Kyler Murray has become the most fascinating story in sports, and he doesn't have a wrong choice between the NFL and MLB
Murray is going to wind up with a ton of fans whether he picks the gridiron or the diamond
Kyler Murray's transformation began in June, when the Oakland Athletics picked him ninth overall in the amateur draft. Within days, the A's and Murray reached an agreement on a contract that included a $4.6 million signing bonus. The arrangement stipulated he could return to the University of Oklahoma for his junior season of football before embracing his new job as a professional outfielder. Though Murray was postponing his baseball development and risking his health, the A's at least feigned giddiness about the arrangement: "Frankly, we're kind of excited to be an Oklahoma fan for 12 games," said scouting director Eric Kubota.
Murray guided Oklahoma to a 12-2 record and completed nearly 70 percent of his pass attempts. He surpassed 4,300 yards through the air and 1,000 on the ground. He tossed 35 more touchdowns than interceptions, and rushed for another 12 scores. Murray allowed defenses to pick their avenue, defending against his arm or his legs, knowing full well both were dead ends. Play him to pass and he'd dash by defenders for a long gain. Play him to run and he'd flick an effortless strike downfield over the defense. Murray won the Heisman Trophy, the most prestigious individual honor in collegiate sports, and solidified himself as a top NFL prospect. Last week, when he declared for the NFL draft, his decision was met as the progression of a fait accompli rather than some pop-up surprise.
In the weeks to come, Murray will make the decision he seemed to have ruled on last June: Professional baseball or football?
Murray is 21 years old. His metamorphosis from who he was to who he is will continue long after he picks a sport. But in seven months' time he's molted away any preconceived narratives that were attached to him or forecasts that were affixed to his career. He's no longer a kid hoping to enjoy another semester as the big man on campus. He's now identifiable by his first name alone: Kyler -- as in the guy who has a chance to do the unthinkable by becoming a first-round pick for the second time in a year. He isn't just an athlete anymore, he's a prism through which baseball and football can be viewed, dissected, and debated.
Before so much as taking a pro snap or swing, Murray has developed into something greater than expected. He's become the most fascinating story in sports.
Although professional sports are not a true meritocracy, they function like one with most on-the-field matters. The players who receive the most attention and opportunities tend to be those possessing the greatest talent. There are exceptions to the rule, but Murray isn't one.
His father, Kevin, was a two-sport athlete himself. Kevin was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and signed before heading to Texas A&M, where he starred at quarterback. His uncle, Calvin, appeared in nearly 300 big-league games as an outfielder before retiring in 2005. Predictably, Murray is a tremendous athlete. No matter which sport he selects, he's likely to rank among the game's physical elite. He has great speed, quick feet, and the arm strength to exploit tight windows and connect with distant targets -- traits that play in both sports.
For as blessed as Murray is, he does puzzle baseball and football executives. By splitting his focus between the two, he's created concern about his chances of mastering the intricate aspects of either. "I don't really know what his game will look like when he starts playing every day," an American League talent evaluator told CBS Sports. The same evaluator said Murray is a "high-reward, low-probability" prospect whose upside is similar to Starling Marte, the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder with a career 114 OPS+ and two Gold Glove Awards through his age-29 season. "I assume it's average pop, plus run, plus defense, with a bit of risk in the hit."
"A bit of risk in the hit" is the chaw-stained way of questioning Murray's hit tool, his ability to make quality contact consistently. Baseball people will rattle through a number of terms when trying to describe what components comprise the hit tool -- barrel awareness, bat-to-ball skills, eye -- but with most young players, scouts want to see how they'll handle pitchers with better command and improved secondary offerings. Can Murray detect spin out of the pitcher's hand? Will he be able to think along with the pitcher? Or is he destined to wash out in Double-A?
D.J. Dozier has experienced the learning curve that Murray will face if he chooses baseball. Drafted by the Detroit Tigers out of high school, he elected to instead attend Penn State. Four years later, he was again drafted -- this time in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings as a running back. Dozier, who spent parts of five seasons in the NFL, would make a comment here and there to his roommates or teammates about being able to play baseball. They dismissed him out of hand. Yet he couldn't shake the desire to return to the sport after attending the 1987 World Series games played in Minnesota. Dozier called his agent one day and delivered the news. He wanted to play baseball again. "The phone goes silent for about 10 to 12 seconds," Dozier recently told CBS Sports, "and he says, 'Why do you want to do that for?'"
Dozier secured a tryout with the New York Mets, during which he was tasked with facing a rehabbing Dwight Gooden. He survived, but his contract with the Vikings prevented him from accepting a full-season assignment. A year later, he played in more than 120 minor-league games during football's offseason. Eventually, an injury forced him to abandon football altogether. He reached the majors in 1992, appearing in 25 games and notching nine hits.
There's one anecdote from Dozier's minor-league days that illustrates the differences between the sports he played professionally. It begins with an instructor telling him he would never hit a big-league breaking ball -- not a good one, anyway. He needed to hunt fastballs, to prioritize them. He might get only one pitch in an at-bat, and he had to be ready to make it count. Oh, and one other thing, the instructor said: Don't swing, because if you swing and miss on a breaking ball, that's all you'll see from there on out. Dozier, who had succeeded in high school by seeing the ball and hitting it, didn't appreciate his coach's advice until a big-league pitcher threw him a curve that "fell from the sky." Then he understood, and stepped out of the box.
"I've always said football, for the most part, is an easy sport to play because it's all natural ability. Other than the physicality of the game, it's natural ability. You just go out there and play," Dozier said. "Baseball? It's a hundred percent different. You can have tremendous talent but you still have to develop that skill."
Developing that skill in baseball means adhering to the Gladwellian principle of playing hundreds and hundreds of minor-league games in anonymous towns, far away from big crowds, bright lights, or any hints of luxury. Were Murray to pick baseball, he would likely be placed on the fast track to the majors, where life is more enjoyable. Scouts can't help but wonder what an aggressive push would do to Murray's development given the rough edges in his game. Comparatively, his chances of becoming a good quarterback over the next two years trump his likelihood of becoming a good big-league outfielder.
In December, the wonks at Pro Football Focus deemed Murray a "game-changing player" who could alter a franchise if he were to dedicate himself to passing the pigskin. High praise for any player, let alone one who was playing football for fun rather than for career purposes. More recently, football analysts have started to pick at Murray's game. In the NFL, the common quip goes, he will be going against bigger, faster, stronger defenders than he's ever faced -- defenders coached by monomaniacal, eagle-eyed coordinators whose craftiest concoctions rival IKEA's in ingenuity and effectiveness. What happens when a defense figures out how to hamper or outright stop Murray's running tendencies?
Such a scenario inevitably leads to The Problem with Murray: his height, or lack thereof. Murray is officially (and dubiously, for some) listed at 5-foot-10. When people say an inch can make a big difference, they mean it. If Murray checks in at 5-foot-9, he would become the shortest quarterback in post-merger NFL history to attempt more than 100 passes. Even if he's officially 5-foot-10, he'd be in a class of two -- Doug Flutie being the other attendee.
At 6-foot-4, Brandon Weeden has more in common physically with the stereotypical quarterback than with Murray. But Weeden, most recently a backup with the Houston Texans, used to be a prized pitcher. His projectable frame and quick, loose arm convinced the New York Yankees to draft him in the second round in 2002. (Baseball America wrote that his "lively" 88-93 mph fastball would likely add oomph, and that his tight slider graded as a "future plus pitch.") Weeden spent five seasons in the minors before shoulder woes shepherded him to Oklahoma State and back to football. His size, strength, and smarts played well behind center, and the Cleveland Browns made him the 22nd pick in the 2012 draft.
Weeden was with the Dallas Cowboys a few years back when the team invited local high school players to partake in seven-on-seven drills. He noticed one player, a sophomore, dominating the competition. The kid was Murray, a product of Allen High School, located about an hour's drive away from the Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. Weeden remains enamored with Murray, but does have reservations about certain aspects of his game. "The biggest challenge for him is going to be staying in the pocket and delivering throws 30, 35 times a game," he told CBS Sports. "We all know he's not the biggest guy in the world. I'm 6-4 and there's times where it's tough to see given my height. Guys who are 6-6 will tell you the same thing. It's going to be a challenge for him to stand in the pocket and deliver throws in a two-minute drill. The guy can do it, he's a very rare talent, but it's a heck of a lot tougher at the NFL level than in college."
Fortunately for Murray, it's a heck of a lot easier these days than it was in the past to envision a quarterback of his size and skills succeeding in the NFL. The league has sweetened (a relative term) to smaller (another) quarterbacks over the past three decades. This season, three quarterbacks listed at 6-foot-1 or shorter finished in the top 11 of touchdown passes, per Pro-Football-Reference. In 2008 and 1998, there were two quarterbacks in the top 20 apiece. Meanwhile, back in 1988 there was one short quarterback in the top 25.
Credit the small quarterback revolution to the NFL's copycat ethos. The New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowls with 6-foot Drew Brees and 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson proving height doesn't measure gunslinging competency. The Cleveland Browns haven't won the Super Bowl behind 6-foot-1 Baker Mayfield (Murray's predecessor at Oklahoma), but they accomplished something impressive by winning seven games in his rookie season. Remember, the Browns had won four games in their previous three seasons combined.
The contemporary NFL coach is also far more inclined to implement offensive concepts from the college game. Many of those wrinkles -- particularly run-pass options and designated rollouts -- can help mask physical deficiencies by creating different looks and better angles in and outside of the pocket. Mayfield's successful transition to the NFL after running the same college offense ought to serve as a blueprint for how to get Murray acclimated quickly, too.
The next inflexion point in Murray's career will come in a month, when the NFL combine begins on Feb. 26. He'll have already reported to camp with the A's by then, meaning he'll be forced to choose: stick around and cause the NFL to question his desire, or head to Indianapolis with an acknowledgement that he's all-in on football. If Murray does partake, teams will needle him about his intent; obsess about every physical measurement, down to the size of his hands; and will experiment with how quickly he can digest a dense playbook and nonsensical jargon.
Should Murray pass inspection, he's likely to be selected in the first round, perhaps even in the top-10. The "franchise quarterback" label is sure to follow, and with it a lucrative contract.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus observed that the true sign of wealth isn't countless possessions, but few desires. Had Twitter existed, an account with an egg avatar would have informed him that money makes both states possible. For many people -- especially pro athletes, who must concern themselves with making the most of their extraordinarily short careers -- the bottom line is the top priority. Murray is lucky in this regard. No matter what, he's guaranteed to walk away a multi-millionaire. Those circumstances position him as another rare quantity: a non-established player who wields serious leverage over Major League Baseball.
Baseball's owners have whittled away the earning power of amateur players in recent collective bargaining agreements. (The union deserves blame for being too concerned with the present.) The owners have not fulfilled their desire for a worldwide draft, but have capped bonus pools, stiffened overage penalties, and abolished pot-sweetening incentives -- like permitting clubs to hand out big-league deals to recent draftees. The owners have also maintained their line well.
Murray is a shock to the system. Compare his situation to the one last winter involving Los Angeles Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani, who faced different rules as an international free-agent. Ohtani was (and remains) a literal historic talent. He's a player capable of pitching and hitting well at the big-league level, something fans haven't seen in decades. Nearly every team wanted him, but it was the Angels who won the recruitment process. While the Angels paid Ohtani's old team a $20 million posting fee, he received a $2.3 million signing bonus and the league minimum salary -- significantly less than he would've made had he waited a few years.
Murray's worst-case financial scenario sees him return his entire $4.6 million signing bonus to pursue the NFL, then sees him drafted late in the first round before never earning another dollar in either sport. What would that mean? In real-world figures, he would likely sign a four-year contract worth $7.57 million guaranteed -- the way Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson did last year when he was drafted 32nd overall. Murray would come out with nearly $3 million. That's the downside -- an unrealistic one, too, since he'd likely be able to sign a contract with a team in the other sport. If he were to go higher in the draft, say 10th, he would likely gain an additional $13 million based on Josh Rosen's rookie deal. And if Murray were picked third, a la Sam Darnold? He could claim $24 million more than he would make if he stuck with the A's.
There's no denying Murray stands to make more money in the short term as a football player. To pick baseball is to play the long game. Baseball is less physically demanding, less harmful to the human brain and body. The average baseball career is longer than the average football career, and nearly every contract is guaranteed -- not just those belonging to the top-end players or draftees. (Rosen and Darnold have fully guaranteed deals.) The attrition risk in baseball is different, though just as tangible. "The chances are you play fewer years," Dozier said about football, "but there's no guarantee in baseball you make it to the big leagues to make the big money."
The A's, who would receive no compensation if Murray bolts for the NFL, and Major League Baseball, which would rather not lose a highly marketable young player to another league, are aware of all this, of course. Both parties are reportedly open to altering the calculus to better suit Murray's liking. ESPN's Jeff Passan noted over the weekend that the A's could add Murray to their 40-man roster and give him more money -- similar to how the Yankees signed third-base prospect Drew Henson to a six-year deal worth $17 million to keep him away from the NFL. Henson, by the way, would make his way to the NFL after washing out of baseball. He appeared in one more game as a football player (nine) than as a big-league ballplayer (eight).
Due time happens to be one aspect baseball will have a tougher time overcoming. Murray can join the NFL and become a star and starter overnight. He won't have to worry about working his way up the ladder, or about the long bus rides and packed apartments that come with minor-league life. "It's not real glamorous until you get to the big leagues," Weeden said. "You go from playing in one of the richest programs in college football to, I don't know, the Columbus Catfish, where I played A-ball, and it's brutal."
Epictetus never experienced the healing properties of direct deposit, but he was right about regret. The money and perks may mean less to Murray than playing the sport that makes him the happiest. If that's the deciding factor -- not the other stuff -- it's a relatable one.
If Murray is a prism through which baseball and football can be viewed from every angle, then it's worth noting prisms are good tools for reflection. To wit, it's telling that the angles we concern ourselves with most when it comes to Murray are his play and his pay. Those are unavoidable topics, and important ones that demonstrate how sports are more to society than athletic exhibitions. But they don't necessarily capture the real appeal with Murray: the fun factor.
Here's a simple equation: maximum fun equals maximum Murray. Him keeping the possibility of playing either sport is a smart and practical business decision. The most thrilling option for everyone else would for him to pick both. The concept of a two-sport athlete is absurd. So much hard work, innate ability, and luck goes into a player becoming a professional in one sport. To accomplish that in two is unfair. Denying Murray a chance to play both is depriving him of his full potential. It's robbing society of something special, too: that romantic notion there's untapped magic on this old, aggrieved rock. "It's really a shame that we don't have an opportunity to see more Deion Sanderses and Bo Jacksons -- and hopefully Kyler Murrays," Dozier said. "It creates dynamics to go outside that box, to see something you haven't seen before."
At some point since Sanders and Jackson, sports became prone to monomania. Youth leagues raise kids to be specialists rather than generalists. They no longer change games with the season, they play their game year-round. ("They make you feel like you're being left behind if you don't participate and if you don't choose your sport now," Dozier said.) The benefits of cross-training are lost; the ill-effects of overexposure manifest in greater risk of CTE and torn elbow ligaments -- plus more trivial maladies like burnout and boredom.
Professional teams confuse having a vested interest in a player with having total control over them. Imagine any player doing today what Deion Sanders did in 1992: suiting up for a NFL team before jetting off to partake in a postseason baseball game. Logically, you can understand why it's unlikely to ever happen again. Take Murray as an example. What if he played for teams on opposite coasts -- how would the constant cross-country travel impact his play? And what if he tore his knee diving for a ball weeks before the NFL season kicked off -- or had to miss a World Series game because hours earlier he suffered a concussion in a blowout. Not to mention the scheduling conflicts. "There's so many more demands now football-wise with OTAs, and veteran minicamps, and the four-week program you have leading up to OTAs, and training camp and all those things," Weeden said, comparing the modern NFL workload to the one faced by Sanders. "We start mid-April and they're already rolling. There's too much overlap."
Alas, there's unlikely to be much overlap between Murray as a baseball and football player heading forward -- no matter how fun the possibility is on paper. Soon enough Murray will pick one or the other. When he does, his transformation will reach a new milestone: He'll be a professional -- be it as a quarterback or outfielder. Whichever way he goes, it seems certain a lot of people are going to be excited to become Kyler Murray fans.
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