After ‘going through the fire,’ Cardinals take flight with Kyler Murray in Year 2

Detroit News

Rod Beard
 
| The Detroit News

Many Lions fans remember last season’s opening game as rookie T.J. Hockenson’s breakout debut, with 131 yards and a touchdown. Some others will remember the Lions’ all-too-familiar refrain of coughing up a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter for a dispiriting tie.

Arizona Cardinals fans recall that matchup for the dual debuts of their new coach, Kliff Kingsbury, who brought his high-octane offense from Texas Tech and put the controls in the hands of diminutive rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall draft pick.

It was a starting point for both Murray and Kingsbury, and the beginning of the resurgence of one of the surprise teams in the NFL this season. Following that tie game, the Cardinals lost three consecutive games and then won three straight, but the solace came in the optimism of how things could look — at some point in the future.

After last year’s 5-10-1 finish, the Cardinals made a big splash in the offseason and they’ve turned things around with a 2-0 start this season.

The future is now.

It’s Kingsbury. It’s the trade for DeAndre Hopkins. It’s their improved defense. Most of all, it’s Murray as the face as the phoenix rising from the ashes.

“Just going through the fire last year as a rookie starter for 16 weeks — taking every snap, for the most part — and going through the ups and downs of it, the game has just continued to slow down for him,” Kingsbury said this week. “His mastery of our system has taken a step in Year 2 and you can see that with his style of play and his decision-making and hopefully that continues.

“It’s just kind of a natural progression of things. The more reps you get, the better you’re going to get if you continue to work at it — and he’s put in the work.”

‘A smooth athlete’

With Sunday’s desert rematch at State Farm Stadium (4:25 p.m., Fox/WJR) looming, the Cardinals and Lions are teams going in different directions. The Lions have lost both games this season after letting double-digit leads slip away. The Cardinals are looking to make their mark as one of the new-school standouts among the NFC’s elite teams, with an electric offense and a stout defense.

That fourth-quarter comeback against the Lions was the genesis.

At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Murray clearly doesn’t possess the prototypical stature for an NFL quarterback, but he compensates for it with his field intelligence and fleetness of foot. It’s not quite like Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham or Cam Newton, who have bigger frames, but Murray’s smaller stature gives him an elusiveness all his own.

“He’s definitely like a punt returner back there. Any type of space he has, he’s able to take advantage of it and he’s made the most athletic guys miss,” Lions defensive end Trey Flowers said. “Just being that dynamic as a mobile quarterback is definitely another level.”

Murray showed that dual-threat ability in the season-opening win at San Francisco, with 230 passing yards to go along with 13 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown.

Murray became the first quarterback in NFL history to surpass 150 rushing yards and three touchdowns through the first two weeks of a season. By comparison, Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson, the Lions’ two leading rushers, have combined for 180 yards and one score.

That willingness to attack with his feet, along with the arm strength and another year in Kingsbury’s system, can vault Murray into the same category of dual-threat quarterbacks with the likes of Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.

“I would definitely say you can see the difference between early on last year when we played him, and then later in the season and how he kind of matured and grew as a player in the NFL,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said this week. “Somehow, I think this guy got faster and quicker and more explosive in the offseason. It’s just amazing to watch in open space.

“He’s a smooth athlete. He can really get to top acceleration extremely quick. I think that’s what catches a lot of people by surprise. He can just burst and explode — within two steps he’s at full speed and then he can stop within a step or two. I think some of that for the quarterback position, you’re not necessarily used to it.”

Pushing through

Murray looked to have some jitters in his debut last season, with a horrific first half that gave the early second-guessers ample fodder for skepticism. Murray’s line through two quarters: 6 of 16 for 41 yards, an interception and he took three sacks.

Seemingly wilting in the Arizona heat, Murray morphed it into a return reminiscent of Ultraman, with a sterling fourth quarter: 15 of 19 passing for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was a tough day. It just felt ugly all day. Obviously, I knew at some point we had to keep our heads down and keep grinding and eventually something would shake out for us — and it did,” Murray said this week. “All day they played us well and we had some unfortunate bad balls and stuff like that. It was an ugly day that turned out to be a decent ending. We didn’t win, but it was better than losing.”

It was the first of his five 300-yard passing games and set the course for him to be named offensive rookie of the year by the Associated Press. More than the numbers, it earned Murray credibility with his new teammates, generally a difficult task for a rookie quarterback in his first game, especially one that didn’t result in a win.

“It was good for his teammates to see that he will hang in there, even when it was going about as bad as possible. In the first half, it was about as bad an offensive performance as I’ve ever seen, and nobody hung their head, nobody got down and everybody continued to fight,” Kingsbury said. “I do think it showed a lot of character from him in that first start when he could have easily cashed it in — it was that bad.

“He continued to fight and made that thing a ballgame and found a way to tie it. I felt like moving forward, that definitely gave him a lot of cred in our locker room.”

Putting the complete package together has raised Murray’s stature in the league and made it tough for opposing coaching staffs to figure out how to contain him. Coupled  with the additional pressure that Hopkins brings, along with the rushing game of Kenyan Drake, it’s quite the puzzle.

In the opener this season, Hopkins had 14 catches for 151 yards and another eight grabs for 68 yards and a touchdown last week. Then there’s 37-year-old receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who seems to defy the notion that he’s past his time.

It’s a conundrum that demands full focus and concentration for a full 60 minutes — which the Lions defense hasn’t shown a propensity for doing in their two losses this season.

“You may do it right for 58 minutes, you may do it right for 59, but it’s that one minute that you don’t where he’s so dangerous, so explosive, that I think players like that have that feeling to take advantage of those moments,” Patricia said. “I think that is a part that you just need to be focused on the entire game on making sure you execute the plan at hand and not let those guys take over with their athleticism…where they can kind of get out into space and run and throw.

“Obviously his arm strength is another threat when he’s out in those kinds of situations.”

The Lions will have another chance to stop Murray, and maybe avoid an 0-3 start that could turn their season around.

Priority No. 1 is Murray.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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