House of Cards: Hail Murray wasn’t only Hail Mary

Somewhere inside the exquisite and improbable 10 seconds that it took Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins to create one of the NFL’s greatest Hail Mary plays, history got lost in the moment. That was natural, of course. Euphoric reverence rarely pauses for context. Instead, perspective is left for the aftermath when we have a little time to sort out what we’re witnessing.

And for the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday’s moment was a Hail Mary inside a Hail Mary.

Inside that picture frame: It was Murray to Hopkins and a leap that ultimately seized the top rung of the NFC West for the Cardinals. It was head coach Kliff Kingsbury sneaking into the backdoor of the Coach of the Year conversation. And it was one of the league’s best young quarterbacks wedging himself into the MVP conversation.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 15: Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates with wide receiver Andy Isabella #17 after Hopkins caught the game-winning touchdown pass during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)GLENDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 15: Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins #10 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates with wide receiver Andy Isabella #17 after Hopkins caught the game-winning touchdown pass during the second half against the Buffalo Bills at State Farm Stadium on November 15, 2020 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
DeAndre Hopkins (10) came down with the catch of the year in the NFL after breaking the Bills’ hearts with a Hail Mary reception Sunday. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Outside of that picture frame, if you step back and take a longer view of what is happening in Arizona, you have a general manager in Steve Keim who is in the midst of his own Hail Mary. The one where he chose a head coach who was an almost unbelievable hire in the winter of 2019, then followed that up with a quarterback decision that would shift the paradigm in NFL draft dynamics.

Make no mistake, what is happening in Arizona is a story about Murray, Kingsbury and Keim, but it’s also a story about draft logic that has a chance to reshape the risks some franchises will take long into the future.

Kyler Murray vs. Josh Rosen proved it isn’t too early to pivot

The test of that latter point is already unfolding in New York, where the Jets are careening toward a No. 1 draft pick that would almost certainly be a quarterback, effectively supplanting a talented Sam Darnold only three years after the franchise made him the No. 3 overall draft pick. Granted, the Jets and Darnold are not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison to the winding path that led the Cardinals to take Murray and cast aside former first-round pick Josh Rosen. But the fingerprints are there, and you only needed to ask some front offices to consider a debate between Darnold and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to understand the impact Arizona has had on draft dynamics.

As one NFC West talent evaluator put it when asked in October if he would take Lawrence No. 1 overall: “I think almost everyone — every team — unless they have a top six or seven quarterback who has a lot of prime, if you’re not in that situation and you have the No. 1 pick this year, you’d have to take Lawrence. I don’t care if you have a guy you drafted last year. It’s like the Cardinals and Kyler [Murray] a couple years ago. Lawrence is a special player and you take that player.

“I would say if the [Cincinnati] Bengals were to get the No. 1 pick again, I would draft Trevor and trade [Joe] Burrow. And I love Burrow.”

While that Burrow assessment is far out on the edge of opinions of Lawrence vs. Darnold, the invocation of Murray vs. Rosen was not. Indeed, several front-office talent evaluators pointed to the Cardinals dispatching Rosen in favor of Murray only one year after taking Rosen 10th overall in the 2018 draft. And they all leaned into an underlying point that is continuing to pay dividends in Arizona — that if a team has a chance to take a quarterback who can reshape the franchise, the only time it doesn’t select him is when it already has a QB who is in that class of talent. If that means pulling the plug on a young, highly drafted (and maybe even promising) quarterback, so be it.

Before the Cardinals took Murray and moved on from Rosen, that kind of thinking bordered on a fireable offense, particularly if it meant drafting QBs with back-to-back first-round picks. The only other time that someone did something as crazy as Arizona was when former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson selected Troy Aikman first overall in the 1989 draft, then followed it up by grabbing Steve Walsh in the first round of the 1989 supplemental draft. Johnson eventually spun that into gold by trading Walsh for a boatload of draft picks one year later, but it still stood out as wildly unconventional.

That is until Keim came along and did a 180-degree turn on Rosen, which wasn’t as linear a decision as many presumed.

TEMPE, ARIZONA - APRIL 26: (L-R) General manager Steve Keim, president Michael Bidwell, quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals arrive to a press conference at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on April 26, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. Murray was the first pick overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2019 NFL Draft. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)TEMPE, ARIZONA - APRIL 26: (L-R) General manager Steve Keim, president Michael Bidwell, quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals arrive to a press conference at the Dignity Health Arizona Cardinals Training Center on April 26, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. Murray was the first pick overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2019 NFL Draft. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Now we know why team president and owner Michael Bidwill, pictured second from left, has a giddy look on his face during a news conference with Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, left, quarterback Kyler Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury shortly after the 2019 NFL draft. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray wasn’t the masterplan

Even now with Murray blossoming, the underlying reality of how Arizona came to the conclusion that he had to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft is anything but clean. It wasn’t the streamlined masterplan that so many assumed in February and March of 2019, when it looked too coincidental that the Cardinals would first roll the dice on Kingsbury and then ultimately come to the conclusion that Murray was the right pick later in the process.

But that’s how it actually went down. It’s revisionist history to suggest that Kingsbury and Murray was a package deal. In truth, getting the pair together took some doing. And it was due in no small part to Kingsbury’s Cardinals interview process being built around him coming in and building Rosen into the quarterback Arizona thought it was getting when it took him in 2018.

After talking to sources who were involved in Murray’s selection in Arizona, it became clear that process was a deliberate one of building a consensus, one that started with Keim missing out on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in the 2017 draft.

When Keim stacked up his draft board in that 2017 first round, he believed one of those two favored quarterbacks was going to be available for the Cardinals at the 13th overall pick. That was until the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans blew it all up, each unexpectedly moving ahead of Arizona to take them off the board. That moment haunted Keim for a year and eventually drove his own move 12 months later when he stacked up a quarterback foursome of Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Rosen. Keim couldn’t afford to lose all four. And that drive resulted in his motivation to trade up to No. 10 overall when Rosen was the last of his favored QBs left on the board.

It wasn’t a move of desperation, either. Keim believed Rosen was worthy of building around, but he also didn’t know how Rosen would fare with a roster that was in a significant state of disrepair and a defensive-minded rookie head coach in Steve Wilks who wasn’t ultimately going to be able to develop Rosen’s skills. By the end of a disastrous 2018 season, Keim knew he needed to pair Rosen with an offensive-minded head coach who could develop the quarterback and fine tune an offensive scheme around him. Someone cut from the mold of a Kyle Shanahan, Sean Payton, Andy Reid or Sean McVay.

That is how Kingsbury came into the picture, largely due to a pitch from Kingsbury’s agent, Erik Burkhardt, that centered on the long list of quarterbacks with different skills that Kingsbury had developed. If anyone could get the best out of Rosen, it was Kingsbury, Burkhardt argued. That’s what Kingsbury’s interview was built around. Just like he told the Jets that they needed to mold everything around Darnold, Kingsbury told the Cardinals that their sole focus needed to be on whatever it took to turn Rosen in the right direction.

It was an effective pitch that landed Kingsbury the Cardinals job, with the belief inside the organization that he’d develop Rosen and the team would ultimately select Ohio State’s Nick Bosa with the first pick in the draft. And that was all moving along as planned, right up to the point when Burkhardt signed Murray.

A promise made at dinner altered Kyler Murray vs. Nick Bosa debate

This is where the whole Kyler Murray indulgence got interesting for the Cardinals. The widely held assumption is Kingsbury was the driving force inside the organization to take Murray with the top pick. Sources said that’s not exactly what happened. Instead, Kingsbury suddenly found himself in a tough spot. Not only had he landed the Cardinals’ job by selling his ability to get Rosen on the right track, but he even spent time starting that process. Sure, he liked Murray and even went on record (almost unbelievably) as Texas Tech’s head coach in 2018, saying that if he was an NFL coach, he’d take Murray with the No. 1 overall pick. Was he going to turn around after selling himself on shaping Rosen and say, “Never mind, let’s take a completely different quarterback” with the top pick?

The reality was Kingsbury couldn’t introduce that concept. If that was even a possibility, the push was going to have to come from Murray’s agent, Burkhardt. And even that was dicey because if the Cardinals were open to it, there was no getting around that it was going to look like Kingsbury had engineered it and the whole thing had been a big setup from the start. In reality, multiple sources who were on the inside of the situation say that all the public statements since Murray was drafted are true: It was never set in stone.

“I promise you, it wasn’t a setup,” said one source who was intimately involved in Murray’s selection. “It took a lot of work to get there. Everyone had to get on board, one level at a time in the organization.”

This is how draft ideology was changed: Burkhardt asked Keim for a meeting, with the assumption that it would be about Kingsbury, who was in the middle of building his coaching staff. The two went to dinner, and Burkhardt made a plea. He assumed that Keim was going to get around to watching tape on Murray, just out of due diligence. So he requested a favor.

“When you watch Kyler’s tape, will you promise me that you won’t think about height or hand size or Nick Bosa or Josh Rosen,” Burkhardt asked, according to a source familiar with the dinner. “Please just watch the tape objectively and if you hate what you see after two games, shut it down and I’ll understand.”

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - AUGUST 08: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals walk off the field during the NFL preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers at State Farm Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Chargers 17-13. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)GLENDALE, ARIZONA - AUGUST 08: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals walk off the field during the NFL preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers at State Farm Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Chargers 17-13. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray walk off the field during the NFL preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers at State Farm Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Keim gave his word that he’d give Murray a fair shake as a talent evaluator. He did it without fully grasping how much he’d like what he saw. When he rolled the film, Keim realized quickly that he had a problem on his hands. And the more tape he watched, the more it sunk in that Arizona was going to have to think long and hard about whether Murray was the right pick at No. 1 overall. By the time Keim was finished, he was sending Burkhardt specific plays from Murray’s film, astounded at his overall arm talent. What he saw wasn’t just an athlete who could throw. He saw a passer who was also a great athlete.

Keim was well aware that the easiest possible thing for him as a general manager was finding reasons to not like what he saw in Murray. Instead, it went in the opposite direction. And he knew what that meant: In what other people might see as an unthinkable moment as a GM, he might have to pivot away from a quarterback he took 10th overall in the previous year, and select another QB with the first overall selection. And he might have to do it with a defensive end on the board in Bosa, a player he believed was going to end up being an NFL star.

Keim knew what kind of gamble this was. He had just made one decision in hiring Kingsbury where he absolutely could not afford to be wrong. He was considering compounding that risk with a second unthinkable decision — jettisoning the previous year’s 10th-overall pick for a quarterback who had a budding career on the table in MLB and whose overall size flew in the face of the box-checking nature of NFL personnel evaluation. To outsiders steeped in longstanding NFL ideology, it looked like Keim was standing at a roulette wheel and putting half his chips on a single number … then after the marble started spinning, Keim was suddenly taking the rest of his chips and stacking them on top of that same number.

It looked like he was going for broke. And that’s still pretty accurate. The reality is that if Murray or Kingsbury falls apart in the near future, Keim will be the loser. But that doesn’t appear to be where this is headed.

The rest of the story has been well-chronicled. Once Keim realized what kind of talent Murray brought to the table, pairing him with Kingsbury was the easiest part of the equation. So the coach, the general manager and the agent all went to work on laying out the “why” to team owner Michael Bidwill. And once Bidwill saw that Murray was the brand of special that was worth flying in the face of decades of draft norms, Murray officially was on his way to becoming the centerpiece of a franchise renovation.

This is how NFL draft maxims change

It was messy, of course. The team had just let go of Wilks after only one season, which is never a good look. Most franchises that know what they’re doing don’t fire a coach after one season. And they most definitely don’t blow up a presumed franchise quarterback after only one year, either. The Cardinals did both.

Rosen was pissed. Part of the fan base was up in arms and wanted Bosa. Keim looked like he was throwing up the personnel version of a Hail Mary. And all of the surrounding critics were getting their arrows ready, too. If this failed, it was going to be in spectacular fashion and there would be no mercy for almost anyone involved, least of all the general manager and team owner.

Time will tell if what we’re seeing from the Cardinals now is lasting. Even with the franchise leading a brutally tough NFC West, Murray looking worthy of MVP votes and Kingsbury quietly having a hell of a coaching season, the reality is this is still in the midst of a build. This is still part of the climb. But how the Cardinals got there with Murray, Kingsbury and Keim has been unquestionably impressive — if only because it took some tremendously risky gambles.

This is how some of the NFL’s hardened ideologies get penetrated. Someone has to try something that so many others presume is destined to fail. Someone has to be the first person through that wall. And sometimes, you have to be the first person through two walls. If you can manage to make it through and survive, others take notice of the success in the face of the improbable.

That’s where the Cardinals are standing heading into Thursday night’s defining game against the Seattle Seahawks. They’ve gone through two walls, leaving an indelible impression that everyone else is talking about. Sunday’s Hail Mary? It was entertaining, but the fact that it’s taking place inside another Hail Mary that is still in progress — that is what makes this season special. Just like the quarterback who is driving it.

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