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Cardinals What to watch: Kyler and Conner deadly duo

Howard Balzer Avatar
January 6, 2024
Kyler Murray

It’s funny sometimes how perception can drive many away from reality. Consider the case of Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and running back James Conner.

Murray is seen as the still-young and maturing player, while Conner is supposedly the grizzled veteran nearing extinction because of his position and age.

After all, coach Jonathan Gannon was asked this week if he believes Conner will still be able to play with the same physicality in 2024 and beyond.

Gannon didn’t fall prey to perception when he said, “In my opinion; I don’t look too much into the future because it makes me anxious. I’m worried about Seattle. (But) here’s what I know about him. You want to talk about when you’re outside of the white lines (with) what he does from a conditioning standpoint and from a recovery standpoint, I would call that whole bucket the physiotherapeutic standpoint, there’s nobody better.

“If you think that certain guys start to fall off because they get a little older, he’d be the one to delay it. I know that.”

Of course, once you do a quick check of his and Murray’s birthdays and there is a tad of surprise.

Murray turned 26 this past August, while Conner is only two years older with his celebration day coming in May. So, by the time the 2024 season opens, he will be 29 and Murray 27.

Granted, NFL quarterbacks age better than running backs, and Conner’s bruising style surely could become a factor as he approaches that negative 30 number.

But his value to the team, along with Murray, are two symbols of the positive growth there could be for this team next season.

As the Cardinals enter Sunday’s game against the Seahawks, they are 3-4 since Murray made his debut and Conner returned from missing four games because of a knee injury.

A win Sunday would produce a 4-4 record in the final eight games, knock the Seahawks out of the playoffs while being the Cardinals’ lone division win this season, and leave them only three games behind Seattle in the NFC West.

The reality of the NFL is that what I call the “middle muddle” includes teams right around .500 that are playing for something in the final weeks of the season.

Entering Week 18, there are 15 teams either 9-7 (five), 8-8 (six) or 7-9 (four). It’s not wishful thinking to believe that with the additional roster building by general manager Monti Ossenfort that will take place this year, the Cardinals could be in that group when next December rolls around.

When Gannon was asked about looking ahead and specifically making choices about current players scheduled to become free agents in March, he said, “Monti and I talk about every person on the roster daily so we’re really in lockstep of what we want to do. Now, he has to balance the future where I’m really not. As far as my focus, I’m really on Seattle. But we constantly talk about the roster and the players. That’s the lifeblood of the program, so I feel really good about some guys that we will have decisions to make, that they want to be here.

“Hopefully we have created an environment of competition and hopefully the players know that I have their best interest and that we can make them better players. To me, if you’re a player, does the coach care about me, and can he make me a better player? I think we’ve fostered an environment of that.”

Backing Kyler

When Gannon met with the media Wednesday, it was one day after he was asked during his weekly segment with ArizonaSports 98.7 if there was any doubt in his mind who his quarterback will be next season.

With a quick chuckle, he said, “no there is not” and laughed heartily. There was more laughter when he was asked, “he’s your guy?” and Gannon then said, “I love this guy, man.”

The interview turned weird when he was asked, “Why are you laughing?”

To which Gannon said, “I love this guy. No, there’s no doubt.”

He was then strangely asked, “You love which guy?”

Gannon made clear, “No. 1, our franchise quarterback; that’s who I love. You know I’m a Kyler guy.”

When it was noted that he didn’t know Murray when he was hired last February, Gannon, who had emphasized that Murray’s presence was a factor in him being interested in the job, said, “Being here for a year with him now, I’m more convicted than when I got here. Going through the process and our connection and developing the relationship with him and then being a little odd. You got your franchise quarterback, and you know he can’t play.

“Just seeing the work that he put in and the things we talked about this offseason, about what he wanted to improve on, what I wanted to see him improve on. What he does well, what he thinks. What he does well, what I think. I wanted to make sure that stayed strong. And he’s done everything we asked and I just feel like what he’s done, the work he put in to get to this point, play that type of football, wins or losses, play the type of football he has coming off a knee and a new system; the competitor that he is. I’ve been very pleased with him.”

It surely was a fair question thanks to the ever-present outside chatter about what the Cardinals would do at the position going forward.

Gannon, of course, while not putting stock in the opinions of other, did say Wednesday he was “kind of” surprised that the question was asked. When asked why, he said, “You guys watch the tape, don’t you?”

He reiterated his belief in Murray when he said, “I’ve been convicted since I got here. What the guy’s done for us, the player that he is, the person that he is, the competitor that he is. You know, I kind of chuckle. That’s been my view since I got here.”

All of this, of course, occurred after the Cardinals rallied from a 21-6 halftime deficit last Sunday and scored four second-half touchdowns to defeat the Eagles, 35-31. Murray had practiced only on Friday because the previous two days he was out with an illness. He was on the field out of uniform watching on Thursday.

When asked if he thought Murray was more focused because of the missed on-field time, Gannon joked, “The Jordan Flu game? No. I don’t know. He came back and we were watching (tape) on the plane, and I said, ‘You’re practicing on Wednesday.’ He laughed and he was like, ‘I know I am.’ I think he spent a lot of extra time; not extra time but just (found) different ways to get caught up. That’s the first time where I didn’t know how he was going to play because I’ve never been around him to say, ‘Hey, he hasn’t practiced for two days. How’s it going to go?’

“When you have experience with certain guys you kind of have a feel of what’s going to happen a little bit, and I honestly didn’t know because it was the first time. He’s a gamer, man. He puts everything into it every week, just like all our guys do and he went out and played well.

“Kyler played extremely fast. Whatever the coverage structures, he knew where he wanted to go with the ball. I thought he got the ball out of his hand extremely fast. He saw it really well. If you’ve got the ball in your hands, the team knows we have a chance to win the game. And that’s what he did.”

Asked what makes Murray so good, Gannon said, “That’ll take me too long. I think everything that you want out of a quarterback; command, competitiveness and then when you talk about the skillset, accuracy, decision-making and arm talent. Then when that doesn’t happen, the ability to extend plays and he sees the game.

“He’s never sped up, so he sees it extremely quick. Honestly, I think that it will improve as we move forward because he’s eight weeks into a system, so I think the sky’s the limit.”

When Murray talked to the media Wednesday, he reflected on the day he met Gannon before he was interviewed for the job.

“Chopped it up a little for about 15 minutes in the weight room before he had to go do his thing,” Murray said. “And at that moment, (it was) instant as far as OK, this guy, his knowledge of the game and how he sees the game and stuff like that. And then obviously, he got the job. And from that day on it was kind of like, I won’t say it’s like when you meet your best friend, but it was like instant. We speak the same language.”

As for Gannon’s public assertion, Murray said, “It means a lot, but he’s told me that since Day 1, so for me, it was really nothing that was in the back of my mind or anything like that. I wasn’t really worried about it. I was just focused on going out there and playing well, proving them right, prove him right. I continue to try to do that every day.

“I’m locked in. I’m locked in. I mean, you want to win for a guy like that. He’s the type of guy who you run through a wall for, because he’s got your back. So that’s definitely, I think it helped for sure. But I mean, I’m always trying to win, regardless of who it is.”

Quarterbacks coach Israel Woolfork provided a glimpse into Murray when he talked Friday about the game against the Eagles, especially after a miscommunication with wide receiver Michael Wilson resulted in a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown.

“I was excited to see him bounce back from that,” Woolfork said. “He didn’t even blink. He came off the field. He talked to Mike. They got on the same page and he said we’re going to go back out there, we’re going to drive the ball down the field and then he did exactly what he said. Sitting on the sideline he knew exactly what the defense was doing.

“He was in a good flow with him and (offensive coordinator) Drew (Petzing) on the same page with his play-calling. It was kinda like a Zen flow (chuckles). It was a state of mind, but it was just awesome to see him come back out in that second half and help the team and put them in the position where we could win the game.”

What has he learned about Murray?

“He’s consistent on who he is,” Woolfork said. “Kyler Murray doesn’t try to be anybody but Kyler Murray. He’s calm on the sideline. He makes the people around him confident just from who he is as a person and him being himself.”

Saying that he’s excited about what 2024 will bring, Woolfork called this season a “stepping stone” and said, “I’m excited for him having an offseason where he’s not going to have to rehab. Just physically getting stronger. Just coming to work every day and now we’re building upon the knowledge we do have.

“Instead of entry-level college, it’s like masters-level college with the offense, so we can dive into the minor details of how to play the position at a high level. Which he already does.”

Finally, former Cardinals quarterback Colt McCoy was on Pat McAfee’s show this week and was asked about Murray.

“I was around Kyler for two full seasons, almost three and I love Kyler,” McCoy said. “I don’t think people understand how intelligent he is, how smart he is. He knows the game really well; plays it off of feel better than anybody I’ve ever been around. Like things that he can see and feel is coming. I think that’s why the offense with Kliff (Kingsbury) gave him some flexibility to be able to see and get to things and check out some things that Kliff trusted him to do some of that.”

Noting that Murray “worked really hard” after ACL surgery, McCoy said, “I would say that he’s played really, really well coming out of that. Kyler’s a good person. He’s super sweet coming over the house, hanging out with my kids. Playing whiffle ball with my son out in the front yard. He’s spent some quality time coaching him. My boy’s got a swing now. He might be a baseball player; we’ll see.”

He then talked about what makes Murray tick.

McCoy said, “Kyler’s the ultimate competitor. He gets inside those white lines and he wants to win and he holds people to a high standard. He holds himself to a high standard. A lot of times that comes off like kind of extreme; the body language those sort of things. But it all comes from a good place. Kyler’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around. He does things nobody that I’ve been around can do. He’s fast, he’s quick. He’s shifty and he puts the ball on the money. He’s accurate.

“For me, playing quarterback, I don’t care if you’re 6-5 or if you’re 5-10 like Kyler; putting the ball on the money is what the game’s about and he does that consistently. It’s impressive. Listen, I got a front-row seat to it. I hope that he continues to play great and has a lot of opportunities and stays in Arizona. But I’m a fan.”

Conner the MVP

In voting by the Arizona chapter of the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA), he received the Steve Schoenfeld Award as the Cardinals’ 2023 Most Valuable Player.

And the voting occurred before Conner blasted for 128 yards on 26 carries in last Sunday’s victory over the Eagles. He scored the winning touchdown on a 2-yard run and added another on a one-handed reception.

Conner enters Sunday’s game needing 110 yards to reach 1,000 for the first time in his career. His previous high was 971 with the Steelers in 2018.

As Conner held the team MVP plaque in his hands Thursday, he couldn’t help but be impressed by some of the previous winners of the award.

Larry Fitzgerald. Kurt Warner. Chandler Jones (twice). Kyler Murray (twice). Anquan Boldin (twice). DeAndre Hopkins. Carson Palmer. Budda Baker (last year).

“Super honored, super grateful,” he said. “Just looking at it now, seeing the names of the previous winners; just to have my name on there is truly special and I’m truly thankful for this. The names on this is what makes it special.”

As for the possibility of reaching 1,000, he said, “It’d be cool to get that for the first time. My offensive line, they know how far we are away. We got to win the ballgame first, but hopefully that comes after.”

Murray has forged a bond with Conner, who came to Arizona in 2021, two years after Murray was the first overall pick in the draft.

“We’ve gotten closer every year,” Murray said after the win over the Steelers. “One of my good friends and best friends for sure, a guy that you can count on, on and off the field. Experienced a lot in his life, so he’s a very smart, intelligent dude. But just to be able to bounce things off him, you know, back and forth. And then get out there on the field with him. There’s nothing like having a guy next to you or going to battle with a guy that you know he’s got your back.”

Gannon was on the verge of being emotional when he was asked Friday how much Conner has meant to the team and coaching staff this season on and off the field.

Gannon gathered himself for a few seconds before almost stammering when he tried to answer: “Umm. You know it would take too long. You know what I mean?”

He spread his arms wide and said, “That much. You know, he, uh, gosh, uhh. I can’t even say enough about him. Truthfully.”

And then he did for more than a minute, saying, “He’s a captain. The leadership that he provides. How he practices. His emotional stability as I call it. Never gets too high, never gets too low. The way he prepares. What he does (when he’s) not in the building to get himself ready to play. There’s no better example of, ‘Hey, there’s the blueprint of how to be a pro and be successful and make a bunch of plays to help your team win.’ That’s who he is.”

Gannon then got personal when he said, “Just from my standpoint, him being a captain, all those captains. But I’ve picked his brain a lot. He’s helped me a lot. How did the messaging get received? How is it interpreted? How is this getting delivered? How is this hitting the players? He’s got a really good handle on all that. He’s come up to me with critical feedback: ‘Hey, man, like you went too hard there. You weren’t hard enough.’

“I’ve learned a lot because of his feedback and obviously the production speaks for itself. He’s one of our premier players and he’s been fantastic this year.”

Wide receiver Hollywood Brown, who will be watching the game while on reserve/injured because of a persistent heel injury, said he “would love it” if Conner reaches 1,000, adding “I didn’t know he didn’t get it yet. He definitely got to get that, so I’ll be rooting for him for sure.”

The Seahawks are 30th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 134.1 yards per game and 4.5 per rush. Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris, who replaced Conner there, ran 27 times for 122 yards against Seattle last week.

Right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. told the team website this week, “For this line to have a back go for a 1,000, that’s what every offensive line wants. That’s what you want to be the standard, that we have 1,000-yard rushers. We know that that’s his talent, that’s his God-given ability to do that, but it’s on us. 110? We’ve got to get that.”

Conner has already become only the second player in club history to record three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage in the first three seasons with the team. Ottis Anderson accomplished that from 1979-1981. He also has eight runs of 20 yards or more this season, which is third-most in the league.

Conner has at least one touchdown in each of the last four games. If he scores one Sunday, it would give him streaks of five-plus touchdowns in each of his three seasons as a Cardinals player. The only player in club history to do that is Sonny Randle, who played from 1959 to 1966.

Award for Hollywood

The PFWA also presented Brown with the Lloyd Herberg Good Guy Award for his cooperation with the media.

When presented with the award, Brown said, “I know everyone has a job. And you know, I always try to pride myself on being respectful and trying to make it easier for everyone to do their job.”

While acknowledging he had an “up and down (season) for me,” Brown said, “But I’m so thankful for this season. I learned a lot. My play’s grown a lot. I proved to myself a lot of things that I wanted to see this year. It was unfortunate the season didn’t go as planned as far as us winning and stuff like that. But I feel like I showed what I can do.”

Asked what he proved to himself, Brown said, “Just the way I beat man coverage, the way I got off press. Every week I asked coach, ‘What do you want to see from me?’ And every week I showed him. He was like, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing.’ Once he started saying that to me, I felt like I was on the right path.”

Brown will be one of the major decisions the team makes in the offseason. He was paid over $13.413 million this season, and his contract expires in March. It’s an unknown what his market will be after missing games because of the heel injury after having an injury to the same foot in 2022.

He said he wants to be back and good friend Murray also hopes that will happen. But the business side of the sport will determine that.

Ossenfort told ArizonaSports 98.7 recently, “When Hollywood was out there, he had good tape. He made plays for us and there were times we couldn’t get him the ball, but he was there. Hollywood’s got ability, he’s proven it in this league.

“What that means going forward we’ll address that here when the time is right in the next couple months, but I really have a lot of respect for Hollywood and how he handled this injury and the way he tried to push through a difficult situation for him and the team.”

Missing Hump

Kelvin Beachum, who hasn’t played much this season with D.J. Humphries at left tackle and Johnson at right tackle, will start on the left side against Seattle after Humphries suffered a torn ACL against the Eagles. Humphries missed some time during the season, but Johnson hasn’t missed any snaps in the first 16 games.

“It’s a blow for anybody – for us as a team, for him, obviously he’s a captain, one of our premier players,” Gannon said. “It’s a part of the sport that is really hard. You guys know how I feel about the players and what they put into this and the sacrifices they make.

“Him being who he is, it’s tough to swallow truthfully.”

Humphries missed games last season because of a back injury and spent the offseason rehabbing.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Gannon said of the recovery period. “You guys know the timetable for that. But I know he’ll attack it and like I told him, he’ll be back better than ever.

“He wears the ‘C’ for a reason. He’s been fantastic this whole year and then coming off the back, too, getting himself ready to play and play as many games as he did, the leadership he provides, it’s obviously a big loss.”

Humphries counts $22.9 million against the Cardinals salary cap in 2024 and has a salary of $15.735 million. None of that is guaranteed.

Meanwhile, Gannon lauded Beachum, who was the only lineman to start all 17 games in 2022, but hadn’t played much this season. He started when Humphries missed the Atlanta game because of an ankle injury and then finished last week’s game after the torn ACL occurred.

“He’s been fantastic,” Gannon said. “We’re very grateful to have him in the role he plays. He’s the ultimate team guy, a guy that provides really good leadership for the young guys. You guys know he’s a guy I talk to a lot, and I bounce things off of him because he’s been around the block. I’m glad we have him. He’ll step in there and play well.”

Jackson Barton was elevated from the practice squad Saturday to be the swing tackle in Sunday’s game. He played in the season opener against Washington and was then active, but did not play in Week 10 against the Falcons.

More D-line attrition

The Cardinals defensive line took more hits Friday when rookie Dante Stills was placed on reserve/injured and Kevin Strong was surprisingly placed on waivers. Strong practiced Wednesday and Thursday, but was limited because of a knee injury.

Strong played in 14 games with 11 starts this season and is tied for second among linemen with Jonathan Ledbetter with 46 tackles. Stills has 47. Ledbetter is also on reserve/injured. Strong has 25 unassisted tackles, while Ledbetter has 21 and Stills 18. Strong also has five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

After Friday’s moves, the Cardinals had only three defensive linemen on the active roster and none were with the team in training camp. All were originally signed Cardinals to the practice squad.

Roy Lopez was signed Sept. 23, Phil Hoskins Oct. 3 and Naquan Jones Nov 10. Leki Fotu, who missed five games while on reserve/injured because of a hand injury, was activated Saturday. He has started nine of the 10 games he’s played this season. Three linemen are also on the practice squad: Ben Stille, Jacob Slade and Kendal Vickers. Stille, who played in four games this season with the most recent being in Week 12 against the Rams, was signed to the active roster Saturday.

Defensive linemen L.J. Collier and Carlos Watkins have been on reserve/injured since early in the season.

Budda to the Pro Bowl

Despite missing five games, safety Budda Baker was voted a starter for the Pro Bowl Games. It’s the sixth time for Baker with the last five at safety after being a special teamer in 2017, his rookie season.

“I just come to work every day ready to put the work in each week and let everything else take care of itself,” Baker said. “I thank my peers and the coaches/executives around the league that vote me in. Through the highs and lows, stay even keel and just play ball. Eye in the sky don’t lie.”

Gannon paid his respect to Baker, saying, “As a player, his versatility, reliability, toughness, effort, and brain. I just gave you about five. As a leader, I think his attitude. The guy comes to work, he never has a bad day. He comes to work always wanting to improve and get better.

“I would say the sign of a really good player is that he elevates others around him since he has been here and since we’ve been here. That’s what he’s done – and not just the safeties or the back end – I’m talking about the linebackers and the D-line and the coaches, so that’s a valuable piece to have.”

A new tight end

With Geoff Swaim on reserve/injured, the Cardinals signed rookie Travis Vokolek from the Ravens practice squad Dec. 20. Eleven days later, he was active for the game against the Eagles and played 25 percent of the snaps as the blocking tight end.

Gannon said, “He did a good job. He’s been here two weeks and has never played a snap, (and was told), ‘Go in and block (Eagles defensive end) Josh Sweat.’ Yeah, he did a good job. You never know how a guy is going to respond his first time in a game, but this guy is another one. Kind of like Michael Carter. He assimilates right into the program with everything that we’re doing. A smile on his face, loves to be out there, loves to practice, wants extra work.

“He’s wearing (tight ends coach) Ben (Steele) out. He came in and did a good job. I honestly was a little, I wouldn’t say concerned, but I had my eye on operationally is he going to be OK out there? He was good. I think he did a really good job. Losing Geoff; that’s a big piece for us and he stepped into that role and did extremely well.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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