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Kyler Murray Got Paid. Now the Pressure Is On.

The Cardinals gave their fourth-year quarterback a mega-extension, seemingly under the belief that this team is ready to contend. It’s an understandable plan—but one that still deserves close scrutiny.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Offseason drama is fun. It gives us something to talk about and the aggregators something to aggregate. What else are we supposed to write during Super Bowl week besides “Why did Kyler Murray unfollow Cardinals on Instagram?”

But the Murray drama, like most offseason drama, eventually petered out. Murray and the Cardinals still found a way to get to the bargaining table despite the passive-aggressive social media games. The Cardinals announced today that they signed Murray to an extension. And what an extension it is.

Murray’s deal pays him like one of the league’s best quarterbacks, with a yearly value of $46.1 million and a total of $160 million in guarantees. In that Murray had a year remaining on his rookie contract and a fifth-year option in 2023, the five-year extension secures Murray’s place as a franchise cornerstone in Arizona through 2028.

A contract of this value and this size for a player as young and green as Murray is a bold stroke. There are 13 quarterback contracts currently worth $30 million or more in average annual value (AAV). Only three of those quarterbacks have yet to win a playoff game: Derek Carr, Carson Wentz, and now Murray. The comparison becomes more worrisome when guaranteed money is the focus. Murray’s $160 million of (reported) practical guaranteed money is the second-highest figure among all quarterback contracts. You have to get down to $108 million on Wentz’s contract to find another quarterback without a playoff win; after him, it’s Carr with $65.3 million in guarantees. That’s nearly $100 million less than Murray’s figure.

But the quarterback market has been ballooning for years. Yesterday’s overpays often look like today’s bargains. It is understandably tempting to simply wave at Murray’s deal as it passes by, with the belief that it will soon fade into the background of quarterback contracts as more and more megadeals are signed.

Despite the reality that it will inevitably be supplanted, Murray’s deal deserves close scrutiny. It is the first quarterback extension signed after the Browns gave Deshaun Watson a five-year, $230 million contract with every last penny guaranteed. The Watson deal was a shocking, tectonic contract for a number of reasons, given the pending suspension Watson faces, his year off from football during the 2021 season, and the $169 million that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam must put in escrow in order to fund Watson’s guarantees. It is a reasonable expectation that this whale of a contract could affect every subsequent quarterback deal.

Yet the effect, at least on Murray’s deal, seems negligible. While Murray’s contract didn’t beat out Watson’s in guaranteed money, it beat out all others, just topping Aaron Rodgers’s $150.8 million. Rodgers’s three-year extension still has the highest average annual value, but Murray’s $46.1 million AAV again comes in second place, just above Watson’s $46 million. Murray’s deal behaves just like most quarterback extensions behave: by being just a little bit richer than the quarterback extension most recently signed.

Critically, Murray’s deal did not follow in the footsteps of the Watson deal, in that it is not fully guaranteed. Many expected that Kirk Cousins’s 2018 contract with the Minnesota Vikings, which was fully guaranteed for $84 million over three years, would herald an era of fully guaranteed quarterback deals, but it has failed to do so. NFL teams need star quarterbacks and have the money to pay them, but in an injury-riddled league, totally guaranteed deals remain too intimidating for most teams to swallow.

If Murray’s contract is just like any old rookie quarterback extension, Murray must then be compared to Josh Allen and Dak Prescott, both of whom finished their rookie deals and signed run-of-the-mill extensions in the face of Patrick Mahomes’s 10-year deal with the Chiefs. Allen and Prescott were both ranked in the top 10 among NFL quarterbacks in ESPN’s poll of league executives (Allen third and Prescott 10th); Murray was only an honorable mention. In the last three seasons, Allen and Prescott are perfectly tied in EPA/dropback, with the 12th-best figure in the league; Murray is down at 22nd. Around Allen and Prescott are Matthew Stafford, Cousins, Joe Burrow, and Philip Rivers; around Murray are Mac Jones, Jameis Winston, Baker Mayfield, and Jalen Hurts.

This isn’t a fair assessment of Murray, whose rookie season is captured in this dataset. Similarly unfair is branding Murray a quarterback without a playoff win, with only three seasons of opportunities to make the playoffs. Stafford, who himself signed an extension this offseason worth $40 million in AAV and $130 million in guarantees, didn’t win a playoff game until this past season. But it was the Cardinals who elected to extend Murray after just three seasons, committing the money to his future without proof that he can win games for them in the postseason. The Bills extended Allen after three seasons, but he took them to an AFC championship game in year three. Prescott and the Cowboys only made the divisional round by his third season, and he played out a four-year deal and a franchise tag before signing his extension.

Murray hasn’t been as clearly good over his young career as Allen was, or Prescott was, or even players like Burrow and Justin Herbert (both eligible for extensions next year!) have been, because he hasn’t finished seasons well. The Cardinals have faded down the stretch in consecutive seasons. Their 3-6 finish in 2020, which ended on two divisional losses, kicked them out of the playoffs despite a 5-2 start. In 2021, they started even stronger: 10-2, but went 1-4 to close the year out, and put up an embarrassing 34-11 loss in the wild-card round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams. Murray has been a culprit in that decline. Consider his numbers only in the back half of seasons during his career. Again, the sample size is small—but he performs at a below-starter level when the season gets long.

Murray carries some blame for this decline—but the greater share belongs to his head coach, Kliff Kingsbury, who has been enduring late-season slides for far longer than Murray has. Going back to his time at Texas Tech, Kingsbury fights a yearly battle to find the necessary buttons to push, both schematic and motivational, to stay ahead of the adjusting opponents his teams are facing. He always loses. In his past nine seasons as a football coach—six at Texas Tech and three in Arizona—Kingsbury has gone 42-20-1 (.667) in his teams’ first seven games of the season. In the remaining games after those strong starts, he’s 17-44 (.278).

But what exact percentage of the blame belongs to Kliff as opposed to Kyler is a moot point. Neither seems to be going anywhere anytime soon. Kyler has been extended through the 2028 season—Kliff and general manager Steve Keim have both been extended through the 2027 season.

While the worry surrounding Kyler’s contract figure certainly springs from the quality of his play, it’s hard to argue that Kyler isn’t the most functional piece of the Cardinals’ nucleus. Too often, we boil a team’s Super Bowl chances down to the binary reality of their quarterback: either they have a star quarterback and are contending; or they don’t, and they aren’t. While Murray isn’t as good as Prescott or Allen (yet), he’s certainly talented enough to warrant excitement. If the Cardinals didn’t give him a big-money deal, someone else would have. It is a risky but defensible decision. And despite the lack of success to this point, Murray is clearly good enough to win a playoff game as the centerpiece of a functional team. It’s the functional team that is missing.

Since drafting Murray with the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Cardinals have drafted consecutive first-round linebackers: Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins. Both have struggled finding playing time, and both have struggled on the field when playing. To justify the selections, veteran linebackers like De’Vondre Campbell and Jordan Hicks were ousted in free agency. Campbell immediately enjoyed success in Green Bay the year after his departure.

Campbell isn’t alone. Arizona’s 2017 first-round pick, Haason Reddick, a hybrid player who bounced from inside linebacker to outside pass rusher during his time with the Cardinals, was not extended following a 12.5-sack 2020 season, and was also immediately successful at his next stop, in Carolina. To bolster their pass rush last offseason, the Cardinals signed J.J. Watt, whose contract was so large they didn’t feel compelled this offseason to retain star pass rusher Chandler Jones, who is now in Las Vegas.

Simmons, Collins, and Watt for the price of Campbell, Hicks, Reddick and Jones is just bad business. On offense, the bag is a bit more mixed. Murray was drafted with the receivers who were supposed to populate Kingsbury’s WR-heavy Air Raid scheme: Andy Isabella in the second round; Hakeem Butler in the fourth. Both flopped. But the Cardinals then fleeced the Texans for DeAndre Hopkins, a bona fide star, and 2018 draftee Christian Kirk continued to grow in his starting role. Chase Edmonds found an important role as a scatback; 2021 free agent acquisitions Rodney Hudson and James Conner both excelled, powering the Cardinals’ offense to its 7-0 start and eventual playoff berth. Disaster averted.

Yet still, the house doesn’t feel ordered in Arizona. With Kirk now in Jacksonville under a massive free agent contract, the Cardinals again traded an early draft pick for a veteran receiver, sending their 2022 first-round selection to the Ravens for Marquise Brown. Kingsbury’s system was supposed to summon a passing game from a deep, flexible receiving corps—instead, it’s become top-heavy and expensive. Kingsbury’s first offenses minimized the number of tight end snaps he relied on—now, the Cardinals have a pricey tight end in Zach Ertz (another trade acquisition; another player on the wrong side of 30) and an early draft pick in 2022 second-rounder Trey McBride.

What resources are left to be spent elsewhere? The Cardinals’ starting tackle duo, D.J. Humphries and Kelvin Beachum, is hardly the pair you’d like to see protecting your $230 million quarterback—and both are on contracts that expire next offseason, as are starting guards Will Hernandez and Justin Pugh.

On their cap sheet and their offseason transaction list, the Cardinals are acting like a team that barely lost the Super Bowl, looking to run it back with a final push over the finish line. They extended the head coach that bears some responsibility for the late-season declines, whose offensive systems increasingly demanded draft capital and cap space spent on another new pass catcher. They extended the general manager who has overseen every misstep in roster management, enabling the blind aggression of his head coach in building out an overloaded offensive depth chart. And now, they have extended the quarterback who has yet to prove that he gives them an equal chance to win it all as the many other mammoth-contract quarterbacks do.

But they did not just lose the Super Bowl. They’re still a few rounds of playoff football away from the Super Bowl, stuck in a division with the reigning NFL champion and the NFC runner-up, and about to lose the huge competitive advantage afforded by their rookie contract quarterback. Nothing about the Cardinals screams “contender” other than the price tag of their signal caller and the extensions offered to their head coach and general manager. You can act like a contending team all you like. It doesn’t make you one.