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many layers linked to Kyler Murray Cardinals return

Howard Balzer Avatar
November 9, 2023

Eleven months to the day.

That’s what Sunday, Nov. 12, will be when Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray will go under center against the Atlanta Falcons after nearly a year of rehab following Jan. 3 surgery for a torn ACL and meniscus suffered against the New England Patriots on Dec. 12, 2022.

Yes, coach Jonathan Gannon said Monday that “the plan for quarterback this week is Kyler is going to continue to ramp up. He’ll take the one reps and if the week goes well he’ll start on Sunday. Pleased with where he’s at right now. We’ll see how the week goes.”

However, does anyone for one second believe that Clayton Tune will start instead of Murray? That’s doubtful.

Even wide receiver Hollywood Brown, Murray’s longtime friend and teammate at the University of Oklahoma, chimed in Wednesday when he was asked if he has any doubts that Murray will play.

After pausing momentarily, he said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that he’s gonna play.”

That was shortly after Brown said following Wednesday’s practice, in which running back James Conner also practiced when he was designated for return from reserve/injured, “Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s juiced.”

For the Cardinals, there are eight games remaining in the current 1-8 season, and it’s not an understatement to conclude that whatever happens in the final two months will have an enduring impact on what might transpire after the season ends.

But those questions and eventual answers can wait for another day. Now, the focus is on Sunday, one week after the offense had a dismal 58-yard output with 17 net passing yards in the 27-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Many questions swirl. How will Murray handle the sudden adjustment to the speed of the game after only 12 practices in an offense he worked to learn in the meeting room and while watching numerous practices during the offseason and the first nine games of the season?

What will the game plan look like and how bold will it be for a guy whose game is built around not only his arm, but his legs, and has left us with visions of the Hail Murray in 2020 against the Buffalo Bills, and the other-wordly 21-second scramble that helped the Cardinals come from behind against the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022 and then win in overtime?

What will the support around him be with the status of Conner, left tackle D.J. Humphries and right guard Will Hernandez unknown? The latter two left the game against the Browns with ankle and knee injuries, respectively, and did not practice Wednesday, while Conner was limited. Tune was sacked seven times Sunday and several were before Humphries and Hernandez departed.

How has Murray changed, if at all, during the long, lonely road to recovery?

How much should expectations be tempered, at least in the short term?

We’ll answer those questions and more via the words of teammates and coaches who have watched him work through the daily grind of a grueling rehab and were genuinely ecstatic Wednesday when Murray took the reins of the offense.

The return

Asked what it has been like to see Murray integrate himself into the new offense, Gannon said, “Awesome. It’s fun to be around him at practice. He’s ultra-competitive and wants to play football, but everything that he’s been doing up until this point to get himself ready to go, both on and off the field; rehab with the health stuff and with the mental stuff about playing quarterback; he’s far exceeded my expectations right now.”

Asked if there was a spring in Murray’s step, Brown said, “Oh, definitely. Just the excitement. Really good to see him back for himself. Being away from the game is never easy. And for him, to see the work he put in, just for him to be able to practice with us leading up to the game has been fun.”

Brown noticed immediately how hard Murray worked, both on getting healthy and being as comfortable as possible with the offense.

He said, “I could see that they’ve been putting in a lot of work behind the scenes because he hasn’t missed a beat out there and he’s pretty on top of everything. I know he did a lot of work. I don’t think he missed a day. I asked him a few weeks ago, ‘You have any off days?’ Because every time I see him, he’s been working even since the offseason.

“I think everybody noticed it. If you come in early, if you come in a little later, you’ll always see him in the same area working out. And then if you come in on an off day, if you come in, he’s in here.”

Said offensive coordinator Drew Petzing, “I think you saw what he could bring to the offense and bring to the team. We’re really excited to get him back out there. He’s violent, he plays with a presence, he plays with an attitude and he’s also a great teammate, so we’re looking forward to that.”

Rookie wide receiver Michael Wilson was asked about the process of Murray verbalizing calls in the huddle.

“It’s been seamless,” he said. “You’d probably anticipate a guy being out and there’s nothing that can simulate being on the field. No amount of meetings can simulate it, no amount of mental work or mental preparation away from the game like when you get actually in between the white lines and it’s time to snap up your chinstrap and go.

“There’s nothing that can really prepare you for that moment. And he’s done an outstanding job of being ready for that moment. Hasn’t been any hiccups with calling plays, with reads, with missed throws. Like he’s been on point since he touched the field, so that’s been really impressive to see.”

Brown concluded, “I’m really just happy for him to be out there. For him to just be back on the field, be able to play the game, not for me, for the whole NFL. It’s a blessing that he’s out there playing.”

Brown and Murray also spent some time on the field Wednesday after practice ended. Brown said, “He wanted me to get some extra routes in, throw a little extra and just trying to get on the same page on some stuff.”

The talent

“He’s been practicing at a high level; you’ve seen him make those unscripted movements,” Petzing said. “People are around his feet and he seems comfortable doing it.”

Brown was asked when he knew it was the same ‘ol Kyler.

“When he first got to practice with us throwing routes on air; just how it comes off his arm. It’s just like nobody’s like him,” Brown said. “The first time calling the plays to us, he’s smiling when he’s calling plays. He’s very excited about it. For me, it’s like he never left. I spent the whole time in Baltimore, we’d link up in the summer and he’d throw me the ball like he throws it to me always. It’s more just grasping the offense, seeing things, being comfortable with the checks.”

Wilson missed the Cleveland game because of a shoulder injury and he hopes to also be on the field Sunday. He practiced Wednesday with a limited designation.

“It was very tough (not playing),” Wilson said after practice Wednesday. “One of my goals this year was to not miss any games. Obviously, we play a very physical and violent game and my shoulder just got a little banged up in the Baltimore game, so I just needed a week to kinda recuperate, let it heal.

“I feel pretty good, taking it one day at a time. The healing’s coming along, honestly a lot faster than I thought, a lot quicker than I anticipated.”

When Brown was talking, he saw Wilson going to his locker and related how Wilson was taking a water break during practice and was watching Murray throw. Brown noted that Wilson said “the ball comes out nice” and some other players were surprised, wondering “is it always like that?” Brown was asked if it was amusing to hear guys talk like that.

“Definitely,” Brown said. “Because I’d be telling them in the meeting rooms with Kyler out there this can happen, but for them to see it is pretty funny. Mike over there; he’s excited. He’s ready to go. He’s itching to get out there.”

Wilson said, “I think it’s going to be pretty special to play with Kyler. Obviously, he’s a very, very talented quarterback, plays at a high level.”

When asked about Brown’s comment about eyebrows raised when they say Murray slinging the ball, Wilson said, “For sure. There’s certain guys that you play with, quarterbacks I’m speaking about, they got a certain zing on the ball, right? Like it jumps out of their arm and Kyler has that about him. Certain highly-touted quarterbacks have that sorta poise with the ball. It’s noticeably different than their counterparts that they play with.”

The game plan

Gannon said succinctly, “We’re going to maximize his skillset.”

Added Petzing, “I think playing to his strengths, the things he’s done well in his career, the things that make him a dynamic player. Certainly, we’ve seen a lot of that from the mobility, from the arm talent, from the vision. All of it. He’s a very complete quarterback, so building around that and building around what he’s comfortable doing and making sure he’s ready to do it on Sunday is a big part of making sure he’s ready to go.”

Asked how he will know if Murray has the necessary trust with running, Petzing said, “A lot of that is the communication we’ve had over the last couple weeks. I mean, he’s been great. He’s been practicing at a high level. Certainly health-wise he’s there, but there’s a mental aspect of that and that’s the communication piece that’s so important from him to us and back and forth.”

Will you hold your breath that first time he runs or gets hit?

Petzing smiled and said, “Yes and no. Any time he runs and gets tackled, no matter what the situation from now until the end of time, I think there’s always going to be like, ‘Hey, get up. He’s good.’ I think anytime you have a great player in that position, you feel that way to some extent, but no, he’s so dynamic at it, he’s certainly done it at a high level and he’s going to get tackled. That’s a fact at some point during the game. So at the end of the day, I think we’ll be good with it.”

There will “absolutely” be significant communication with Murray regarding the game plan, Petzing said, adding, “That’s the conversation that we’ve had with every quarterback that will ever play here. That’s a really important conversation. Certainly, I want to call the game to attack the defense and get the ball in the right player’s hands, but the quarterback’s the one that is doing that and has the ball in his hands. So, for me to say, ‘Hey, you’re gonna run this, this and this’ and I don’t care what you think about it, is negligent.

“There’s an ongoing back and forth of ‘Hey do you see this the same way I do, how do we feel about this, how do we do that?’ That’s a constant give and take with any quarterback and certainly someone who’s done it at that level and sees the game the way he does, that’s a very big part of it on so many different levels.”

As for being under center, Petzing said, “He’s been in the shotgun, but I wouldn’t say under center is not a strength of his. He was in an offense that didn’t put him under center by nature of the scheme, but I don’t think it was any limitation to his ability. So, I have no fear of putting him under center.

“I’m not going to tell you where we’re going to be 80, 90 or 100 percent of the time, but he could be under center the first half of the game and I wouldn’t hesitate.”

The supporting cast

All coaches spout the “next-man-up” mantra, which is part of their DNA, but deep down they know backups are usually backups for a reason. Aside from the quarterback, by the end of Sunday’s game, the Cardinals were without six players that started in the season opener: Humphries, Hernandez, Conner, Wilson, left guard Elijah Wilkinson and tight end Zach Ertz.

Wilson’s 6-foot-2 height is important on a corps that has Brown (5-foot-9), Rondale Moore (5-foot-7), Greg Dortch (5-foot-7) and Zach Pascal (6-foot-2), who rarely sees targets. Murray at 5-foot-10 is barely taller than most of them.

Said Wilson, “We as a receiver corps have to take an extremely gritty approach this week and take complete ownership. We have to excel at our jobs to make his job easier because obviously he’s got a lot going on.”

Asked if he is concerned for Murray with starters potentially being out, Gannon said, “No. If he’s out on the field, we feel good about him being healthy enough to play. Every team in the NFL is banged up. We’ll put our best foot forward, get the right pieces in there and give ourselves a chance to win a game.”

Yes, teams are banged up, but not many to that extent. One is the New York Giants, who were in the playoffs last season and are now 2-7.

Acknowledging “it’s a challenge” with that many starters out, Gannon then said, “but that’s why we practice the way we practice. We do different things during the week to make sure guys are getting reps within our schemes and our systems because they’ve got to go in and play well.

“Our guys know the expectation of you going in the game (in) whatever role that you’re in or forced into, sometimes by injury and sometimes performance, it’s expected that you keep that same level. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching that up, I think, a little bit to make sure guys are ready to go and step in and can play winning football for us.”

Sounds good, but the reality is it makes it infinitely harder. And Gannon knows that. After all, the Eagles team where he was the defensive coordinator last season had the same 22 players start in the Super Bowl that started on opening day.

Petzing said, “That’s the nature of this business. Injuries are a big part of the league, unfortunately. It’s next man up. We’ve gotta have those guys ready to play, they need to have themselves ready to play. That’s what’s going to be true. It’s something you’re going to deal with year in and year out in the NFL.”

Aside from game day, there’s also the reality of practicing without many of those starters even though some may play after limited work during the week.

“It’s something you go through as a team,” Petzing said. “That happened to him last year before he was hurt. It’s happened to every quarterback that I’ve played with. It’s a really unfortunate part of this game. It is a violent game. It takes it’s toll. You’re used to guys being in and out of the lineup. Some guys practicing Wednesday, some guys don’t practice Wednesday, Thursday, practice Friday, play Sunday. That’s just kinda the nature of the beast.”

Will there be enough protection for Murray?

“Absolutely. I think at the end of the day, the five people we put out there, we’re going to feel good about. Certainly, we wish everyone’s healthy. You’re always going to wish that. But I feel very confident in whoever’s asked to go out there on Sunday that they can get the job done.”

Tempering expectations

Gannon admitted, “We’ve got to be willing to understand that it might not look like Kyler (right away). I think he’s got a good expectation of that, and the coaches have a good expectation of that, but I know this: he’s going to come out there, play his game and help us win.”

On managing his expectations, Gannon said, “It’s not hard for me. I kind of take it day-by-day and understand what it is. You take in all the information and go about your day. But I know I’m excited to get him back out there.”

Said Petzing, “Any time you do something for the first time since you’ve done it a while, it’s hard. Especially being in a new system, new teammates. It’s Week 10, and you’re coming off an injury. Look at what an offense looks like their first 10 plays in preseason 1, Week 1, Week 5, Week 10. It’s no different than with an individual player.

“So there’s gonna be some growth, there’s gonna be some bumps along the road. I know he’s ready to handle that, certainly we’re prepared to handle that, but that’s reality when you’re doing something for the first time.”

“It’s going to be pretty special to play with Kyler,” Wilson said. “He’s a very talented quarterback. We have to anticipate some growing pains just because we haven’t all been out there yet and knowing that it’s his first game back and not having played in a long time. I know what that feels like being out for that long a time. It’s basically like the first preseason game on limited practices, too, because he just started practicing a couple weeks ago.”

Kyler the leader

Gannon addressed that by asking, “Who’s from Missouri, anybody; isn’t it a Show-Me State? He leads a little bit more by example, I would say. And knowing that was a tough bridge for him because just not being out there with the guys, that’s a little bit of a different leadership role. He’s obviously a captain for a reason, but just navigating that on a day-to-day basis is a challenge at times, for anybody, that he has embraced and done a really good job in my opinion as the head coach.

“What I’ve asked him to do he’s done, and I think he’s excited to get back in the huddle and assume a little bit of that leadership role, being in the huddle as well.”

Wilson said it felt great at practice and continued, “Obviously, he’s the leader of our franchise and so I feel like there’s a different feel when he’s commanding the offense. A different type of leadership, a different presence just sorta like that star-power effect when he’s in there commanding the offense.”

Wilson said he’s had a “great relationship” since arriving after the draft. “Kyler’s easy to get along with. He’s a great guy. Since I got here, he’s been nothing but supportive even though he hasn’t been on the field, but continually asked me how I’m doing, how’s my rookie season been going. Giving me tips and pointers and stuff like that so we have a great relationship and I think it’s gonna continue to grow and probably excel over the next 10 weeks when we’re out there together.”

A different guy?

Brown said, “I feel like he’s probably more hungry being away from the game and I know the competitor he is. You hear bad talk, this and that, but he’s a competitor and I feel like he’s hungry to go out here and play.”

Is this like a fresh start?

“Yeah, I feel like with him being back, it’s a chance to see what we got. What we could do and as an offense keep growing, keep learning each other.”

Petzing said, “I think that’s the growth and development you’re gonna see from him throughout his career regardless of scheme, system or teammates. I think that’s just part of being a pro of getting older and starting to have more experience. He’s certainly embraced that. It’s been really fun to be a part of it because he’s worked so hard at it because he’s asking great questions and because he’s really engaged. It’s been fun and certainly would expect that to continue as he hits the field.”

Finally, Brown was asked if he believes Murray is misunderstood, based on the chatter and outside noise that is constant.

“Definitely. A hundred percent,” he said. “I said that when I first got here from the east coast, coming out here hearing things. I asked him as a friend, ‘Why is this happening, why are people saying this.’

“For him, it’s like he don’t know. And for him it’s just play his game. You know, winning cures all, so that’s been our goal since I’ve been here is to establish a winning culture and get back on track of winning.”

The beginning of that reset is Sunday and we’ll have a sense by the first weekend in January whether it appears to be the start of something good or another holiday season disappointment that leaves even more questions for 2024.

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

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