Winning doesn’t always have to be pretty, as long as it happens consistently.
In 2020, the Arizona Cardinals may not be happy with how they got to their 6-3 record through the team’s first nine games of the season. But, they have to be pleased with the end result, along with the play of starting quarterback Kyler Murray.
Cardinals fans have seen expectations rise ever since Murray was drafted with the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and even more so when the 2020 regular season got underway.
The team opened the year with a two-game win streak, starting with a victory over the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, and had Murray looking like a quarterback that could take Arizona back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2008.
The sophomore was throwing for an average of 255 yards a game, and three rushing touchdowns through just eight quarters of in-game action.
Then, the Cardinals fell back down to earth, suffering back-to-back losses to the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers to fall back to .500 on the year. They lost star linebacker Chandler Jones for the season a week later, and things started to look bleak in the midst of a year with so much promise.
Despite all of that, Murray and company didn’t falter. The Cardinals rattled off three straight wins, giving up just 10 points per game against the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys before a pivotal game against the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks.
In primetime against a perennial MVP candidate in Russell Wilson, Murray showed exactly why fans in Arizona should be excited in 2020, and why fans across the country are talking about the Cardinals as true contenders in the NFC.
Murray put up 360 yards on 34 completions, with three touchdowns through the air and one on the ground to give his team a 37-34 win in overtime.
The Oklahoma alum looked calm under pressure in multiple high-pressure situations, bringing the Cardinals back from 10 points down with 4:16 to go in the fourth quarter. He pulled off a game-tying, 54-yard drive with less than one minute to go in regulation, and topped it all off with a strong overtime performance to hand the Seahawks their first loss of the year.
Through it all, Murray conveyed why he is considered one of the league’s premier dual threats, and why he should be thought of as one of the league’s best quarterbacks, as well.
“The game is becoming easier to him,” long-time Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald told reporters in November. “It is slowing down a little bit in terms of his reads and understanding of what’s going on around him and what people are trying to do to him. And when things break down, he has the ability to make plays and improvise.”
“You’ve obviously seen it over the course of the last year and a half, and he’s only going to continue to get better.”
A key part of an NFL team’s consistency, however, is the ability to perform at a high level every week, especially after a big win over a divisional rival. With an NFC West title in sight, a lack of complacency is critical.
So, when the Cardinals found themselves on the losing end of a 34-31 battle with the Tua Tagovailoa-led Miami Dolphins, Murray wasn’t too happy about the result.
“Personally, I wasn’t really worried about first place in the division,” Murray said in a postgame press conference. “I don’t think anybody should be worried about that. We came out here and laid an egg. We have to be better.”
Murray didn’t seem like a defeated man, but rather one determined to get back on the field to right any wrongs that led to the loss.
That’s tough to do in a game where you put up 286 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown, but that’s the type of player Murray is, according to his teammates.
“You would think we just lost the Super Bowl, that’s how hard he is on himself,” Cardinals wide receiver Christian Kirk said. “That’s what you want to see, though. I mean, he just cares so much. He’s so competitive. I say it all the time. Every time he’s out there on the field, there’s nothing that you can tell him that, ‘Hey, we might not have a shot today.'”
So, when the Cardinals went down against the Buffalo Bills on multiple occasions in Week 10 of the 2020 season, including a four-point deficit with 34 seconds to go, Murray looked like a man on a mission.
That mission turned into out to be a success, as Murray threw a 43-yard Hail Mary to a triple-covered DeAndre Hopkins for the miraculous win with two seconds left. The throw capped off a 245-yard day for Murray through the air, which also featured the one passing touchdown, two rushing touchdowns and 61 rushing yards.
“[Murray] is playing at a ridiculous level,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the last-second victory. “You have seen it the last few weeks after that first month. Offensively, we have really settled in. Mixing in tempo making great decisions whether it is with his feet, his arm. It is fun to watch.”
The victory propelled the Cardinals into first place in the NFC West, with a Thursday night matchup against the Seahawks coming just a few nights later playing a major role in the long-term divisional race.
But, if Murray has it his way, the Cardinals’ journey won’t stop with a NFC West title.
And, if he keeps playing like he is through the first half of his sophomore season and living up to the hype, the rest of the NFL is going to have to deal with the Cardinals consistently for years to come.
“We’re trying to win,” Murray said. “I’m trying to win. So, that’s the goal. For me personally, I think it’s time to. We don’t have time to wait around and say, ‘Do this in Year 6 or 7.’ You never know when your last snap is going to be. So, I’m always striving to get better, always strive to be the best.
“I think that every time I go out there on Sunday, that’s the ultimate goal, to get a win and put my team in the best possible situation to get that win.”