TEMPE – To say the 2019 Arizona Cardinals are different would be stretching the limits of understatement.
Equipped with a flashy new coach, 40-year-old Kliff Kingsbury, and high-voltage first overall pick Kyler Murray at quarterback, Cardinals fans spent the offseason dreaming of what this suddenly loaded offense could achieve.
They saw it but not until late in the game as Murray rallied the team from an 18-point deficit and the Cardinals finished in a tie with the Detroit Lions Sunday at State Farm Stadium.
Kingsbury wasn’t surprised. In fact, it was one of the key reasons he and the Cardinals front office drafted him.
“We did some analytics on his fourth quarter statistics last year at OU and it’s insane, his numbers,” Kingsbury said Monday. “The completion percentage, touchdown-interception ratio, the yards per carry, that that was something prior to the draft process that we were really fascinated by.”
The first-year NFL coach blamed his early play-calling for Murray and the offense’s sluggish start, telling reporters he was trying to be too creative and didn’t stick to what the team had worked on at practice. But he also recognized that the young quarterback was pressing before turning things around and needed to trust his mechanics and what he was seeing on the field.
“When it does get rough, that’s when you really have to rely on those things,” Kingsbury said. “When things aren’t going well, you’re going to try to do too much and force some things.”
Through the first three quarters of Sunday’s season opener, spectators were treated to the same familiar struggles that have plagued the team since 2016. Murray, for all the fanfare, went just 9 of 25 for 70 yards and an interception through three quarters, leaving the team in an 18-point hole. (For those keeping track at home, the Cardinals had an abysmal 2-288 record in games in which they trailed at least 18 in the fourth quarter prior to Sunday.)
Then Murray showed exactly why Arizona was so enamored with the Heisman winner coming out of the University of Oklahoma. The 22-year-old went 15 of 19 for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, sending the game to overtime.
The eventual 27-27 tie wasn’t about to dampen team spirits. With Murray at quarterback, it was clear after the game players and coaches felt they have something to build on.
“He’s got a real strong disposition and mentality about him,” Larry Fitzgerald told reporters. “He got hit a lot today, he had an interception early in the game. Most young rookie quarterbacks in the first game could’ve easily gone in the tank, but that didn’t happen to him.”
Fitzgerald, who just turned 36 and passed kicker Jim Bakken on Sunday for the franchise record in career games played with 235, was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Murray’s live arm in the season opener. Fitzgerald recorded a team-high eight catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, and brought down two receptions — of 41 and 45 yards — that were longer than any he had over the previous three seasons.
“Kyler gives me opportunities on the field,” Fitzgerald said. “I still feel like 50-50 balls, I can still make my fair share of plays on those. If given the opportunity, I’m going to make some plays.”
For all the magic that Murray wielded to close the game, there were real things for the team to work on. Murray’s passes were deflected at the line multiple times and the quarterback, who is listed at 5 feet 10 inches and 207 pounds, was sacked on five occasions.
And while Kingsbury spoke highly of the offensive line’s performance against the Lions, he also confirmed that starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who missed the opener with a knee injury, would not be ready for Sunday’s matchup against the Baltimore Ravens and would not rule out potential surgery.
The team also auditioned multiple tackles on Monday, Kingsbury said. Veteran and recent signing Michael Crabtree, however, will suit up Sunday.