They were not the plays that show up on ESPN or NFL Network or even the highlight videos on azcardinals.com.
The first came late in the first quarter in Cincinnati Sunday, when a Bengals defensive lineman read perfectly the coming first-down screen to running back Chase Edmonds – and quarterback Kyler Murray calmly chucked it into the ground at Edmonds’ feet. The second came with 8:09 left in the game, as the Cardinals ran a no-huddle tempo play after a David Johnson run for a first down. The intended quick pass to Johnson as Murray rolled out right was again covered well – and again, Murray simply threw a worm-burner at Johnson’s feet.
Murray threw for 253 yards against the Bengals and ran for a team-high 93 yards. He raced 24 yards up the middle to set up the game-winning field goal with less than a minute left. Yet coach Kliff Kingsbury called the two throwaways his two favorite plays Murray made in the game.
“As a coach, I’ve been around some really good quarterbacks, and they’ve put up stats and done all those things,” Kingsbury said. “But when you see a guy show progress in an area that you’ve talked about (and) you’ve preached and it helps the team, that goes a long way.”
Murray, of course, didn’t win a Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma because of the live-to-play-another-down moments. He won it because of the skillset that allowed him to convert the fourth-and-2 bootleg for a touchdown from six yards out against the Bengals and drop the pass perfectly over the shoulder of running back David Johnson for a 24-yard gain to jump-start that final field-goal drive.
There’s a partial smile for Murray when he’s reminded of Kingsbury’s pleasure in his particular incompletions.
“I always think he sees that or any other quarterback out there who is watching the game,” Murray said. “They understand that, what it’s like to be back there. I guess that’s a good thing in the quarterback room. But I don’t really think about it too much.”
So would Murray rather be talking about those big plays? The quarterback considered this for a moment.
“I don’t really care,” he said.
Improvement in non-negative plays – if there can be such a category – is as much of a barometer of Murray’s growth five games into his career as anything. As much as Murray has thrown the ball (and as much as the Cardinals ran it Sunday, he still had 32 attempts), he has only had four interceptions this season. Even with 28 carries and 21 sacks suffered, Murray only has one fumble and didn’t lose it. Those numbers too have impressed the head coach.
Kingsbury was a quarterback himself, and in his self-awareness as a pocket passer without speed, throwing it away was never really an issue. Murray, who knows he can keep a play alive with his scrambling ability, did a lot of it the first four games. That’s why the Murray was on pace to set an NFL record for most sacks taken prior to the game in Cincinnati.
“In college you are so used it being always (about) big plays,” backup quarterback Brett Hundley said. “In this league, you have to learn that not taking a negative play is just as good sometimes as a big play. Sometimes defenses just make the right call, so you throw it into the ground. We’re so used to, ‘You’ve got to make something happen’ that you have to learn to be OK with it.”
The one sack Murray did take Sunday was no fault of his own. It came on a slow-developing play-action pass that featured not just one fake handoff but a second fake end-around. Add in the fact right tackle Justin Murray got beat as well, and Murray had no chance.
But Murray himself knows he was a reason for some of those other sacks. The quarterback said after the game and again Wednesday how much better the offense did overall in avoiding negative plays.
The positive plays were something to enjoy too. His bootleg touchdown was “nice,” Murray said, expressing surprise it was that open. He said he was proud of the way the team ran the two-minute drill at the end of the game.
“I’m just glad we won, to be honest,” Murray said.
Kingsbury and the Cardinals know that happened in part because of the plays Murray managed to avoid.
“I expect that trend to (continue to) go down as he adjusts to the speed of the game and figures out what he can and can’t get away with,” Kingsbury said. “That’s rookie year. That’s what you’re supposed to do is figure those things out.”