GLENDALE, Ariz. – As we anticipated when Kliff Kingsbury arrived in the NFL, the tidal waves of multiple wide receiver sets arrived with him. And it took only one training camp practice to see where this is going.
Count on three wideouts, then four with regularity. Count on defenses stretched and flattened from sideline to sideline. Count on Cardinals running back David Johnson working in space and receiver Larry Fitzgerald being fed and fed and fed some more. Count on run-pass options, pass-pass-pass options (if there were such a thing) and options that are dreaming up other options as you read this.
But maybe more than anything, count on Kyler Murray throwing a lot, running plenty – and quite possibly approaching some of the most impressive rookie quarterback stats we’ve seen in the past decade.
In fairness, the talent around Murray may not be there to crack Baker Mayfield’s 27 touchdown passes in 2018 or replicate Cam Newton’s otherworldly 4,051 passing yards in 2011. And Murray may not have the physique to make a run at Robert Griffin III’s 815 rushing yards in 2012. But the rookie has something Mayfield, Newton and Griffin didn’t: Kliff Kingsbury and an offense that ranks as one of the league’s biggest unknowns this season.
Part of that reality is because the Cardinals didn’t have a solidified starting quarterback choice until Murray was drafted in late April. The other part? Nobody knows how Kingsbury will adapt his Air Raid scheme to the league, or what he’ll bring in from his various college stops. Indeed, it stands to reason that Kingsbury may not even know at this point and is still making this all up as he goes.
This is what happens when a team rolls the dice on both a head coach and quarterback who have styled themselves inside a scheme that hasn’t been proven on the NFL level. It ends up being a mystery. First to itself. Then to all its opponents it faces in the upcoming season. This could be a very lucrative intersection for Murray when it comes to stats – and might even give Arizona a shot at some success that is largely unexpected this season.
“It’s our job to figure out what type of team we can be through this camp,” Murray said Thursday. “… I don’t see why everybody thinks [this offense] can’t be successful. It’s just like any other offense. It’s an offense. We work at it. We practice it. It’s our job to execute it. If we don’t, then it won’t be successful. If we do, like I said, I feel like it works at the college level. I don’t see why it couldn’t work at the pro level. It’s our job to make people believe in that.”
What Murray either isn’t grasping or isn’t saying is that doubters are first questioning Arizona’s talent. Pro personnel men who stack up the talent on other teams will be quick to say the Cardinals rank near the bottom of the league in offensive line talent. There also isn’t a high opinion of the proven commodities on the wide receiver depth chart, aside from an aging Larry Fitzgerald and an ascending Christian Kirk. David Johnson should also factor in heavily in a passing game that is going to give Murray an abundance of short to intermediate options, while also giving him the option of improvising within the scheme.
But can Kingsbury find other pieces to contribute quickly from the trio of rookie receivers in second-round pick Andy Isabella, fourth-round pick Hakeem Butler and sixth-round pick KeeSean Johnson (who definitely already has some fans on the coaching staff)?
Maybe the bottom line for Murray is this: His best asset as a rookie quarterback will ultimately be his head coach. Not only does he know Kingsbury’s offense seemingly better than anyone else on the roster (Fitzgerald called Murray’s mastery of the scheme an “intimate understanding”), but he has also been the Day 1 starter in the eyes of the front office and surrounding veterans. Kingsbury was a little slower to put that tag on Murray this offseason, but any other notion vanished on the first day of training camp, when Murray was clearly the starting quarterback.
What it comes down to is this: If you’re banking on Murray, you’re banking on him being great partially because of his talent, but also largely because of Kingsbury’s scheme. And you’re not worried that it’s still being pieced together and unveiled this preseason.
And if this is more about statistical success than just wins and losses, that might not be a bad gamble now. Particularly considering the NFL’s smartest coaches seemed to believe in what Kingsbury was doing long before the general public considered him a hot NFL commodity.
Lest anyone forget it, when Kingsbury was fired at Texas Tech, the phone rang. A lot. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Andy Reid wanted to talk. So did Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints. The New England Patriots? Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were eager to break down film.
And as one Los Angeles Rams personnel man put it this week, “I totally thought Kliff was going to end up being a big part of our coaching staff this season.”
If you believe in the offenses of the Rams and Saints and Chiefs and Patriots, then you probably have reason to believe in Kingsbury, too. And if he believes in Murray, then maybe the No. 1 pick said it best Thursday. The only thing between believing this can be a great offensive scheme in the NFL and then actually seeing it take root will be watching Murray prove it.
And that effort started this week. In three wide and four wide and plenty more where that came from.
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