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The Tape Tells All - Kyler Murray's Week 1 Performance


Welcome to another season of "The Tape Tells All," my weekly column where I break down the film of an NFL player's performance. The title of this column is a little misleading -- I'll bring in plenty of stats and analytics to back up these ideas -- but the main focus will be on what we saw this week out of one prominent player.

This week, that guy is Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray's Week 1 meeting with the Detroit Lions started out really poorly, to the point that I said "well, I'm going to write about how bad this went for 'The Tape Tells All' this week," but Murray found some things that worked in the second half and ended the day strong.

Let's take a look at the good and the bad of Kyler Murray's NFL debut.

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Background Information

We all know the Kyler Murray story at this point. A first-round pick of the Oakland A's, Murray chose to play one year of college football at Oklahoma before embarking on his MLB career. In that year, Murray won a Heisman Trophy and vaulted into the conversation for the number-one overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Cardinals got that pick, hired former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury -- whose college offense looked a lot like Oklahoma's offense -- and traded their second-year quarterback, Josh Rosen, to the Dolphins to clear the way for them to draft Murray.

Murray's been knocked by a lot of people for his size, as 5'10'' isn't ideal for an NFL quarterback, especially when most people think that 5'10'' designation is being very generous to Murray. But Kingsbury's spread-heavy offense is the right kind of system to negate the height disadvantage, and Murray's skill as a passer and a runner make him a dangerous dual threat.

Murray's NFL debut went...well, it's hard to describe exactly how it went. Murray got off to a terrible start as he was 6-for-16 for 41 yards with an interception in the first half. But Murray turned it on from there, and his final stat line of 29-for-54 passing for 308 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception was very solid for an NFL debut. He also added 13 rushing yards on three carries as the team clearly tried to use Murray as a passer, not a runner.

Arizona ran 82 plays in Week 1, more than any other team. They had an overtime period to help them out with that, but the second half of the game made clear that Kingsbury wants this team moving and keeping opposing defenses from being able to slow down and substitute the right personnel in.

It's also clear this team wants to spread the field as much as possible:

In addition to lining David Johnson up as a receiver on 15 snaps, four different wide receivers had a snap rate of 76 percent or higher. The team used tight ends on just 36 of their 89 total plays, and it looks like the Cardinals are going to run a lot of four-wide sets this year to help Murray get the ball quickly to his receivers.

Per Sharp Football Stats, the Cardinals ran 10 personnel (four receivers, one running back) on 55 plays, which was 67 percent of the team's total plays. The Rams were the only other team to use that personnel even 1o times, and every NFL team combined didn't use 10 personnel as much as the Cardinals did.

By running as many shotgun plays as they do, Arizona can negate some of need for a blocking tight end to be in the game, because Murray should have enough time to get passes off. We'll see if that turns out to be true; he was sacked five times on Sunday, so...Arizona might need to reconsider some alignment things.

 

The Game Tape

Let's look at some film from Murray's debut and see what it can tell us about his outlook this year. Since this is just a one-game sample for a player's first NFL game, it's hard to glean too much from this, but why not try?

 

The First Half

I want to include Murray's first NFL pass attempt here. It was an incompletion, but it still showed some of the hallmarks of what this offense needs to do:

As I mentioned above, Murray has to get the ball out fast. Here, he gets a good, clean pocket and zips the pass toward Keesean Johnson, but the ball sails over Johnson and out of bounds. While the touch wasn't there on this play, it was still a strong indication of what Murray's going to do, which is try to stretch the field early. The Cardinals have it spread out with three receivers on the left and just Johnson on the right, but the connection just doesn't work.

What about Murray's first completion?

Another four-receiver set here, which we're definitely going to see a ton of this season. It's third and long, and Murray's routes at the sticks are all well defended, so he hits Damiere Byrd on the comeback route. It's the safe play here, and Byrd has some space to work with and could theoretically have broken free and gotten the first, but mostly this looks like Murray having the foresight to say "yeah, this is my first NFL drive, but it's not my last and I don't have to go hero ball this early."

Usually when I write this column, I'll skip around in the game, but since evolution was such a big thing on Sunday, let's keep it chronological, which leads us to Murray's first NFL carry.

How do you know an option is successful? When it fools both the defense and the camera operator. The entire defensive front on this play is like "hmm, definitely a hand-off to David Johnson," which leaves Murray open to keep the ball himself and get six yards. This is an obviously risky call when you're backed up into your own end zone, but that risk is part of why it worked. We'll probably see more of these for Murray moving forward as Kingsbury continues to introduce wrinkles into this offense, but for now we can see a nice blueprint for how future Murray/Johnson option plays can work.

For the sake of time and also the sanity of y'all, readers, I'm not going to clip the rest of the first half from Murray aside from his interception, but some quick takeaways from the rest of his first half:

  • Motioning David Johnson out of the backfield into a five-wide set and then trying to throw the ball short over the middle of the field seemed to be a recurring thing for the Cardinals, as did the ball falling incomplete when doing this.
  • Holding the ball too long while waiting for things to develop was also an issue. Especially when Murray's outside the pocket and backed way up and has time to throw it away, he should throw it away.
  • Having David Johnson to target within 10-yards of the LOS is going to be hugely beneficial.
  • A good number of these incompletions were pretty on target. Murray had the second-lowest completion percentage on opening weekend, but only the fifth-highest bad pass percentage, which is...not great, but not the worst thing!

Anyway, let's end the first half analysis by talking about that interception.

So, yeah...this isn't a very defensible play. Murray's under pressure on third and long and uses his legs to avoid that pressure. He sees KeeSean Johnson down the field and attempts to throw it to him, but there are a few issues. First, Murray's throwing on the run here. He isn't able to set his feet and step into the throw, which affects the velocity of his pass and thus affects how far it goes. That matters because while Johnson had some space on his defenders, there were two guys who were ready to jump on an underthrown ball. Murray underthrows the ball, and the Lions are there for the pick.

Murray was outside the tackle box here and the offense was backed way up, so the better play would have been to throw this one away and punt on fourth down. If you aren't able to set your feet and make the throw you need to make, a throwaway is significantly better than an underthrown pass into double coverage.

But Murray will learn that during his NFL career. Don't expect to see this be a common mistake.

 

The Second Half

The second half and overtime of Sunday's game went a lot better for Murray, who looked much more like the quarterback the Cardinals need him to be if they're going to be successful.

So, what changed?

Here's one possible conclusion from RotoUnderworld's Jesse Reeves, who put together a short Twitter thread about the team's personnel groupings:

Basically, Arizona fully embraced the spread, running 10 personnel more and more as the game went on, which led to higher offensive success. By moving away from using a tight end, Murray and Kingsbury both found themselves occupying the offensive space that both are most comfortable in, which is that spread-out, college-style offense. Of Murray's two touchdowns, one came out of 10 personnel, with the other coming from 11 personnel, though that 11 personnel set was...interesting. (See below.)

For now, let's just focus on those two scores in terms of video content. I'll summarize some second half thoughts after that.

Here was Murray's first touchdown:

Murray's first touchdown pass came out of 10 personnel, with two receivers tight on both sides and David Johnson in the backfield. Johnson runs the fly route out of the backfield, which leads to him getting single covered deep by a linebacker.

It's almost unfair that Murray gets to start his NFL career with a back like Johnson, because he's got the skill to transform into a receiver very fast. Arizona gets to essentially run five receiver sets with Johnson and create all kinds of mismatches.

Here was the other touchdown:

I'm almost certain this was the only play of the fourth quarter for Arizona that can technically be classified as 11 personnel, since Charles Clay is in the game and is a tight end. But even with Clay in, this play opens him him spread out wide at the top of the screen before some pre-snap motion moves him into the slot.

Also, just, like, take a second and appreciate the pre-snap motion on this play. Everyone is moving. The receivers plus Clay all end up swapping positions, and then they run Fitzgerald across the formation right before the snap. If you watched the NFL last year, you were probably expecting the shovel pass to Fitzgerald there, but Murray waits just a second longer to take the snap, and Fitzgerald is taking off full speed toward the flat. The Lions play it well, but an accurate pass by Murray nets the touchdown for the veteran wideout.

This is another factor in Murray's success: Kingsbury is going to do a lot of fun and intriguing things offensively, and that's going to create mismatches for Murray to take advantage of. Now, Murray obviously has to actually do something with those mismatches, but a play like this suggests to me that he should be able to.

Some other brief thoughts on Murray's second half and overtime:

  • There were two things I was mainly seeing here. One was Murray getting the ball out quickly to a receiver on a slant or out route.
  • The other thing was Murray getting some time and trying to find a deep guy.
  • Mixing these things together creates a potentially versatile look for the Cardinals. If you can consistently hit receivers near the line -- and not, as happened in the first half, consistently miss on those short throws over the middle -- then defenses have to account for that, which can potentially open up seams deep.
  • Of course, Murray still held the ball a little long at times and had to run for his life. The Cardinals offensive line is far from fixed, and that's going to be a serious thing that Murray has to contend with this season.

 

Fantasy Impact

Kyler Murray made rookie mistakes on Sunday. He also flashed the potential that made him the first overall pick.

Where you land on what this performance meant depends a lot on what you think about those rookie mistakes. Will Murray keep taking too many sacks? Probably, based on the poor state of this offensive line.

Will Murray throw really bad picks? Sure, sometimes, and his bad throw percentage will have to improve. I'm sold on the idea that it will and that Murray will be around league average by the end of the year in things like completion percentage and interceptions.

The other thing: Will the play-calling change? Murray ran three times. His speed was used to avoid (or try to avoid) pressure, but his first NFL start didn't show us the dynamic runner who ran for 1000 yards and 12 touchdowns in his final year at Oklahoma. If you drafted Murray early, you were counting on that being part of his value. That it wasn't in Week 1, then, is a disappointment for you.

But the Cardinals should continue to open up the playbook. I'm not ready to panic and say "Kliff made Kyler a pure passer!" The zone reads and the RPOs and the draws will happen. If they haven't by Week 4, I'll start to worry. For now, Murray showed me that he can finish somewhere on the low-end of the QB1 or the very top of the QB2 tier when this season is over.

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