You know that feeling when something you said as a joke or imagined in a dream comes to life, and you’re suddenly staring it in the face, wondering whether you’re an infinitely powerful wizard capable of bending existence to your whims or an infinitely powerless fool wandering through a reality that defies explanation? Of course you do. It’s 2019—life is just bouncing through this feeling over and over again. Most of the time, it’s bad.
Sometimes, though, it’s good. Take the Arizona Cardinals.
Last year, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury raved about Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray in an interview ahead of a matchup between the two college teams. Kingsbury threw out a juicy bit of praise: He said that if he could, he would take Murray with the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
Kliff Kingsbury with some high praise for OU QB Kyler Murray:— Eric Kelly (@EricKellyTV) October 28, 2018
"Kyler is a freak.....I would take him with the first pick of the draft if I could." pic.twitter.com/aYYamjMu7o
Specific, but meaningless. What were the odds that Kingsbury, a coach with a sub-.500 career record at Texas Tech, would gain control over any NFL team’s draft board? What were the odds that Murray, an athlete who signed a multimillion-dollar contract in baseball, would ever go pro in football?
Fast-forward six months, and Kingsbury is the head coach of the Cardinals, who are widely expected to take Murray with the draft’s first overall pick on Thursday night. It is a fever dream that I joked about and never expected to come to fruition. At this point, Arizona’s selecting Murray is the consensus prediction—the QB is the oddsmakers’ clear favorite to go no. 1. Before we accept this reality, however, it’s worth taking a step back and assessing how ridiculous each individual aspect of the Cardinals’ current situation is.
The Firing Without a Regime Change
Let’s start with the one thing these Cardinals have done that actually has precedent. When head coach Bruce Arians retired at the end of the 2017 season, the team hired Steve Wilks, a defensive-minded coach with more than a decade of experience as an NFL assistant, to be his replacement. In 2018 Arizona regressed on both sides of the ball, dropping from an average of 4.7 yards per play to a league-worst 4.3 yards per play on offense, and going from an average of 4.9 yards per play allowed to 5.4 yards per play allowed on defense. The Cardinals finished 3-13, tied for the worst record in franchise history. (And Cardinals franchise history is generally pretty bad!) So, just one year into a four-year contract, the organization fired Wilks.
Wilks is the 11th person since 2000 to spend a single year as the head coach of an NFL team, not including interim coaches. You may remember the 49ers hiring overmatched handyman Jim Tomsula in 2015, then firing him on the heels of a 5-11 season to bring in former college wunderkind Chip Kelly, and then firing Kelly after a 2-14 campaign in 2016.
Here’s what’s weird about the Cardinals scenario: When Arizona fired Wilks, it retained the man who hired him, general manager Steve Keim. This is exceedingly rare. In San Francisco, Kelly’s firing coincided with the firing of GM Trent Baalke. The same thing happened with the 2013 Browns, whose hiring and firing of Rob Chudzinski was part of a stretch in which the team shuffled through three general managers in three years, and the 2013 Jaguars, who canned one-year head coach Mike Mularkey and GM Gene Smith within an 11-day span. The one-and-done firings of Raiders coach Hue Jackson, Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr., and Dolphins coach Cam Cameron also accompanied GM changes. Before that, the last one-year NFL head coach was Oakland’s Art Shell, who was hired and fired by Raiders owner/general manager Al Davis—a man who couldn’t be replaced.
If a coach gets fired after one year, it’s almost always the sign of a regime change. Sometimes, coaches get fired after a single season because the old GM is axed and the new GM wants a fresh start. Sometimes, a first-year coach proves so disastrous that his hiring itself causes the GM to get fired. But it’s rare that a general manager gets two shots at hiring coaches when the first one is such a disaster. Keim made a mistake hiring Wilks, and still got to hire Wilks’s successor—and what a choice Keim made.
The Turn to a College Football Coach and an Air Raid Dream
Last year, I wrote a post calling for an NFL team to adopt the Air Raid offense. I enjoy writing about my various football pipe dreams, like the NFL replacing the Pro Bowl with a third-place game and pro teams embracing the strategies pioneered by Friday Night Lights legend Eric Taylor.
In November, I wrote about the job market for recently fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury is an Air Raid whiz and exceptional quarterbacks coach who turned the Red Raiders into a dominant offensive force and worked with Patrick Mahomes II, Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum, and (cough) Johnny Manziel in college. Kingsbury is also—and I cannot stress this enough—extremely handsome. Yet despite his offensive and coiffed-hair wizardry, it seemed odd that Kingsbury could jump to become a top-level college head coach or NFL offensive coordinator after going 35-40 in his six-season tenure at Texas Tech. In December, Kingsbury took a job as the offensive coordinator at USC—not a bad spot for him to end up.
Then the Cardinals went and hired Kingsbury as their head coach. Not a coordinator, not a position coach—in a month, he’d ascended from being a sub-.500 head coach at a mid-tier Big 12 program to a coordinator at a brand-name power-conference school to a HEAD COACH IN THE NFL. Even as an Air Raid and Kingsbury enthusiast, I never saw this coming.
Kingsbury is not the first head coach to be plucked straight from the college ranks, but most of his predecessors fell into one of two camps: coaches who won Division I national championships (Pete Carroll, Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Dennis Erickson) or coaches who also had years of experience as an NFL assistant (Bill Walsh, Tom Coughlin, Al Groh). The only other coach who recently jumped from college to the pros despite having a losing record at his school and zero NFL experience is Mike Riley, who parlayed an 8-14 record at Oregon State into a three-year stint as the Chargers head coach. But at least Riley had coached in the CFL. The most similar head-coaching hire to Kingsbury may be when the Eagles brought in Chip Kelly in 2013. Then again, Kelly didn’t have a losing record in college; he turned Oregon into a perennial powerhouse, going 46-7 in his four years as the Ducks head coach, even if he fell short of a national title.
The Cardinals hired Kingsbury on the strength of his strategic acumen rather than on the strength of his accomplishments. Personally, I think the move will work—I believe in the Air Raid philosophy—but even I can’t believe that they’re out on this limb.
The Pursuit of a QB Prospect Unlike Any Other
The NFL draft sometimes feels like an episode of The Price Is Right, with teams trying to land on a quarterback who comes as close to 6-foot-5 as possible without going over. Did this quarterback have a productive college career? Who cares? If he’s 6-foot-4 and seven-eighths of an inch, an NFL team will take him. (It also helps if a QB is reasonably handsome—not as handsome as Kingsbury, but just enough—and does a good job answering various brain-teaser questions during combine interviews.)
Kyler Murray is not a cookie-cutter quarterback prospect. He’s a teeny-tiny, touchdown-tossing, tackle-ditching prodigy, an athlete who was selected in the first round of the 2018 MLB draft and then went on to win the Heisman Trophy. He is unlike anyone who has ever seriously garnered consideration to be the first pick in the NFL draft.
Murray’s height alone is a stunner. No team has spent a first-round draft pick on a sub-6-foot quarterback in the modern era of the NFL. (There were a handful drafted this high in the early days of the league, such as when 5-foot-7 Davey O’Brien was picked fourth overall in 1939. In his rookie year, O’Brien threw six touchdowns against 17 interceptions and made the Pro Bowl. Football sucked super hard back in the day, which perhaps explains why O’Brien retired after just two pro seasons to become an FBI agent.) Only four sub-6-foot quarterbacks have thrown passes in NFL games since 1990: Doug Flutie, Russell Wilson, Seneca Wallace, and B.J. Daniels. (Oddly, the last three were all on the Seahawks, with Wallace and Daniels playing more snaps at wide receiver than at quarterback.) But studies show that quarterback height is less important than NFL teams seem to believe it is. It’s not that tall quarterbacks are bad; it’s that front offices overvalue bad quarterbacks because they’re tall, leading to a slight negative correlation between height and career success when adjusting for draft position.
Murray is not a bad quarterback. In fact, he’s absolutely incredible. Back in September, I wrote a plea for Murray to give up his nearly $5 million guaranteed contract with MLB’s Oakland A’s to keep playing football, because I liked watching him do stuff like this:
Kyler Murray is GOOD at this football thing pic.twitter.com/0ZYJTuRxrP— Jack McGuire (@JackMacCFB) September 1, 2018
And then Murray started doing stuff like this:
What. A. Throw.— ESPN (@espn) December 30, 2018
Kyler Murray and Oklahoma aren't done yet! pic.twitter.com/BdfBe4BLCV
Murray is the best passer in this class and also the best running QB to enter the draft in years. He has two elite skill sets packed into a Pomeranian-sized frame. He’s different. While NFL teams typically hate different, especially at quarterback, the Cardinals don’t seem to mind. After all, different describes everything else they’re doing right now.
The Willingness to Give Up on a First-Round QB After One Year
Last but not least, we have the most unprecedented thing the Cardinals seem prepared to do. If they choose to move forward with Murray, that means they’ll probably put an end to the Josh Rosen era, just one year after selecting him with the 10th overall pick in the 2018 draft. (Perhaps even more interesting is the idea that the Cardinals could draft Murray and not give up on Rosen, a revolutionary theory that The Ringer’s Kevin Clark explored. This, too, would be incredible and unprecedented.)
Rosen had a brutal introduction to the NFL. He finished the 2018 season ranked dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating, QBR, touchdown rate, and yards per attempt. He wasn’t particularly close in that last statistic, averaging 5.8 yards per pass while the QBs directly above him (Josh Allen and Joe Flacco) averaged 6.5. Rosen was also second to last in completion percentage. While the past few seasons have shown that rookie quarterback totals can sometimes be cast aside—Jared Goff’s rookie stats were somehow even worse than Rosen’s, and he just made the Super Bowl in his third year in the league—Rosen’s performance was cause for concern. There were five quarterbacks picked in the first round of the 2018 draft, and none looked as bad as Rosen.
But NFL franchises don’t give up on first-round quarterbacks who have bad rookie years. The last time that a team used first-round draft picks on QBs in back-to-back years was in 1963 and ’64, when the Los Angeles Rams took Terry Baker—the only player ever to win a Heisman Trophy and play in the Final Four—and almost instantly realized that his arm was extremely weak. “Scouting in those days wasn’t nearly as thorough as it is today,” Harland Svare, the team’s coach at the time, told The Los Angeles Times in 1987. “We had never seen him drop back and throw a straight pass from the pocket.” Technically, the Baltimore Colts used consecutive first-round picks on QBs in 1982 and ’83, but that situation doesn’t compare. The team’s 1982 pick, Art Schlichter, blew his entire rookie salary illegally gambling on sports and ratted on his bookies when he couldn’t pay his debts, leading to a suspension from the league; the team’s 1983 pick, John Elway, never played a down for the Colts.
There are a few modern-day instances in which teams have used first-round picks on quarterbacks two years apart, most recently when the Browns took Johnny Manziel in 2014 after picking Brandon Weeden in 2012. But even that feels like a bad comparison to this Cardinals situation, since neither pick was in the top 20 and Weeden was 28 years old when he was drafted.
Normally, when a franchise drafts a quarterback in the first round, that team digs in around that quarterback, for better or worse. For the front office, it’s a necessity—what chance do they stand of keeping their jobs after overseeing a massive scouting failure at football’s most important position? But passing up future quarterbacks and dedicating additional playing time to a QB bust isn’t helpful for any team—it’s the sunk-cost fallacy, football edition. A team’s primary goal should be to maximize wins, not minimize embarrassment over past decisions.
Once again, the job of fixing this mess falls on Keim—the man who caused it. The same person who hired Wilks and drafted Rosen had the opportunity to hire Wilks’s replacement and now has the opportunity to draft Rosen’s. His 2019 choice at head coach was astounding; if he picks Murray, he will have made my favorite coaching hire and my favorite drafting decision in years.
Few people are given the opportunity to make things right after their failures, in part because so many pretend that they didn’t make a mistake until it’s too late to do anything about it. As the final hours tick down until the draft, it’s worth recognizing how uncommon it is to see the Cardinals buck that trend. Arizona is admitting it screwed up, and rethinking its strategy rather than trying to put a positive spin on past failings. Out of all of the team’s outside-the-box choices, that one may be the boldest.