in community.
Whether they will do so, that's the great unknown at this point.
If the decision was mine, I'm still not sure I'd be willing to do so. An upset QB, two very affordable years left on his contract who is healthy is still probably preferable to the additional wear and tear that would come with making him happy by allowing him to play baseball. But an upset player can easily become a toxic presence in any locker room, and better teams than the 2022 Cardinals appear to be shaping up to be, have been taken down by a disgruntled and distracted QB. So maybe the risk is worth it.
Either way, if I had to guess -- and that is, of course, all this is -- I'd guess that baseball is the reason Kyler Murray is frustrated with the Arizona Cardinals right now.