Kyler Murray’s clunky playoff debut vs. Rams should prompt big changes from Cardinals

Kyler Murray has done quite well in sparking the Cardinals’ quick turnaround to an NFC playoff team. Though his losing postseason debut in Monday’s wild-card game against the division-rival Rams was mostly a disaster, he still has plenty of dual-threat advantages as a two-time Pro Bowler who just finished the year 3rd to the 24 years. .

But after seeing everything that went wrong for Murray against a tough defense in the biggest game of his career thus far, Coach Kliff Kingsbury and the rest of the Arizona team have a big job ahead of them: getting the pieces right. around his franchise quarterback. to get the most out of it.

Murray (19 of 34 passes, 137 yards, two interceptions, 4.0 yards per attempt, 40.9 rating) was ineffective throwing to all parts of the field and had no big runs (two attempts, 6 yards). Dinking and dunking in a compressed attack gave him little chance in a 34-11 rout. He pushed and made a lot of bad calls, including a second-quarter pinch pass that went for the shortest pick-six in NFL playoff history.

Aaron Donald, Von Miller and the rest of the Rams’ defensive front did cause problems, but the deficiencies of a Cardinals receiving corps that lacked DeAndre Hopkins, as well as other factors, also affected the offense. .

The knee-jerk reaction is that the Cardinals need to reassess whether the combination of Murray and offensive-minded Kingsbury is right for big long-term success. The reality is that Arizona went 11-6 for second place in the tough NFC West. To go from a good wild-card story to a true championship contender, the Cardinals need to focus on making the right upgrades around Murray.

Consider first that Murray didn’t have a superior offensive line. Second, he worked with a makeshift set of receivers, including fading stars AJ Green and Zach Ertz. Much of the Cardinals’ offensive success was tied to their strong traditional running game with James Conner and Chase Edmonds. That served as a consistent complement to a defense that forced turnovers.

Murray was more interested in being an efficient passer to improve in his second year. The numbers backed up that goal in the regular season, with his 100.6 rating and outstanding 7.9 yards per attempt, both career bests. Digging deeper, his high level of production came from monster games in the first half of the season, when the Cardinals started 7-0. He missed three games with an ankle injury in November, and after that, downfield play slowed without Hopkins.

Hopkins is coming off a major knee injury before his 30-year-old season. Green (33) and Ertz (31) are pending unrestricted free agents, along with running backs Conner and Edmonds, wide receiver Christian Kirk, tight end Maxx Williams, guard Max Garcia and backup quarterback Colt McCoy.

The Cardinals have an opportunity to overhaul the skill positions and infuse them with youth around Murray. The best bets for goalies are Conner and Edmonds, because they can return relatively cheaply. Although Arizona will also have several holes to address on defense, they need to reset their offensive weapons to better line up with Murray.

Having Hopkins back will help, and so will better use of dynamic second-round pick Rondale Moore. But the Cardinals would help Murray make a big jump with a real deep speed threat. Kirk, now dedicated to the slots, is not that. Williams and Murray had a good connection before the former suffered a knee injury, and Ertz was a good replacement security blanket. A more athletic option who can stretch half the field should be welcome.

Arizona is perceived as a prolific, explosive and aggressive offense under Kingsbury, but it needs to have more sources of big plays. Although there is creativity, the Cardinals can get into a rut with their short and intermediate passes. Murray also needs to embrace his rare quickness and speed as a running back the same way Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen do to take charge of games at times.

Murray’s rushed production dropped nearly 50 percent, to the point where it ceased to be a factor. That is inexplicable for someone with such a high floor in that sense. His successor in Oklahoma, Jalen Hurts, was close to Murray’s career levels in 2020 for the Eagles as he made up for shaky passing. Murray is a more dangerous passer, like Jackson and Allen, when defenses care too much about his career.

The Cardinals have been pretty sold at tackle, but they need to improve their interior offensive line. Garcia (30), left guard Justin Pugh (31) and center Rodney Hudson (32) are on the downside of their careers. There are similar aging concerns with right tackle Kelvin Beachum (31).

Murray needs a young team around him, like Joe Burrow with the Bengals. The Cardinals were the oldest team in the NFL by average player age (27.3) at the start of the season, with 16 players over the age of 30. That increased with the midseason trade for Ertz.

General manager Steve Keim did a good job of getting enough support from veterans to fast-track a playoff spot with Murray. Now, the script needs to be changed to an aggressive shakeup with Murray more in mind. Kingsbury needs to help Murray become a more consistent all-around force, but that can’t happen with the current staff.

Given their salary-cap status, free agency won’t be fruitful for the Cardinals. That’s fine, because the draft is where they’ll get younger. Wide receiver, tight end and offensive line should rank higher on the team’s list of needs this year after Arizona prioritized defense in the first two post-Murray drafts, with the exception of Moore.

The good news is that the team that beat the Cardinals on Monday and in the division race has a limited future as an all-in team with Matthew Stafford. The 49ers are about to fall behind at QB with the Trey Lance trade and the Seahawks don’t appear to have Russell Wilson much longer.

It was good that the Cardinals got Murray’s feet wet in the playoffs, even though he was drowning at the moment. If they plan to get the real payoff with their talent, they need to execute a patient plan that is timed to deliver the biggest boost when they are at their best.