Josh Rosen

Why Cardinals chose Kyler Murray’s future over Josh Rosen

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Kliff Kingsbury has learned a few things in his four months on the job as an NFL head coach. This is one thing: “People just make sh— up,” Kingsbury said, calmly, in a conference room at the Cardinals training facility late Saturday.

I asked Kingsbury if he ever said at the combine that it was a “done deal” the Cards were drafting Kyler Murray first overall.

“No,” he said. “Never.”

I asked Kingsbury what he’d have said if GM Steve had told him a month ago the best thing for the team was to keep Josh Rosen at quarterback and draft Nick Bosa.

“I’d have said, ‘Let’s go to work,’ “ Kingsbury said. “That’s why I signed on here. I knew I was coming here to try and improve the offense. We were last in everything. Try to help Josh become a better player, more comfortable in the system, continue to build him. That was my job. If that was what we were going to do, that’s what I signed up for in the first place.”

“Biggest misconception about your role in this?” I asked.

“That I rolled here and was just like, ‘We’re taking Kyler Murray,’“ Kingsbury said. “First off … I don’t have that type of juice coming in the door. That wasn’t how it went down at all.”

This was an hour or so after the draft. Kingsbury and the man who hired him, Keim, sat together to discuss one crazy era of Cardinals football—the drafting of Josh Rosen 10th overall a year ago, the hiring of a coach who’d been fired at Texas Tech to pilot the franchise, the marginalizing of Rosen, the drafting of Murray, the unloading of Rosen to Miami, the drafting of three receivers to turn the Cards’ offense into Kingsbury’s personal Madden game.

I turned to Keim, who has put his GM career on the line with this coaching hire and this draft choice, and asked: “Did you seriously weigh the alternative of keeping Rosen and saying, ‘Sorry, Kliff, I’m not giving you your guy?’ “

“Absolutely,” Keim said. “That’s my job. All spring, your mind races with the different scenarios. At the end of the day, you had to look and say again, ‘What is really going to catapult us into being different?’ I’ve always been a visual guy and I’ve always had success evaluating quarterbacks when I trusted my instincts and my gut. I’ve missed on the guys that looked the part, smelled the part, you tried to invent and because all the things were connecting the dots. You scouted them and said, ‘Okay, they’re going to be a player because they look like this. I’m not saying that’s Josh Rosen. I’m saying I had my real success, guys I’ve loved that have been great NFL players, based on instinct.

“When I closed my eyes and I visualized Kyler Murray running around State Farm Stadium in red and white, for whatever reason, all I saw was just fireworks, excitement, a must-see [environment] where fans have to go and show up and see this thing. Him being the architect was a phenomenal fit for me.”

Interesting way to evaluate: scouting through visualization. “I either visualize them or I just have bigger balls than my brains,” Keim said. “I’m not scared to make a mistake. That could cost me my career but at the same time, to be great and to have success you gotta be willing to take chances—ones that you believe in.”

Clearly, that’s what this time in Cards history is about. Arizona took a chance on Kingsbury, and is taking another one on Murray. This is a franchise adrift, with a GM with his job on the line, a head coach the league looks at dubiously, and now a 5-10 quarterback the new coach has pined for since the kid’s sophomore year in high school in Texas. (True story: Kingsbury, then Texas Tech coach, offered 5-foot-5 sophomore quarterback Kyler Murray a full scholarship as a sophomore at Allen High in 2012.]

Keim said he didn’t study Murray thoroughly till after he studied the free-agent prospects. So it wasn’t till mid-March, Keim said, that he dug in on Murray tape. Until then, he said, there’s no way the organization would have made the decision to draft Murray—because Keim contractually has final say on the draft. “I was reluctant to study him because I knew what we had in Josh Rosen,” Keim said. “As I watched the first game, I watched the second game, I couldn’t put down the controller. All I wanted to do was keep watching this kid on tape. I don’t know if I wrote down ‘wow’ 100 times, or 500 times, but my hand got tired of writing it. In the time I’ve been doing this, I haven’t seen a guy who could throw like him and run like him. I’ve seen guys who could do one of each, but I’ve never evaluated a guy who possesses the skill set to do both things at such a high level. I was also studying guys that I was falling in love with, like Nick Bosa, Quinnen Williams, really having to really weigh which player makes the biggest impact for us. It became crystal clear in the end it was Kyler Murray.”

Keim was adamant about Kingsbury expressing his opinion, then staying out of the way of the evaluation process. “The thing I respect the most about Kliff is he never once interrupted the process,” Keim said, with Kingsbury sitting across the conference table. “He never once came down and put his fist on the table and said, ‘I want Kyler Murray. I have to have him.’ I knew that he loved him as a player, but he allowed the process to take care of itself. To me, that was the only way we were going to get it right.”

So now, in the wake of drafting four players to help Kingsbury run his offense, let’s see where these Cardinals are. Kingsbury’s offense, a cousin of Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme, will often run four wide receivers and one back; it’s important to have specific roles for the receivers, but in the case, say, of second-round receiver Andy Isabella from UMass, Kingsbury found a receiver who can be used in the slot, outside, and on Jet Sweep-type plays, because Isabella is experienced at all three roles. Kingsbury likely envisions an offense, at least at first, with Isabella and the ancient but still productive Larry Fitzgerald in either slot, with second-year wideout Christian Kirk and this year’s 103rd pick, 6-5 Hakeem Butler, outside on either side. And, of course, strong runner and receiver David Johnson should get 300 touches out of the backfield. There will be a consistent no-huddle element too, so some of these Arizona games will be survival-of-the-fittest track meets.

What’s different with Kingsbury’s system, his friends in coaching say, is how game-plan-specific his weekly plans will be. A sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2003, Kingsbury spent that season (New England’s second Super Bowl season) on IR with an arm injury, but soaked in the Bill Belichick philosophy about varying the weekly game plan. With Belichick, every game plan is a snowflake; no two look alike. And though Kingsbury’s passing offense will be the wide-open, four-wideouts-on-the-field-regularly scheme, he’ll be sure to tailor it to that week’s opponent too.

Kingsbury told me the system for Murray will be “very similar” as his Oklahoma scheme under the progressive Lincoln Riley. “His ability to escape the pocket, escape those D-lineman when they can’t get off blocks—it’s just unique. And to still be able to drop back and survey the field and still be able to get the ball out on time, get through his progressions … When you spread people out he’s a weapon in a bunch of different ways. That’s tough on defenses because if you want to rush him upfield and he takes off, good luck catching him. And if you sit back, he can still pick you apart. The way we spread people out, the tempo in which we play, he’s the guy who can really thrive in system.

“We’re going to play the game at times wider than probably most people do in the league. We’re going to use the entire field and make them cover five wides and the quarterback and that’s tough on defenses.”

I was really curious how Kingsbury, back in 2012, just having taken the Texas Tech head-coaching job, could have been so smitten with a tiny quarterback in Allen, Texas. “Well,” Kingsbury said, ”nobody could touch him, he could throw it from the pocket, the mechanics were great. He was the quickest player on the field. I just always believed that he could be great. I’d never seen anything like it on the field, a combination of that type of quickness and explosiveness and a true drop-back passer. So we developed a relationship through the years. He always knew that I believed in him and saw great things coming. It’s been a wild ride and crazy to see how it’s all turned out. I think everybody just assumed since he was undersized he couldn’t play at the next level.”

So here is Murray, at the next level, and at the next level after that. The highest level. The NFL.

This is going to be a great test tube football season in Arizona. In the NFL this year, no coach/QB combo platter will be under more scrutiny. A coach with a losing college record, and the first sub-6-foot quarterback to be drafted in the first round. And going number one overall! Kingsbury and Murray will be must-see TV, and must-see Keim visualization.

“I think both of us are competitive and have a chip on our shoulder,” Kingsbury told me. “What’s been said out there … “ His voice trailed off. He knows. “Now it’s time to go. We’ve heard all the talk and the talking’s done now. It’s about what we do from this point forward. When he came in here [Friday], we both kind of had that conversation and that mindset. That was more what our meeting was about.”

“Any celebrating that you finally got your guy after all these years of chasing him?” I asked.

“Not yet, no,” Kingsbury said. “There won’t be any celebrating till we win some games.”

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Why these NFL teams should take a chance on Josh Rosen

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So I believe the Cardinals, should they—as I suspect—choose Kyler Murray number one overall, will be inclined to make the best deal they can for the quarterback they picked last year 10th overall, Josh Rosen. It’s easy to say Rosen’s a big boy and he’s going to have to get over the biggest snub job in recent NFL history. But he heard Kliff Kingsbury take the job and say on several occasions, Josh is our quarterback, or words to that effect. Now you draft a guy number one overall and asked Rosen to be a good soldier and carry the clipboard and help Kyler Murray win games for the team that misled him about being the quarterback under the new coach? Awkward.

I don’t know how the draft is going to fall, but if Miami or Washington or the Giants do not draft a quarterback high in the draft, what seems fair to me is offering a third-rounder (78th overall by Miami, 95th overall by the Giants, 96th overall by Washington) to Arizona for Rosen. And Arizona, I’m assuming, would strongly consider doing the best deal it could at that point.

I’d be really interested if I were Miami. Imagine trading the 78th pick and having a year to see if Rosen has a chance to be the long-term guy. If the Dolphins are unconvinced at the end of 2019, they could use a first-round pick (plus other draft capital if need be) to draft the quarterback of the long-term future in a year when the quarterback crop is better than this year.

There’s also this matter: In the last four-and-a-half years, Rosen has been coached by six offensive architects. At UCLA beginning in the fall of 2015, Rosen had Noel Mazzone, Kennedy Polamalu and Jedd Fisch, followed in Arizona by Mike McCoy and Byron Leftwich last year and Kingsbury this year. Imagine Rosen having the same system and coach for two or three years in a row. It hasn’t happened to him since high school. Seems worth a shot to me.

This is going to be a very interesting week in the history of the Arizona Cardinals, but also in the personal history of Josh Rosen.

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The four teams most likely to trade for Josh Rosen

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Canvassing the league in recent days, I found two teams as favorites to acquire quarterback Josh Rosen, the 10th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, if Arizona chooses to draft Kyler Murray and trade Rosen. I believe if this does happen, Washington is in the best position to do the deal. It could come down to whether Washington is willing to give a second-round pick instead of the third-rounder that obviously it would prefer to trade for Rosen.

Where I think it’s most likely Rosen could go:

1. Washington—Draft picks in top 100: 15, 46, 76, 96. Rosen would be an excellent scheme fit in the offense of coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Gruden liked Rosen coming out of UCLA, as did O’Connell. This is a heavy play-action team that likes to throw from the pocket—both strengths of Rosen—and also likes throwing to the tight end. That’s up Rosen’s alley. Seems like the best match of need and availability. Interesting thing about potential compensation. I doubt the Cardinals will have an offer of a 2019 top-50 pick for Rosen; so close to the draft, teams hate parting with high picks. Mike Lombardi, former front-office exec with several teams, told me the other day that first-round picks are like new cars—once you drive one off the lot and own it even for a short time, it’s not worth nearly what it was when you bought it. That’s why I think Washington could try to hold out and pay Arizona the 76th overall pick instead of the 46th.

2. New York Giants—Draft picks in top 100: 6, 17, 37, 95. Unlikely that GM Dave Gettleman will give the 37th pick for Rosen, in part because of value and in part because the Giants really aren’t sure if all the noise about Rosen being difficult has any merit. But the Giants are an option because coach Pat Shurmur is a play-action devotee and likes his quarterback to throw with timing and rhythm. That’s Rosen’s game. Having Eli Manning for one more season would allow Rosen to learn behind a great preparer and very smart player. So how can the Giants make a deal like this, with no pick between early in the second round and very late in the third round? (I’d be very surprised if Arizona would consider Rosen for the 95th pick.) Well, the Giants could offer a second-round pick in 2020, or try to deal the 17th overall pick in some package that would include high second and third-round picks. But dealing for Rosen could allow the Giants to use three picks in the top 40 this year to do what Gettleman really wants to do: continue to build both lines while addressing the post-Eli QB life.

3. Denver—Draft picks in the top 100: 10, 41, 71. Unlikely. But because the Broncos will take a young quarterback this year or next, you can’t eliminate them from consideration.

4. Miami—Draft picks in the top 100: 13, 48, 78. The Dolphins quarterback plans are shrouded in secrecy; Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea have learned well from Bill Belichick. But I’m told the only way the Dolphins go for any quarterback is if they’re convinced that he’s going to be the answer for the next 10 years. Hard to imagine feeling that after watching Rosen last year—admittedly under constant duress behind a bad offensive line in Arizona.

I’d eliminate New England; just don’t sense the interest there. I’d all but eliminate the Chargers; Philip Rivers seems primed to play at least two more years, and they just gave Tyrod Taylor $6 million guaranteed over the next two years.

Washington makes the most sense. We’ll see if the former NFC East partners can make this happen.

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