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Nothing is ever easy when it comes to sifting through the landscape of quarterback Kyler Murray’s return to the playing field.
Murray remains on reserve/physically unable to perform and his 21-day practice window expires next Tuesday (Nov. 7). A decision on his roster status has to be made the following day. To play Sunday against the Browns, he would have to be activated by Saturday.
Just like last week when there was obvious gamesmanship with the way the Cardinals handled Murray’s presence on the injury report, it happened again Monday after coach Jonathan Gannon opened his weekly day-after-the game press conference by announcing that either Murray or Clayton Tune would be the starter, and not Joshua Dobbs, when the team travels to play the Cleveland Browns next Sunday.
It began with this: “I talked to all the quarterbacks this morning. We’re going to keep ramping up Kyler and see how he progresses through the week. And if it’s not Kyler, then it’s going to be Clayton Tune. I talked to all three quarterbacks and we’re on the same page with them on how we’re going to operate moving forward. I look forward to having a good week of prep. Cleveland is a two-day trip and we’ll try to go get a win.”
What muddied the water was a report from Ian Rapoport of NFL Media not long after Gannon’s revelation that said, “Barring a significant change of plans, #AZCardinals rookie Clayton Tune is expected to start this week, sources say. Kyler Murray may still play, but next week is more likely as of now.”
ESPN’s Adam Schefter was also told by a source that the Cardinals are planning for Tune to be the starter.
Throughout the months-long process of Murray’s rehab from a torn ACL and meniscus, every indication from Gannon was that once Murray was medically cleared, he would have a certain amount of input in the final decision. It was Murray who told Gannon two weeks ago that he was ready to begin practicing. When Gannon was asked then who will determine when Murray is ready to play, the coach said, “That’s an organizational decision, but he’s a big part of that.”
Monday, when he was asked what he needs to see from Murray to lock on him as the starter, Gannon said, “Just to keep playing football. He’s coming off a major injury. He’s had a couple weeks of work here. He’s making strides, but I just want to make sure he feels comfortable with everything that we’re asking him to do.”
Does Murray have to be at 100 percent to play?
“No,” Gannon said. “I want Kyler to feel extremely, 100 percent comfortable with what he’s doing.”
When asked how much of it involves getting significant snaps with the first team, including being comfortable under center with Hjalte Froholdt and the use of play-action, Gannon said, “Absolutely. Just getting snaps in the offense and getting reps; reps are gold. As well as coming along with the physical element of it, the mental part of it, but he’s doing a good job.”
The sense from all involved in the media briefing was that, unless something unexpected happens, Murray would be the starter.
Why would the decision have been made to bench Dobbs and tell the media about it this early in the week if there wasn’t confidence Murray would show he’s ready? Surely, that’s what the first reaction probably was from the Browns.
Then came unknown “sources” (the Cardinals?) telling national reporters the “plan” is for a rookie to start against the Browns.
We all should know by now to always wonder what the agenda is for sources to make sure certain things are reported.
That’s where gamesmanship enters the picture.
Let’s parse the similar reports with key words in italics.
“Planning” is how Schefter’s report was framed. “Barring a significant change of plans” was what Rapoport wrote as well as Tune “is expected to start” and Murray “may still play, but next week is more likely as of now.”
Now is Monday, two days before the first practice of the week, along with the strong possibility that both quarterbacks will be present for game-plan day Tuesday.
There’s plenty of time for plans to change, just as Gannon’s plans changed in about 16 hours after announcing following Sunday’s loss to the Ravens that Dobbs would remain the starter. That obviously leaves the door wide open for the next several days and even more speculation to commence.
Meanwhile, the Browns’ game planning and practice week will include time spent preparing for both quarterbacks, which is different from most weeks.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Nick Rallis said the team’s game plan for Sunday is affected by the possibility that either Deshaun Watson or P.J. Walker could start at quarterback.
“I think that just makes us have to maybe have a little bit more to the game plan, a little bit more layers that we can start to eliminate as the week goes or even on game day once we gain that information,” Rallis said. “But you can’t be unprepared for something, so you have to be prepared for everything and then you just have to be able to be adaptable whenever that time comes to make sure it’s a plan that you want come Sunday.
During last week’s preparation for the Ravens, the Cardinals listed Murray with a full practice designation on Wednesday, but nothing was listed on Thursday and Friday, when his game status was doubtful. Teams are able to do that as long as the practice time doesn’t change after Wednesday.
The Ravens surely noticed. When defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald was asked last Thursday about Murray having the full designation Wednesday, he said, “Well, you have to be ready for it. You have to be ready for him. Obviously, there’s no reps [on tape] of him this year in this system, so you would try to marry his skillset and what you’ve seen in the past with what they’re trying to do. [It’s] not an easy task. We’ll see what happens throughout the rest of the week, but it’s definitely something you have to be ready for if he is out there.”
Coach John Harbaugh said on Friday, “We’ll be ready for whichever quarterback is playing.”
It doesn’t matter how much it actually helps, only that the reality is teams will try to gain any edge they can.
Gannon denied last week what was done was related to gamesmanship or attempting to gain a competitive advantage, but what else would he be expected to say?
It’s important to note that in the days of practice prior to the Week 6 game against the Rams, offensive lineman Dennis Daley, who had been designated for return from reserve/injured the previous week, was listed as full on each of three days of practice. Not so for Murray last week, although he was listed as limited each day of the week before as were safety Budda Baker and defensive back Garrett Williams before being activated from reserve lists in time to play against the Seahawks.
But all those players obviously aren’t quarterbacks.
—Gannon was asked what led to the decision to change quarterbacks and he said he watched the tape Sunday night and then Monday morning with the coaching staff, considered the entirety of the season and the decision was reached collectively. “I feel like this gives us the best chance to win,” he said.
Give Gannon credit for not believing what Dobbs did in the fourth quarter Sunday should cancel out the first three quarters. Prior to Monday night’s game between the Raiders and Lions, Dobbs had these rankings among NFL quarterbacks: 62.8 completion percentage, 13th; 5.90 per attempt, 29th; 1,569 yards, 21st; passer rating 81.2, 26th. Even with his fourth quarter Sunday, he is still at 6.08 per attempt for the season with a 79.3 rating (27th) in the final quarter.
—Tune had issues with accuracy in preseason games, especially on throws to the outside. Gannon said, “I think he’s excited for the opportunity. He’s been working hard at practice. He hasn’t played in a game yet but the things that we saw in preseason and the things that we’ve asked him to work on his game, he’s done a good job with. I think he’ll go out there and sling it if he’s out there.”
–Going forward this week, more questions were raised when Dobbs was traded to the Vikings Tuesday, leaving Tune as the only active quarterback on the roster.
Gannon often says “we’ll see” when answering certain questions. When asked Monday how close Murray is to being activated, he said, “What does we’ll see mean? I guess we’ll see. What answer do you want from me on that one? He’s improving and he’s getting himself as close as he can to be ready to play.”
As for whether Murray will be active if Tune starts, Gannon said, “We’ll see. When I say that to you guys, a lot of times I really don’t know as I sit here saying that to you guys … truthfully.”
Sources told PHNX the Cardinals are re-signing quarterback Jeff Driskel to the practice squad. Driskel was with the team throughout the offseason and training camp, but was released in the cut to 53 players and then signed to the practice squad. He was released from that group on Oct. 20, two days after Murray began practicing.
If the decision is made to start Tune, Murray might not be activated this week. Driskel could be elevated to the active roster to be the backup. If Murray starts with Tune as the backup, Driskel could be signed to the active roster so he could serve as the emergency third quarterback.
–While the outside narrative has been that Murray’s first start should be delayed beyond this week because of how good the Browns defense is and with the game on the road, the same argument could be made about a rookie starting against them. When asked if the opponent was considered, Gannon said, “It’s more about us when it comes to that stuff.”
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