After what happened in 2018 with Patrick Mahomes and 2019 with Lamar Jackson, it made sense that throughout the offseason, second-year Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray emerged as one of the most popular 2020 NFL MVP picks. Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, completing 64.4 percent of his passes at an average of 6.9 yards per attempt while also finishing 15th in the league in QBR despite playing behind a patchwork offensive line and with a group of pass-catchers that could best be described as inadequate.
The Cardinals then upgraded that line and swung a trade for DeAndre Hopkins, one of the very best wideouts in football. Throw in a full year of Kenyan Drake, who immediately upgraded the team's rushing attack upon arriving in a trade from the Miami Dolphins and is himself a quality pass-catcher, plus the team's increased comfort with coach Kliff Kingsbury's offensive system and the pace with which he prefers to play, and it was easy to envision big things for the Cardinals offense in Year 2.
Through the first two weeks, the Cardinals are mostly living up to expectations. They've started 2-0 with wins over the division rival 49ers and the Football Team, with Murray turning in a pair of spectacular performances. As the Cards prepare to face the Detroit Lions this Sunday, the hype surrounding the possibilities for this season appears to be justified.
Where Murray has done his most damage so far is actually on the ground. He ran 13 times for 91 yards and a touchdown against San Francisco, then eight times for 67 yards and two more scores against Washington. No quarterback has been able to scramble away from pressure and take off downfield more often so far this year than Murray, who has run for a gain on 35.7 percent of the plays where he was pressured, per Pro Football Focus and TruMedia.
Of course, Murray's speed and vision allow you to design runs for him as well. And he has found a great deal of success already on those plays. His two touchdown jaunts against Washington were each things of beauty, with the first coming on an option run after a fake shovel pass and then second coming on a quarterback draw with Drake acting as the lead blocker on the linebacker Washington had assigned to spy Murray on pass plays.
Murray's passing numbers are somewhat less explosive, though that's largely because he's scored so often on the ground that the Cardinals haven't really been in a position to need him to throw for touchdowns. Still, he has completed two-thirds of his passes, cut down his sack rate, and has showcased fantastic chemistry with Hopkins, completing 22 of 25 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown to his new star wideout.
Specifically, Murray's ball placement has been pretty excellent, for the most part. (Of his 26 incompletions, 10 of them have been either throwaways, batted down at the line, or drops, per PFF.) He's fitting throws into tight windows, and getting the ball to a place where only his receiver can catch it. He's doing it over the middle against linebackers and safeties, and toward the sideline against corners.
So far, Murray is doing most of his passing in the area within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Kingsbury's offense prioritizing spreading the field horizontally in order to run the ball up the middle and open up deep shots down the field, so quick-hitting throws make up a majority of the pass attempts. They can be screens, outs, RPO pop passes, anything. Kingsbury wants Murray to essentially play point guard, getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers as quickly as possible and letting them go to work, so that the defense has to worry about covering every inch of grass.
Once they've got that idea in their head, that opens things up for the downfield passing game. The Cardinals have only hit on two of their deep shots through two games, but the two throws showcase exactly what makes Murray such a dangerous downfield passer. He can easily loft the ball 50 or so yards downfield and drop it right into a bucket -- and he can do it stationary in the pocket or while on the move on the outside.
About those short and intermediate level throws, though. Lest you think they're all easy completions, you should know that's not true. The Cardinals often ask Murray to fire the ball from one hash mark to an area outside the numbers on the opposite side of the field. (He's 5 of 5 for 51 yards on throws from the right hash to the left sideline outside the numbers.) Murray was an outfielder in his baseball days, and watching him throw these out routes to the wide side of the field, it is very difficult to imagine any runner trying to pick up an extra base knowing that there's every chance he can fire the ball there in plenty of time.
Playing in the toughest division in football, the Cardinals need every advantage they can get to secure themselves a trip to the playoffs. Having a quarterback like Murray is a pretty big advantage. As they continue through this season, they have the benefit of knowing one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the league is under center for them. That affords Kingsbury and his staff a degree of freedom to call just about any play in just about any situation.
Murray can make all the throws, and most of them with relative ease. There are playmakers to stretch the field horizontally and vertically. If the protection breaks down, Murray can make something happen on his own. It's exactly what Arizona envisioned when it made Kyler the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. And it's a play caller's dream scenario.