Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury were on way to disastrous debut before QB's promising talent shined

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

In the “just win, baby” NFL, it’s borderline impossible to dub a tie a “win.”

Given the way the Arizona Cardinals looked prior to their furious fourth-quarter rally to tie the Detroit Lions 27-27 on Sunday, a strong case can be made that new Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and the franchise’s No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Kyler Murray, indeed “won” their opener.

Seriously, folks. As far as debuts go, for most of the game it looked like it was going to go down as a stinker of the highest order for the pair, one that even The Shockmaster would mock.

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For the better part of three quarters, Murray and Kingsbury’s much-anticipated offense was stuck in traction as the Lions — a 6-10 team a year ago — cruised to a commanding 24-6 fourth-quarter lead, all of which was chum for those who doubted whether the 5-foot-10 Murray could thrive in the NFL, let alone play in it.

Kyler Murray notched a 300-yard passing game in his first regular-season game for the Cardinals. (Getty Images)
Kyler Murray notched a 300-yard passing game in his first regular-season game for the Cardinals. (Getty Images)

Murray, for instance, had his passes swatted down three times in the first half. He also missed some easy throws, and was even sacked by his own guard at one point, providing a Mark Sanchez-esque flourish to a 58-yard passing performance entering the fourth quarter.

But as the Murray truthers have insisted — and yes, I am part of that ilk, despite my feelings about the unfair way the Cardinals handled former head coach Steve Wilks— this 22-year-old is not your typical quarterback.

And while he needed lots of help from the bumbling Lions to prove it Sunday, none of that takes away from his riveting performance down the stretch.

For one, Murray started showing pocket awareness in the fourth quarter, hopping into open lanes like Drew Brees to avoid getting his passes swatted down. What’s more, his accuracy, which had been scattershot all day, seemed to come back in an instant, while his trademark elusiveness helped him extend plays and, more important, avoid sacks for chunk yardage behind one of the league’s leakiest offensive lines.

It all came together for him early in the fourth quarter, when Murray led a pair of scoring drives, with the first ending in a field goal and the second, which included Murray going a perfect 7 for 7, ending in his first NFL touchdown pass to pull within eight.

And after a classic Lions screw-up — Detroit called a timeout seconds before a game-icing third-down conversion, negating the play — Detroit failed to convert on third down and surrendered a blocked punt, one that allowed the Cardinals to take over on their own 35-yard line with a little under three minutes left.

Murray promptly led another scoring drive, this one ending in a touchdown pass to the great Larry Fitzgerald. A successful two-point conversion, courtesy of a pass to wideout Christian Kirk, tied the game at 24 and forced overtime, where the two teams swapped field goals before ending in a tie.

While the Lions left the game feeling like they blew it, the Cardinals had every reason to look toward the future. Start with the magic of Murray, who completed 21 of his last 31 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and that critical two-point conversion.

Murray’s late rally boosted his final tally on the day to a respectable 29 for 54 for 308 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, an outing that spared both himself — and his coach — a ton of grief for the next week.

That’s what would have been coming over the next seven days, and guess what? It would have been warranted, especially given the preseason hype. Even the Cardinals themselves — in an attempt to sell tickets, I’m sure — billed this offense to their fans as “fun” and “exciting,” and really, everything was set up for the Cardinals to hit the ground running Sunday.

For starters, the Lions couldn’t have known exactly what Kingsbury’s new offense would look like. Yes, it would be a spread system, an adaptation of the “Air Raid” he brought with him from college, but the Lions had to prepare without the benefit of watching a Kingsbury-coached regular-season NFL game, and all the tweaks that should have come with it.

What’s more, the Cardinals were facing the Lions, one of the few teams that have historically been worse than Arizona. They were the perfect patsy for Murray’s redemption.

Things will get only tougher for the rookie and his coach down the road in the near future. Next week, they face a Baltimore team that looked amazing Sunday (albeit against the woeful Dolphins, a mortal lock to earn the No. 1 pick), and after that, two good defenses in Seattle and Carolina.

The important thing to remember is, even if Murray struggles in those games, he’s being asked to start in Year 1, something even Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen — three young quarterbacks who each won on Sunday — weren’t asked to do with their respective teams.

As a young quarterback, Murray deserves patience through his struggles. His performance on Sunday, when he showed the moxie and talent to live up to his billing as a No. 1 overall pick, is a reminder of why.

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