Kyler Murray has done plenty well in sparking the Cardinals’ quick turnaround into an NFC playoff team. Although his losing postseason debut in Monday’s wild-card game at the division rival Rams was mostly a disaster, he still carries a lot of dual-threat upside as a two-time Pro Bowler who just finished Year 3 as a 24-year-old.
But after looking at everything that went wrong for Murray against a tough defense in the biggest game of his career thus far, coach Kliff Kingsbury and the rest of the Arizona brass have a big job ahead: putting the right pieces in place around their franchise QB to get the most out of him.
Murray (19-of-34 passing, 137 yards, two INTs, 4.0 yards per attempt, 40.9 rating) was ineffective throwing to all parts of the field and failed to do any impactful rushing (two attempts, 6 yards). The dinking and dunking in a compressed attack gave him little chance in a 34-11 rout. He pressed and made a lot of bad decisions, including a second-quarter pop-up pass that went for the shortest pick-six in NFL playoff history.
Aaron Donald, Von Miller and the rest of the Rams’ defensive front did cause problems, but the shortcomings of a Cardinals pass-catching corps that was minus go-to guy DeAndre Hopkins, as well as other factors caught up to the offense, too.
The knee-jerk reaction is that the Cardinals need to re-evaluate whether the combination of Murray and Kingsbury is the right one for big long-term success. The reality is, Arizona overachieved in going 11-6 to earn second place in the tough NFC West. To turn the corner from good wild-card story to true championship contender, the Cardinals need to focus on making the right upgrades around Murray.
Consider first that Murray didn’t have a top offensive line. Second, he worked with a makeshift set of receivers, including fading stars A.J. Green and Zach Ertz. Much of the Cardinals’ offensive success was tied to their strong traditional running game featuring James Conner and Chase Edmonds. That served as a consistent complement to a turnover-forcing defense.
Murray was most interested in being an efficient passer to improve on his second-year breakout. The numbers did support that goal in the regular season, with his 100.6 rating and standout 7.9 yards per attempt, both career bests. Digging deeper, his high level of production stemmed from monster games in the first half of the season, when the Cardinals started 7-0. He missed three games with an ankle injury in November, and after that the downfield game dwindled without Hopkins.
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Hopkins is coming off a big knee injury ahead of his Age 30 season. Green (33) and Ertz (31) are pending unrestricted free agents — along with running backs Conner and Edmonds, wide receiver Christian Kirk, tight end Maxx Williams, guard Max Garcia and backup QB Colt McCoy.
The Cardinals have a chance to overhaul the skill positions and infuse them with youth around Murray. The best bet for keepers are Conner and Edmonds, because they can return relative cheaply. Although Arizona will have several holes to address on defense, too, they need to reset their offensive weapons to align them better with Murray.
Having Hopkins again will help, and so will better usage of dynamic second-round pick Rondale Moore. But the Cardinals would help Murray take a big leap with a true deep speed threat. Kirk, now dedicated to the slot, isn’t that. Williams and Murray had a nice connection before the former went down with a knee injury, and Ertz was a good replacement security blanket. A more athletic option who can stretch the middle of the field should be welcome.
Arizona is perceived as a prolific, explosive and aggressive offense under Kingsbury, but it needs to have more sources of big plays. Even though there is creativity, the Cardinals can get into a rut with their short and intermediate passing. Murray also needs to embrace his rare quickness and speed as a runner the way Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen do to take over games at times.
Murray’s rushing production had a nearly 50 percent dropoff, to the point it became a non-factor. That’s inexplicable for someone with such a high floor in that regard. His successor at Oklahoma, Jalen Hurts, was close to Murray’s 2020 rushing levels for the Eagles as he compensated for shaky passing. Murray is a more dangerous passer, like Jackson and Allen, when defenses get too worried about his running.
The Cardinals have been pretty solld at tackle, but they need to upgrade their interior offensive line. Garcia (30), left guard Justin Pugh (31) and center Rodney Hudson (32) are on the downsides of their careers. There are similar aging concerns with right tackle Kelvin Beachum (31).
Murray needs a young team around him, like Joe Burrow has with the Bengals. The Cardinals were the oldest team in the NFL by average player age (27.3) going into the season, with 16 players over 30. That increased with the midseason trade for Ertz.
General manager Steve Keim did a good job getting enough veteran support to expedite a playoff berth with Murray. Now, the script should be flipped to an aggressive retool with Murray most in mind. Kingsbury needs to help Murray evolve into a more consistent all-around force, but that can’t happen with the current personnel.
Given their cap situation, free agency won’t be fruitful for the Cardinals. That’s OK, because the draft is where they will get younger. Wide receiver, tight end and offensive line should bump higher up the team’s needs list this year after Arizona prioritized defense in the first two post-Murray drafts, with the exception of Moore.
The good news is the team that beat the Cardinals on Monday and in the division race has a capped future as an “all-in” team with Matthew Stafford. The 49ers are about to fall behind at QB with the change to Trey Lance and the Seahawks don’t seem as if they will have Russell Wilson much longer.
It was good the Cardinals got Murray’s feet wet in the playoffs, even though he was drowned by the moment. If they plan to get the real payoff with his talent, they need to execute a patient plan that’s timed to provide the biggest boost when he’s in his playmaking prime.