Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
Published 11:35 p.m. ET Aug. 15, 2019 | Updated 1:03 a.m. ET Aug. 16, 2019
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Thud.
That pretty much sums up the rough night at the office for prized Arizona Cardinals rookie Kyler Murray, who met the NFL learning curve in full force.
On his first snap against the Oakland Raiders, Murray escaped the pocket and ran out of bounds.
Never mind the popcorn. Little did we know that short scramble would rank as one of Murray’s highlights.
On his last snap, he was sacked in the end zone by safety Lamarcus Joyner for a safety — thanks to yet another Raiders blitz that kept the young quarterback constantly on the move.
In between, the blitzes were compounded by even more penalties that helped derail whatever good intentions Murray came to work with.
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It was my first glimpse of Murray in live action — a week after his near-perfect preseason debut in one series against the Los Angeles Chargers.
My first impression? Thank goodness it won’t be the last impression.
The stats told only part of the story: Murray completed just 3 of 8 passes for a paltry 12 yards, was sacked twice, blitzed five times and managed a 45.8 passer rating. In four series with Murray at quarterback, the Cardinals managed just two first downs — both by penalty on the first drive as Raiders rookie end Clelin Ferrell was flagged for illegal hands to the face. Otherwise, it was zero earned first downs and a 26-0 hole when Murray gave way to Brett Hundley late in the second quarter.
Yet the numbers, as bad as they were, don’t reflect the situational difficulties that set the tone for Murray’s lesson plan. On two of the series, the Cardinals began backed up at their 10-yard line due to special teams infractions. The two other drives fizzled when apparent third-down conversions were negated by penalties. The Cardinals had 10 penalties for 89 yards (including the two special teams flags) while Murray was in the game.
Although Murray was penalized twice for false starts — the first instance proved he couldn’t catch a break as a rookie, with the official throwing the flag as he too-tightly interpreted Murray’s clapping as a violation that forced the defense to react — the sloppiness was widespread. Another flag came for delay of game, with could link directly to rookie coach Kliff Kingsbury getting his play-calls in from the sideline. Add the typical holding, illegal blocks and the like and it all tallied to 14 penalties for 108 yards to contribute to the 33-26 defeat.
That underscores a bigger lesson for the Cardinals than for Murray. The expectations for Murray are seemingly poised to blow through the roof at State Farm Stadium, which is what you get for players drafted No.1 overall and what you’d expect for an exciting talent who can take away breath with his arm or his legs. But as much as a star quarterback can elevate the team around him, Murray — like any young quarterback — needs a strong supporting cast. Sloppy mistakes that put the rookie’s back against the wall with long-yardage situations will counteract the positives in a hurry.
The other issue, so evident in the face of the blitzes dialed by on Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, is protection. Without it, Murray and the Cardinals won’t stand a chance. The blocking breakdowns against Oakland provided a huge lesson about what Murray can expect week after week – especially if the Cardinals don’t prove solid enough to handle it – as teams will creatively test Kingsbury’s spread offense with all forms of exotic pressures.
And just think: The packages the Raiders threw at Murray merely represented an introduction.
“When you play these spread teams and they’re spreading you out, running the quarterback, you’ve got to take some gaps away,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “You try to present some different looks. Otherwise, they’ll dice you. I think we did a good job mixing it up. We had some timely blitzes.”
The Raiders are being documented by NFL Films this summer for the annual reality series, but on Thursday night Murray was essentially Mr. Hard Knocks.
Another impression: Yes, Murray demonstrated some positives that aren’t reflected with the stats. It could have been worse. But on a handful of occasions, he avoided danger and scrambled out of sacks. He protected himself when he ran, scooting out of bounds once and sliding into second base (it seemed) on another run where he avoided taking the big hit. He’s got common sense to go with the football IQ that people rave about.
Murray never committed a turnover, either, protecting the football and by extension his team, too. And with a flick the wrist, he threw a couple of darts (including one over the middle that was dropped and another that was called back by a flag) that demonstrated a quick release that he made look easy. No, he’s not conventional or prototypical. He doesn’t always step into his throws. But he still looks the part, even with the bottom line results on Thursday night.
Said Kingsbury: “He performed well under the circumstances and made the right decisions with the football.”
Which is one way to navigate a steep learning curve.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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