Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate PHNX Sports Community!

Hoping, wondering and knowing while solving the 'mystery' of Kyler Murray's deep ball

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 10, 2022

I hope . . . 

Or wish that those who advocate for firing people would at least get their facts right.

It’s no secret that numerous outlets are listing Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury being in danger of losing their jobs. Whether that’s true or not, no one on the outside actually knows.

However, some of the reasons being advocating for that are head-scratchers.

One website noted that the Cardinals have “severely underperformed expectations.” Aside from that being poorly worded, those preseason expectations were very mixed, considering the known absence for the first six games of Hopkins.

What’s odd is the comment regarding the poor record: “Much of that has to do with the decisions Keim has made; the defense is full of ‘positionless’ players who don’t do any specific job well, while the depth along the offensive line has left the team wanting.”

Really? What “positionless” players are there on the defense aside from Isaiah Simmons, who actually does have a specific job depending on the defensive call.

As for the lack of depth on the offensive line, when a team has six players from that unit on reserve/injured and has had eight different starting line combinations with 12 different players, the reality is that several of those will be signed off the street after the season starts when teams normally have eight or nine linemen on the opening-day roster.

Having said that, it is fair to question if more could have been done to be prepared for the possible absence of center Rodney Hudson, who after Monday night will have missed the last nine games of the season.

Another site wrote, trying to be cute, that “the roster looks as though some kid built it in franchise mode on EA Sports’ Madden NFL.”

Clever. It was then written that Keim “let his relationship with players like (Patrick) Peterson deteriorate, and Keim has also pulled off unnecessary trades for older players like Zach Ertz and Rodney Hudson.”

That’s “really?” No. 2. Peterson was instrumental in whatever deterioration there was, and there simply wasn’t going to be a lucrative long-term contract for him, a decision borne out by the 1-year deal he signed in 2021 with the Vikings.

Peterson yaps a lot for a guy whose contract was for $8 million guaranteed last year and signed for less this year on a 1-year deal worth $4 million with $3.5 million guaranteed. It’s not as if other teams were lining up at his door with offers.

Calling the trades for Ertz and Hudson unnecessary is specious at best considering the circumstances when they were made.

Finally, another site claimed that “by any common set of standards, the overwhelming preponderance” of contracts given to players have been “abject failures.”

There’s “really?” No. 3. Have some not worked out? Absolutely. That often happens in the NFL. But an “overwhelming preponderance?” Hopkins? Budda Baker? J.J. Watt? D.J. Humphries? Chandler Jones (in his last Cardinals contract)? The reality is that the Cardinals haven’t gone overboard in free agency like some teams, which then have large amounts of dead money on the cap.

Two final thoughts: If the roster building has been so pathetic, how do the critics explain the improvement from 2019 through 2021?

And, most important, it continues to be negligent to assess the overall jobs done by Keim and Kingsbury while ignoring the roster hits this team has taken in 2022.

I wonder . . . 

Why so many appear confused by the fact that quarterback Kyler Murray’s deep-ball success has largely been absent this season. The truth is, the steep decline began in the second half of last season after wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was injured and missed seven of the final nine games. He also played only 15 snaps in Week 8, which was the loss to the Packers that was the Cardinals’ first of the season.

I had been thinking about this throughout the season when there were several questions about issues with the deep ball with most everyone blaming Murray.

Then, this week, a tweet from Aaron Schatz of footballoutsiders.com noted: “Here’s a remarkable stat from the new FO+ directional QB stats. Last year, Kyler Murray led all QBs in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) on deep throws (16+ air yards). This year, Kyler Murray is dead last among QBs in DVOA on deep throws.”

Well, how “remarkable” is it? It’s certainly not surprising. However, I had suspicions of how it broke down and most important what last season looked like before and after Hopkins was injured.

The one thing clear about 2021 was the impact wide receiver Christian Kirk had on the offense. Remember, Kirk was a rookie in 2018, the year before Murray’s arrival and then was with him for three seasons.

For the entire 2021 season, Kirk led the team in that 16+ air yards category, followed by A.J Green and Hopkins.

Kirk had 17 receptions on 34 attempts for 518 yards and three touchdowns while Green was 15 of 24 for 462 yards and one touchdown and Hopkins 8 of 18 for 242 yards and one score.

Overall, Murray was 45 of 90 for 1,381 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. However, the breakdown for the first eight games and afterward is stark.

First eight: 30 of 50 (60 percent) for 933 yards (18.7 per attempt) and five touchdowns.

Final six (he missed three games because of a high-ankle sprain): 15 of 40 (37.5 percent) for 451 yards (11.3 per attempt) and four touchdowns.

Furthermore, Murray led the NFL in completion percentage and yards on deep passes after eight games and had the second-highest yards per attempt. His completion rate among starters in Weeks 9-18 ranked 24th and his yards per attempt 19th.

Fast forward to the 12 games this season, of which Murray has played 10. He is 16 of 51 (31.4 percent) for 380 yards (7.45 per attempt) with one touchdown and six interceptions.

For the 12 games of this season without Kirk and Hopkins playing only six games, Hopkins is 10-of-16 for 216 yards and no touchdowns, Hollywood Brown is 5-of-16 for 118 yards and one touchdown and Green is 2-of-9 for 34 yards and no touchdowns.

Meanwhile, in Jacksonville this season, Kirk has 10 receptions for 308 yards and one touchdown. While perhaps not viewed as a classic deep threat, Kirk has been productive in that area and his presence complemented Hopkins and especially Green, who has disappeared in that regard whether it’s been without Kirk or Hopkins or both.

It’s apparent that Murray’s alleged regression is linked to the players around him, which impacts the way teams defend them.

The Cardinals were hopeful Rondale Moore would make up for the loss of Kirk and he was to be a big part of the game plan at the start of the season. However, he was injured in practice three days before the opener, missed three games, was becoming more involved and then was injured again playing only two snaps in the game against the 49ers. He has played eight games, but it’s essentially seven.

Which brings us to . . .

I know . . . 

We will find out a lot in the last five games of the season what the Cardinals offense would have looked like had wide receiver Hollywood Brown been available when DeAndre Hopkins returned from his suspension in Week 7.

Brown suffered a broken bone in his foot in the Week 6 game against Seattle, so he and Hopkins weren’t on the field together until Week 12 against the Chargers. However, as a double whammy, Hopkins was on a snap count for two games because he was playing with a hamstring issue. He played 49 snaps (74 percent) against the Chargers, while Brown played 64, missing only two.

He was targeted eight times, catching six, but for only 46 yards. Hopkins caught four of six targets for 87 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown.

Coach Kliff Kingsbury said Brown played as much as he did because “he felt good. He didn’t want to come out. I thought he played fast and played at a high level. He had some opportunities that we weren’t able to get him the ball a couple of times, but I thought he was running really well. We’ll continue to fit him back in and get him going.”

Having the two together should be big. “Those two guys, I think the more they play together, you can see that it can cause some problems for the defense,” Kingsbury said. “Watching Hollywood run and take the top off things, and then DeAndre goes for that underneath stuff, it could be a good weapon for us moving forward.”

Said Brown, “Teams are going to come out in their base coverages, but are they going to follow Hop on this route? Are they more susceptible to bite on this, to bite on that? That’s kind of like the advantage of having him out there.”

Kingsbury believes Hopkins is ready for more Monday night against the Patriots: “We (had) backed him off a little bit, but he looks good out there right now. Hopefully, he can play more snaps.”

I hope . . . 

Everyone realizes what a difficult few weeks it’s been for Cardinals tight end Zach Ertz, who underwent surgery Nov. 19 and was lost for the season after injuring his knee on his ninth snap against the Rams in Week 10.

At least he has his newborn son Madden to help him get through the down times plus he was named the team’s nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award this week.

Meeting with the media Thursday for the first time since his injury, Ertz said of the honor, “I haven’t been here as long as I was in Philly, but I think it speaks to just how great this organization has been to us. From the minute I walked through the doors, I felt something special, not only within the team, but from the top down and the whole culture. Just to be nominated for this award in my second year truly, truly means a lot to me.

“I said it since I got out here: This is where I want to retire and obviously, I still very much feel that way and a lot of it is just down to the people in this building. But it is special for sure.”

The award is in recognition of outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field. As a nominee, Ertz will receive a donation of up to $40,000 in his name to a charity of his choice.

The overall winner will be announced during NFL Honors in Phoenix, site of Super Bowl LVII, three days before the game. The winner will be awarded another $250,000 to donate.

The Ertz Family Foundation and The Athletes’ Corner have teamed up to fight hunger. Last year, the initiative helped provide a total of 150,000 meals to food banks in Arizona. This year, Ertz and his wife Julie have pledged to help provide 500,000 meals to food banks. This is the third year that the two groups have partnered to help fight hunger and they have helped provide a total of 1.4 million meals to families in need with the help of Feeding America.

In Philadelphia, where Ertz was drafted in 2013, he recently began working on the House of Hope that will create a safe space for local youth. The Ertz’s donated $100,000 to the project, which was matched by their foundation to get the House of Hope underway. The goal is to raise $1.2 million and $750,000 has been raised so far.

Ertz also revealed that his injury was to the ACL and MCL and said, “We didn’t think the ACL was involved early on, but it was partially torn, and it wouldn’t have lasted long-term, so we had to go in and get both done. I’m glad it’s behind me now.

“I would have hated to be like, ‘Hey, let’s see if it can hold up long-term,’ and then regret that decision in a year. So now, once I get fully healthy and ready to go, I’ll be back to myself.”

He was injured on a reception that brought his season totals to 47 catches for 406 yards and four touchdowns, and acknowledged how crushing it was to be lost for the remainder of the season.

“Obviously, it was very tough,” he said. “I’ve never had a season (end with such) abruptness. It was just, ‘You’re done.’ I felt like I personally was playing really good football and it was tough for me obviously not to translate it into the wins that we were all expecting.”

Julie said, “It was just really hard seeing somebody, especially your husband in a hard place. You want to be able to perform and play. I have a front-row seat to see all of his hard work.

“I know his heart and all the stuff that he’s done kind of behind the scenes and being able to work with the foundation a ton — especially around COVID time — and watching him use his platform is inspiring to me and I know our family as well. We’re just beyond honored that the Cardinals selected the Ertz Family Foundation and saw that it’s making an impact.”

Ertz acknowledged, “For me mentally, I think it’s just tough. You’re part of the team, you’re part of the grind every day, you’re part of the solution every day and then to just have the season kind of stop. It was tough.

“It was tough for a week and then once I was able to get surgery and kind of formulate a plan to go forward it was, ‘All right, let’s attack this thing now’ and that’s all I’ve been focusing on ever since is to be the best player I can be going into next year and the best version of myself. I’ve learned a lot obviously about myself over the past month, but (Madden) helped a lot to get me through it.”

During the press conference, Julie was holding three-month-old Madden, who wore a sweatshirt that said “My Hero” with 86, his dad’s number, on it. He was quiet throughout and for most of the time stared at Zach as if he was listening to every word.

When it was noted that Madden seemed transfixed by Zach’s voice, everyone, including Zach and Julie laughed. To which, Zach said, “Yeah, he talks a lot. Well, not talks, he makes a lot of noise when I talk to him. But he’s … it’s such a game-changer as we spoke on early in training camp.

“And obviously everything happens for a reason but just to be able to have him during this process this past month and obviously Julie’s been amazing throughout this past month and helping me, but it does change your perspective. I go home and instead of sitting, I still do my rehab all the time. But at least I have a buddy all the time with me.”

I wonder . . . 

If the NFL should effort to consolidate byes for teams so there aren’t as many late-season weeks off.

With only five weeks remaining in the season, there are six teams on their bye this week, the final ones of the season.

Seems a bit much. Last week, only the Cardinals and Panthers were off.

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph don’t seem bothered by it, or didn’t want to go there.

“I think it just depends on how your season’s going, probably,” Kingsbury said. “I think if you’re healthy and you’re rolling, then you feel pretty good about it. If you’re banged up and you need one earlier, you probably wish you could get one earlier. But it’s how it’s been in this league and it’s just luck of the draw some years.”

Joseph said, “I think if you’re winning, a late bye is really good. If you’re not winning, a late bye, early bye is not good. It’s about winning in this league. If you’re winning everyone’s spirits high, everyone wants to come to work. And if you’re not winning, it’s tough. So having a late bye, right now for us it’s let’s play again, so we can win. But it doesn’t matter much; the mindset goes to winning or losing. That’s what players and coaches really feed off.”

Still, it would be more equitable to handle them differently.

Consider that the byes began this season with four teams off in Week 6, then four in Week 7, two in Week 8, six in Week 9, four in Week 10, four in Week 11, none in Week 12 (Thanksgiving) and two in Week 13.

Of the eight bye weeks, there were two with six teams off, four with four off and two with two off. It doesn’t seem to make sense that in the grind of an NFL season, that this year 25 percent of the league didn’t have their bye until Week 13.

The simple solution would be to end the byes before Thanksgiving and do them all in a six-week period from Week 6 through Week 11 with six teams being off on four weeks and four on the other two.

I know . . . 

That the Cardinals will likely have yet another starting offensive line combination when the team takes the field for Monday night’s game against the Patriots.

Rashaad Coward, who was signed to the practice squad on Nov. 2 after being with the team in training camp, has started the last three games at left guard and it appeared that would be the case again this week.

However, after playing every snap in the previous game against the Chargers and then having the bye, Coward hasn’t practiced for two days this week because of a pectoral strain.

Kingsbury said Wednesday, “I’m not sure if he’ll be up for this game. I’m hoping by next week for sure, but we’ll see how it develops.”

If Coward can’t play, the options would be to have Sean Harlow or Cody Ford play left guard or flip Max Garcia from right to left guard and have rookie Lecitus Smith make his third start at right guard. Whatever route the coaches take if Coward doesn’t play, it will be the ninth different starting combination of the season. They have had five in the last six games with a team record of 2-4 and sixth in the last eight with a record of 2-6.

One thing definitely known is that whoever plays guard won’t change the fact that four of the projected starters at the beginning of the season won’t be on the field: left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, center Rodney Hudson and right guard Will Hernandez. Including Monday’s game, those players will have missed 26 of a possible 52 starts and Hudson will have missed 14 of a possible 30 starts since last season. The team’s record with him is 11-5 and 4-9 without him over the last two seasons and 2-2 this year with him and 2-6 without him.

There have been 12 different players start games with this breakdown at each position:

LG (5 players): Pugh (5 starts), Rashaad Coward (3), Cody Ford (2), Sean Harlow (1), Max Garcia (1)

C (3): Billy Price (6), Hudson (4), Sean Harlow (2)

RG (3): Hernandez (9), Lecitus Smith (2), Max Garcia (1)

LT (2): Humphries (9), Josh Jones (3)

RT (1): Kelvin Beachum (12)

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?