TEMPE, Ariz. — When Kliff Kingsbury began planning for a crucial third season as the Arizona Cardinals‘ head coach, he and quarterback Kyler Murray came to an understanding. Murray didn’t need to run as much this season in order for the Cardinals’ offense to find success and pile up wins.
It wasn’t even something they talked about, Murray said. It was something the duo, whose relationship dates back nine years, just knew needed to happen.
Through four games, it’s worked. Murray has led the Cardinals to a 4-0 start, a spot atop the NFC West and is the early MVP favorite because he has cut down on his runs and passed better out of the pocket.
“I think we just came to a mutual understanding: ‘How can we maximize you as a player and take advantage of that God-given ability you have to run as fast as anybody I’ve ever seen and also allow you to play quarterback at the level you want to play?'” Kingsbury said. “So, I think we’re in a good place with it.”
Murray has run 23 times this season for 156 fewer yards compared to last season, when he rushed 32 through four games. He’s averaging just 4.79 yards per carry this year compared to 8.28 yards last season. He’s down just one touchdown but five first downs.
The result: He’s a better passer. Murray’s completion percentage is 76.1% compared to 68.8% in 2020. Over four games, he’s thrown for 354 more yards, two more touchdowns, one fewer interception and is averaging 3.12 more yards per completion.
“This [Kliff Kingsbury] offense, I think is one that can find the full measure of the mobile quarterback.”@SteveYoungQB on how the Cardinals’ offensive scheme is paying dividends for Kyler Murray this season. pic.twitter.com/pzIJWl9PgW
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) October 4, 2021
Known for his dual-threat ability, dizzying speed and video-game-esque moves, the idea of running less and passing more has been welcomed by the former Heisman Trophy winner.
“I think that’s dangerous,” Murray said of running all the time. “I don’t feel like I need to be running the ball as much. When it’s necessary, yeah.”
Murray added that having running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner — who he called “a two-headed monster” — in addition to a receiving corps of DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore is “pretty scary.”
After Sunday’s dominating win over the Los Angeles Rams, Edmonds let everyone in on a little secret. Arizona is putting fewer designed runs for Murray into the game plan every week. There was just one Sunday, Edmonds said, down from about five or six a game last season.
It came on a designed rollout, Murray’s second rollout of the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Last season, he had 20. In 2019, Murray’s rookie year, he had 25.
“It’s a total difference right now in our identity,” Edmonds said. “When we don’t have to rely on his legs and when we can just use his legs as a bonus, it just helps us out tremendously and it keeps the balance for us and helps those guys on the outside, as well, win one-on-one matchups.”
If it was up to Kingsbury, though, Murray would run more.
“Yeah, I want him to run all the time, but that’s not his type of party,” Kingsbury said. “He’s playing really good from the pocket and when he needs to run, he’s running. But he’s never going to be [Baltimore Ravens quarterback] Lamar [Jackson] or Cam [Newton], where you’re pulling guards and running him up in there, and we understand that.
“So, we got to pick our spots and when he needs to go, he’ll go.”
Part of Murray’s improvement in the pocket, beyond spending more time there, has been an improved ability to check into the run game and change line protections, said Sean Kugler, Arizona’s run game coordinator and offensive line coach.
“He’s taken that step that you would hope,” Kugler said.
Murray is completing 81% of his passes in the pocket, which leads the NFL, and his 9.7 yards per attempt is second in the league. His completion rate in the pocket a year ago was 70% and his average yards per attempt was 7.2 yards, which was ranked 21st, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He wants to stay in the pocket,” Edmonds said. “You see the talent that he has in his arm, the legs is kind of just God’s gift to him.”
Murray is producing with the same level of protection he had a year ago. The Cardinals’ offensive line has held onto its No. 4 ranking through four games in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate metric, which is where it finished last season. But this season Murray has had more time to throw through four weeks.
A common refrain from Kingsbury has been that the game has slowed down for Murray and the numbers back that up. The percentage of downfield throws that traveled 20 or more air yards this season is 14.9 compared to 10.7 a year ago.
Then there’s his accuracy. Only six of Murray’s 113 pass attempts — or 5.5% — this season have been considered off-target incompletions, making him the most accurate quarterback in the NFL at the moment.
The more time Murray spends in the pocket, the more his receivers benefit. He’s spread the ball around through four games. Six players have caught between 15 and 20 passes and four of those — Hopkins, Green, Kirk and Moore — have more than 200 yards. If those four receivers stay on track, they’ll average almost 900 yards each, leaving them each a big game away from reaching 1,000 — something that’s never been done by four receivers on the same team in NFL history.
“I would love to do that,” Murray said.
“I think the more weapons, the less you can do as far as doubling Hop, having a safety over there or whatever it may be. You got to respect everybody on the field and I think we have that on our side.”
The decision to cut back on Murray’s designed runs and let him be more of a pocket passer has worked so far — and it should keep working. Reducing Murray’s running load will likely keep him healthier than he was a year ago, when he suffered three injuries in the final nine games, all of which contributed to Arizona’s 3-6 finish, which kept them out of the playoffs.
It’ll also keep him in the MVP hunt. He’s currently the Vegas favorite to win the award.
“I don’t think we need him to run,” Green said. “Kyler can make throws out the pocket. It doesn’t matter. He’s a playmaker and I think he does a great job knowing when to throw it and knowing when to run it. We just go as he goes.”