Can Kyler Murray crash the MVP race in year three?

If Week 1 is any evidence, Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray has vaulted from a fun-to-watch, he’ll-put-it-together-someday signal-caller into the league’s upper tier

Sometimes you can just tell a player has made the proverbial leap. You can see it. You can feel it.

In Week 1, the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray vaulted from a fun-to-watch, he’ll-put-it-together-someday quarterback into the league’s upper tier. Murray torched the Tennessee Titans through the air. He torched them on the ground. He played within the flow of Arizona’s system; he broke it apart, freelanced a little, and clubbed the Titans over the head some more.

It was a one-man show: the kind that can elevate a good team into division contenders, and that should Murray at the forefront of any Most Valuable Player discussion.

At this point, the MVP award is a narrative one. Patrick Mahomes is quite clearly the most valuable player in the league. Ask any league executive, coach or fan which player they’d want to start a franchise with, and you’d have two camps: those who would pick Mahomes and those who are lying.

And yet Mahomes has already fallen into the Jordan-LeBron-Brady vortex. He is so clearly the most important player that there’s no point in even handing him the award each year; he’s chasing something bigger than that. So, the football community writ large is apt to rally around a different story instead. First, we had Lamar Jackson: The overlooked Heisman Trophy winner who slipped in the draft and then wreaked havoc on the league. Then we had Aaron Rodgers’ redemption arc (something he seems keen to torpedo on his way out of Green Bay), the quarterback freed from the shackles of the Mike McCarthy offense and offering a reminder of his prime years.

Scan across the league to find similar stories and you’ll see it’s a pretty exclusive club.

Russell Wilson hits all the checkpoints. He’s the guy who all but asked out this offseason … then stayed. He’s playing in a new, diverse, creative offense, something the now 32-year-old has been demanding for the better part of half a decade. Like an aging Oscar nominee, Wilson will rally the ‘it’s his time’ crowd.

But then Wilson could also be the NFL’s answer to Glenn Close. His play has warranted MVP consideration over a sustained period, but his play – and the storyline that goes with it – has never coalesced at the right time. He didn’t get enough credit for the early years; his supporting cast – and scheme – hasn’t been good enough in the latter years for him to post a Rodgers-like season.

Wilson also lacks the new star sheen has become an important part of the MVP discussion: It is now used as a way to validate a young star’s legitimacy.

There could be a push from Tom Brady if the Bucs rip-off a 15- or 16-win season, all under the guise that the old guy still has it – a favorite of voters in whatever arena people are casting votes.

Still: Crowning the next potential face of the league is the order of the day, and Murray has as strong a path as Justin Herbert and Josh Allen, the league’s other wunderkinder.

It was the same formula with different results for Murray and the Cardinals as they thumped Tennessee in Week 1. Murray plays with a kind of controlled frenzy, his feet moving at turbo speed, an ever-present threat, while his eyes scan down the field looking for throwing lanes.

Stylistically, nothing was new. Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals head coach, is known as an ‘Air-Raid’ guy, a style of offense that calls for the quarterback to chuck the ball downfield over and over again. The Air-Raid, at its core, is all about running a slender number of general concepts and dressing them up in different ways, then using tempo to try to catch the defense in disadvantageous personnel packages. From there, a team can run the same play over and over again, adding on some window dressing to present a different pre-snap picture to the defense.

The Kingsbury-Murray partnership had a so-so start to life in the league. The pair’s first two years were plagued by an average roster, a lack of adaptability, and Kingsbury’s poor in-game management and strategy. Now, the roster has a strong underbelly. The Cardinals’ predictability was a weakness in years and two. In year three, with a strong core, it’s a strength: they’re going to run what you cannot stop until you find a way to stop it.

It was easy to laugh at the Cardinals for putting together what looked like the 2014 All-Stars over the course of the offseason, adding the likes of JJ Watt and AJ Green to a roster that already featured Deandre Hopkins and Chandler Jones. How much is left in the tank of the veterans? Won’t they be creaking by the 17th game of the season?

They might. But if the first week of the season proved anything, it’s that those brand-name additions were sweeteners. It’s below the surface where Arizona has made substantive changes.

That starts with an overhauled offensive line. The Cardinals didn’t just get better upfront; they completely redefined their vision for the interior of its group. They moved away from the shorter, stouter, prototypical players they had brought in to help with Murray’s vision in the pocket – the quarterback is 5ft 10in. Instead, they brought in as many 6ft 4in-plus mashers as possible.

The receiving corps now has some real juice to boot, an essential part of the Kingsbury doctrine. Deandre Hopkins remains as dominant as ever. And in Rondale Moore, the Cardinals have added the kind of oomph that only Murray was previously been able to provide. Moore is a bundle of electricity, capable of turning should-be negative plays into positive yards.

Remember all those *shudders* screen passes that Kingsbury ran over the last two years? Without speed on the field, they were stonewalled – the Cardinals averaged just 3.8 yards per screen attempt in 2020, per ProFootballFocus. With Moore on the field, the screen-game is now a viable threat, which forces defenses to commit players closer to the box, giving the Cardinals more favorable matchups down the field.

It sounds hyperbolic to say Rondale Moore changes everything … but Rondale Moore kind of, sort of, changes everything for this specific team with this specific offensive makeup. Last Sunday, the Cardinals picked up a whopping 13.6 yards per screen pass attempt.

It’s a roster built to maximize Murray’s strengths. Before, his freelancing excellence helped keep an ill-fitting roster in games. It gave the team a floor. Now, that ability to create out of nothing, to beat a team with his arm or legs, no matter the look, raises his side’s ceiling: it turns close games into wins; wins into blowouts.

Murray has refined his game, too. Tennessee blitzed Murray on over a third of his dropbacks in Week 1. Good NFL quarterbacks traditionally shred the blitz. When the opposition sends an extra defender, that leaves a receiver open – or it means single coverage across the board.

Defenses rarely blitz the best of the best because they understand the likes of Brady, Rodgers and Wilson can decode and find an open target easily. The Titans tried to blitz Murray off the field. The quarterback didn’t blink, delivering strike after strike in the face of pressure. Murray was sloppy against the blitz last season. On Sunday, he was magnificent, completing 11 of 13 throws against the blitz for 139 yards, with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Murray joining the do-not-blitz club is the next logical evolution of his game. He is now pairing efficiency with his wow-ability, the perfect cocktail for the modern game. If he can sustain that early jump-on-my-cape style over the course of the season, then the Cardinals will have a chance to compete for the toughest division in the league.

Help guide his team to 12 wins in that division against that schedule, and Murray will have ticked all of the MVP boxes.