Because I was occupied reporting in New England, I asked my friend Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus to weigh in on the big game between the Rams and Cardinals. His report:
The NFL is going through a transitional phase at the quarterback position. The time has largely come and gone for Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in the NFL; Philip Rivers and Drew Brees retired this past offseason; Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are still playing at a high level, but their years are numbered. Young players are taking over the position rapidly, and while people cite Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert as the next great players at the position, Sunday we saw a coronation of sorts in the NFC West. Kyler Murray went on the road and handily defeated the previously unbeaten, and preseason divisional favorite, Los Angeles Rams 37-20. The win pushed Arizona’s record to 4-0 for the first time since 2012—when Kevin Kolb was the Cardinals’ starting quarterback—and Murray became the first QB in Cardinal history to have three straight games with at least 75 percent completions.
After watching the Rams defeat the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, the betting markets installed the Rams as six-point favorites to open the week. The betting population, however, moved the line to four points, showing some confidence in the third-year pair of coach Kliff Kingsbury and Murray. This confidence was rewarded throughout Sunday’s game, as Murray earned an 81.3 Pro Football Focus passing grade, completing 24 of 32 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns, while adding another 39 on the ground. Murray’s presence as a passer and his gravity as a rusher helped Chase Edmonds and James Connor put up another 170 yards on the ground on 30 carries, including two touchdowns by Connor. The Cardinals defense, much derided at times during the offseason and the preseason, surrendered only one touchdown when the game was in the balance, allowing just 280 yards to the previously hot Matthew Stafford.
After a 2020 season where Murray was the league’s highest-graded rushing quarterback (90.6) and the 16th-highest passer (74.5) before a shoulder injury slowed him after week 11, Murray has improved in almost every category as a passer in 2021. His yards per attempt have increased by almost two-and-a-half yards; the percentage of “big-time-throws”—throws that earn the highest distinction in the PFF grading system—have almost doubled; his turnover-worthy play rate has decreased by 20 percent. This was on display against a Rams defense that was first in yards per play allowed in 2020 and boasts two of the best players in the league in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Murray committed zero turnover-worthy plays and was sacked just twice, while engineering seven scoring drives in the Cardinals’ first nine times with the football.
While Murray possesses elite-level arm talent on par with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert, what sets Murray apart in the current Arizona offense is his ability to break the pocket and make plays with his speed. In 2021 that has been an advantage he has used in the passing game, where his three passing touchdowns when on the move and after 3.5 seconds in the pocket is tied for the league lead; and his three big-time throws are the second-most we’ve charted. Mahomes (10.4 yards per attempt) is the only starting quarterback with a larger yards per attempt in such circumstances than Murray.
Against the Rams on Sunday, Murray turned such a circumstance into a scramble. With the Cardinals leading 14-10 with 9:38 left in the second quarter, Murray stutter-stepped Rams linebacker Kenny Young to pick up a first down on a third-and-16, on a drive that later resulted in a Connor touchdown and a two-score lead for the Cards.
Questions remain for the Cardinals, and specifically Kingsbury, as to the sustainability of the Cardinals’ attack. Last season, due to Murray’s shoulder injury, along with what has been described as a stale approach, the Cardinals went from being in the top-five in the NFL in terms of offensive efficiency in Weeks 1-11, to 28th during Weeks 12-17. With that decline in offensive production went their playoff hopes in 2020, to increased pressure in 2021. This season, the Cardinals are back in the top five in efficiency, but haven’t needed to lean on Murray as much in the run game, or on superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, whose share of the Cardinals’ targets has fallen from 29 percent in 2020 to 18 percent in 2021. Rondale Moore looks to be a fantastic draft pick out of Purdue, while former Bengal A.J. Green has been very active, including gaining 67 yards and a touchdown against the Rams. If Murray can stay healthy, and Kingsbury sharp, the NFC West crown could be in play for Arizona for the first time since 2015.