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Checkmate: Cards' Kyler Murray becoming a savant at learning when to check out of plays

Bob McManaman
Arizona Republic

The longer the Cardinals keep winning and the more quarterback Kyler Murray keeps taking more control of the offense and increasing his odds of winning the NFL Most Valuable Player award, the more decimal points he can expect to find in his fat new contract the franchise will ultimately pay him in the coming months.

At this rate, it’s almost destined to happen.

Murray might not get crazy money like the Chiefs doled out to Patrick Mahomes, who received a 10-year extension worth up to $475 million with incentives. But he’s probably safely assured of striking a deal worth at least what the Bills gave earlier this year to Josh Allen, who signed a six-year, $258 million contract worth a maximum of $288 million through incentives.

It’s because Murray is proving more and more every week that he deserves it. Never more was that true than this past Sunday when, despite running the offense without head coach and offensive play caller Kliff Kingsbury, Murray and the Cardinals went on to destroy the Browns 37-14 in Cleveland to remain undefeated at 6-0.

Murray threw four touchdown passes, raising his season total to 14, which is tied with Carson Palmer (2015) for the most in franchise history through the first six games of a season. Murray is also leading all quarterbacks with a 73.8 percent completion percentage and ranks third with a passer rating of 116.2 and is tied for third with 8.9 passing yards per play.

But it’s more important than that when analyzing exactly how Murray continues to make major strides in his development and maturity within the Cardinals’ offensive framework. Just examine how often he has smartly checked out of plays, like he did with regularity against the Browns during Kingsbury’s absence due to testing positive for COVID-19.

“He’s matured so much just as any rookie quarterback does, now that he’s in his third year with this system and having that freedom and having that ability to check some of the plays,” said assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple, who called the plays in place of Kingsbury in Cleveland. “I can’t say how many, but I know when he did check, good things happened.

“And that’s credit to his development and the coaching staff who’s brought him along to get him to this point to go into games, see a look and be able to get us in the right call. It’s a credit to Kyler and where he’s at today as far as a mental state, preparation-wise.”

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It’s what turned the former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma into the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, made him one of three NFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks a year ago and what makes him the leading candidate to win league MVP honors in 2021.

But it’s not individual accomplishments or even a mega-money new contract that drives Kyler Cole Murray, 24. It’s winning. Nothing more, nothing less. Kingsbury, who tried recruiting Murray to Texas Tech when the quarterback was a sophomore at Allen (Texas) High School, has always known it.

And when he keeps telling reporters that Murray hasn’t even scratched the surface of his full potential, it’s enough to make you listen and let it ruminate.

“It’s unbelievable,” Whipple said of Murray’s rapid rise and development as a professional. “To work with a guy like that with that much talent and the command of the offense, the understanding. There were times during the game (on Sunday) where he was able to see some things, check some things and get us in the right situations and that’s a credit to his development.

“His talent showed, but also his mind out there on the field, that was a big help to me.”

Ask one of his prized offensive linemen just how much the crazy-good Murray has meant to the Cardinals’ historic start to the season, from his poise, confidence, aggressiveness and ability to make smarter, better decisions seemingly every week, and you’ll get even more affirmation.

“Yeah, it’s quite the adjective — crazy good. That’s definitely something I can get behind,” starting left guard Justin Pugh said of Murray. “He’s getting better and better every week. He’s taking more control of this offense. It’s becoming more of his offense and what he sees and what he wants to check to and that’s what the greats do.

“He’s building, he’s getting better and we need him to continue to get better to get to where we want go and win games in late December, the end of January and into February — in the games we want to play in. We need him to continue to get better and as a unit we need to continue to grow. But Kyler is a special, special player and I’m glad he is on our side.”

Murray is only 24, but he’s completely lassoed Kingsbury’s offense and more importantly, he’s learned how and when to tweak things at the line of scrimmage to his advantage. It’s because of the maturation process, he said. He’s recognizing and reacting to multiple defensive formations and schemes quicker and clearer.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - OCTOBER 17: Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball during the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 17, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio.

“I don’t think there’s much that I haven’t seen in three years,” said Murray, whose 60 career TD passes are already 16 more than any other quarterback in franchise history in their first three seasons. “I’ve seen a lot. Being able to process it all now, understanding what plays in our offense that beat whatever the defense is in and those type of things. So for me, we’re all on the same page now as to where we were two years ago or last year when maybe there was a little bit of confusion and stuff like that.

“But now, we all know what we can get to.”

It’s allowed the offense to evolve and it’s given Murray twice as much confidence and when an NFL quarterback starts becoming that comfortable — and he has all the playmakers around him he could want as Murray does — imagine how much better he could become over time.

“Yeah, it kind of allows us to be, not unstoppable,” Murray said, “but in a sense, put yourself in the best play possible.”

As in any skill, there are nuances and detailed minutia that Murray must consider before checking out of one play and possibly into as many as three or four others, depending on what he sees from the defense. Field position, down and distance, and the score can dictate when and how Murray chooses to operate. He’s also always mindful of protecting the ball.

“There are definitely situations, if you’ve got a field goal, if you’ve already got points, you definitely don’t want to turn the ball over,” said Murray, who has gone three games and 110 consecutive passes without an interception. “There’s definitely those types of situation where in the headset, ‘Whip’ this weekend is telling me, ‘We’ve got points already. Don’t do anything crazy or anything like that.’

“Coach (Kingsbury), obviously, usually does that. But I never want to take away my aggression or anything like that. We’ve got playmakers and I want to get them the ball and I’ll always do that. But at the same time, it’s learning from mistakes in he past and sometimes, it’s smarter to not force something.”

Moving forward, especially this season, it will be interesting to see how opposing defenses attempt to disguise things even further to take away Murray’s threat as a play-changing savant. Nobody has been able to bottle him up yet and he hasn’t even really had to rely on his legs to get him out of trouble.

“I think as a quarterback, you want all the control,” Murray said. “It’s a horrible feeling being back there and they’re in a defense and you know the play is not going to work but you don’t know what to get to. So, the fact that now I do know what I can check and the guys all understand he might get this or this, it’s a great feeling.”

Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at bob.mcmanaman@arizonarepublic.com and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch. 

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