How Murray and Cardinals Outdueled Rams

 Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) drops back to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) drops back to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

You know that this town isn't big enough
Not big enough for both of us!
This town isn't big enough
Not big enough for both of us
And I ain't gonna leave!

This is exactly what I imagined Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals told the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in their battle to be the class of the NFC West, and possibly the entire NFL. The Rams and Cardinals both entered the game at 3-0, and they came into the weekend third and fourth in our team DVOA rankings. This was a legit matchup between two supercharged offenses and teams looking to make an early claim on a division that's always tough. It's like when two gunslingers would stand off in the Old West. The paces were measured off, the countdown began, and the battle to see who blinked first began.

Well, the Rams blinked first. In fact, they blinked a lot. The Cardinals flew by the Rams 37-20 behind another stellar performance by Murray, who is cementing himself as the early leader in the MVP race. What has intrigued me so far about this Cardinals team is how nothing much has changed schematically. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury still runs his version of the Air Raid, which attacks space and relies heavily on curls and stop routes, and now he has added more screens to the mix. Steven Ruiz of The Ringer pointed this out after their Week 1 victory over Tennessee, but this Cardinals team has gotten a lot better simply because Kyler Murray has gotten so much better within structure. This was on display against a Rams team that was supposed to be built to limit explosive plays.

Take this touchdown in the second quarter for example. The Rams are playing quarters coverage to the trips side of the field, and the Cardinals run Christian Kirk on a corner and Maxx Williams on a seam route. This takes the play-side safety away, but leaves Murray throwing the ball between the dropping linebacker and safety coming over. The anticipation and touch shown here by Murray demonstrate the kind of plays he was not making last year. He has excelled so much without doing the normal Kyler stuff (such as making linebackers look like six-year-olds).

Kyler Murray throws TD to Maxx Williams

Where the Cardinals' offense as a whole has improved is on third down, however. Last year, the Cardinals finished 28th on third and fourth downs with a DVOA of -19.4%. Against the Rams? The Cardinals finished with a DVOA of 138.9%. This is the gunslinger showing up in Arizona's most crucial moments.

The Cardinals are executing a lot better on these pivotal downs, and they continued to do so against L.A. This is a third-and-2 late in the game. Empty formation, and they go after Rams cornerback David Long, who has the unfortunate assignment of being the Rams' other corner. Murray knows that he's getting one-on-one with his receiver A.J. Green going up against Long. Pitch-and-catch, first down, move the chains.

Kyler Murray first down to AJ Green

So in the battle between the two top guns in the NFC West, the Cardinals stood tall.

Where the Game Swung

Where the Game Swung: ARI-LAR

Quarter Time Down To
Play Result
2 10:44 1 10 +15.0% S.Michel rush for no gain, M.Golden forced fumble, B.Baker recovery Turnover
1 5:58 3 6 +13.0% K.Murray 41-yard TD to A.Green TD
2 10:49 2 13 +7.8% K.Murray 14-yard TD to M.Williams TD
2 1:10 3 14 +7.4% K.Murray to R.Moore for gain of 16 First down
2 9:40 3 16 +7.1% K.Murray scrambles for gain of 18 First down

The biggest takeaway from this I see is Kyler Murray essentially saying "Alright pinhead, your time is up" to the Rams defense. Murray dominated the second quarter, the third-and-16 scramble essentially being just Murray doing what he does best: improvising and being better than the other 11 guys against him. It's why he's the MVP through four games. The Cardinals scored touchdowns after both of those third-and-long conversions. The Rams have to be better in those situations.

Kyler Murray scrambles for a first down

By the DVOA

Team Offense VOA Defense VOA Special Teams DVOA Total VOA
ARI 27.4% 17.4% 5.3% 15.2%
LAR 6.4% 25.3% -5.6% -24.5%

And this week, with opponent adjustments...

Team Offense DVOA Defense DVOA Special Teams DVOA Total DVOA
ARI 26.3% 7.9% 5.3% 23.7%
LAR 11.4% 17.8% -5.6% -12.1%

Is There a New Sheriff In the NFC West?

I'm super intrigued by the Cardinals' 4-0 start. The offense looks like it's reaching new heights under the growth (no pun intended) of Kyler Murray, and the defense is playing lights-out to start the season. I think their later success relies on Murray's health, however. Murray is the straw that stirs the drink for this Cardinals offense; so much of Kingsbury's scheme relies on the quarterback's legs both in the run and pass game. If Murray is slowed down by even a bit like he was in 2020, we could see this team pit out like they did last year.

Even more concerning is the Cardinals' upcoming schedule; they'll face San Francisco twice along with tilts against Green Bay, Carolina, and Seattle, all before Thanksgiving. Murray will have to continue to shoot straight for the Cardinals to continue to reign at the top of the NFC West.


17 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2021, 7:04pm

1 Cards Love.

I never thought I'd see the day my Cards receive so much DVOA love from FO.

Kyler's biggest area of improvement has been touch on the short/intermediate passes and that is the only part of his game that was lacking.  

Will be interesting to see if they can avoid a letdown against the Niners who look to be worst in the division for a second straight year.

I don't buy in to MVP talk this early, but just like last year, if the Cards do win the West, he will get the MVP.


4 I'm poking the bear to an…

In reply to by DIVISION

I'm poking the bear to an extent, cos I know how feel about Murray, but my takeaway after four weeks is that this is unsustainable.

Murray is amazing in those broken play, we're behind schedule, make something happen plays, but that feels unsustainable. It's great that he's better at the run of the mill stuff, but he's not that much better that the Cardinals offense isn't still reliant on that magic.

And magic is great. It's why we watch. But it's the exception, not the norm.

Murray, and the Cardinals, won't keep this up, and this  MVP talk is going to look really stupid in December.


7 I guess we'll see.

If he doesn't get injured, I'd say it's certainly sustainable.

Running the ball consistently will help free up everything else on offense.

I thought the Rams were overrated defensively and DVOA seems to back that.  It was a good barometer against a team that knows Kyler's tendencies and they aced it.

The only concerns I have are whether the defense can hold up and get better against the run.  That's their only weakness so far.  

10 I see some parallels with…

I see some parallels with Seattle and Russell Wilson.  They have a recent history of looking unstoppable on offense early in the year, fueled by Russ doing amazing things, and coming back down to Earth as the season carries on.

11 It's a bit too early... compare Kyler and Russ.

This is Kyler's third year and we don't know his ceiling yet.  We know what Russell Wilson is.  The reason I've said that Kyler will have a better career than Russell Wilson is because he's so much better in year 3 than Russell was for the Hawks.

He's doing more and showing more.

16 Well, I meant more…

Well, I meant more stylistically; both are masters at turning a broken play into a huge gain.

Even if you want to talk quality, I think basing the comparison strictly on their third year (which, for Murray, consists of a four game sample), is shaky analysis.  First, it ignores that Wilson was better than Murray in each of their first two years (7.01 and 7.10 ANY/A vs. 5.55 and 6.45).  Second, through Wilson's first four games in 2014 (his third year), his ANY/A was 7.52.  Murray's is an outstanding 8.56 right now, but if you had just looked at Wilson at the same point in his career, it looked like he was taking another big step forward after his first two very good years.

I don't have an FO+ subscription to get at DVOA through week 4 (if that's even possible with said subscription), but here are their FO metrics for each of their first three years:

Wilson, DYAR: 872, 770, 503
Wilson, DVOA: 19.7%, 15.6%. 5.5%

Murray, DYAR/game: 305, 590, 345 (1380 pro-rated to 16 games, for consistency with other figures)
Murray, DVOA: -3.1%, 4.6%, 25.9%

So while it's accurate to say that Murray, through four games in 2021, is having a better season than Wilson has ever had, it's ignoring quite a few other factors that should be incorporated when looking to the future.  Murray very well could surpass Wilson (he has the draft pedigree in his favor, for one thing), but I think it's risky to just assume he'll wind up with a better career than a QB who has people talking about HOF credentials.

15 The dismantling of the Rams…

The dismantling of the Rams was because the Cards had a great gameplan and have the pieces to execute it.  They attacked deep forcing man coverage.  They can win the one on one matches now, and Murray is delivering in tight windows from the pocket.   Murray forced the linebackers to pay attention to his run threat, allowing the RB/TE to get big chunks of yards.   For this game they took Krupp out of it, especially on third down.    On defense I am more concerned though, because they are not strong against the run.   So far teams have gotten behind and have had to abandon it. 

2 Straw Man Murray

Murray is certainly the straw that stirs the drink.  But, with the likes of Hopkins, Green and Kirk and a backfield that now has Moore and Conner, there are more potent potables in the Cardinals cabinet than they have had in a long time.  But the real hero of the offense might be Rodney Hudson; it seems like his presence alone took the offensive line to the next level.  The aspect of the team that has really grown is the secondary; Byron Murphy, Jr. has really impressed and Jalen Thompson is a DB that actually likes to hit people.  All makes me want to ask, "Patrick who?"

8 The team is better overall.

In reply to by CardsFan45373

Improved the O-line, defense and even Kicker.

This team is in a position to succeed against anyone.

Byron Murphy has taken that next step to be a legit cover corner.  Patrick Peterson has been substandard as a cover corner for two years and I wish the Cards would have moved on from him earlier.  It's telling that Malcolm Butler retired after he realized he wasn't good enough to beat out anyone for a starting corner spot.  I wish we could have seen what he had left.

It's great that Murray has a deep and talented receiving corps because teams are going to key on Hopkins every week.  

I like the way the Cards have this hybrid LB corps who can do everything.  The versatility is the key to this defense.


5 Love it!

As a UGA Bulldogs and AZ Cards fan, this is the best football season so far in my life.  

6 "I'm super intrigued by the…

"I'm super intrigued by the Cardinals' 4-0 start. The offense looks like it's reaching new heights under the growth (no pun intended) of Kyler Murray, and the defense is playing lights-out to start the season."

Maybe I'm just daft, but where's the (unintended) pun in this statement?

If it's referring to Murray's stature, that's not really a pun.

9 Schedule concerns?

San Fran and Seattle are down this year.  I can see the Cards sweeping both of them.

Cleveland and Green Bay will be a tough games.

13 at Cleveland will be a fun…

at Cleveland will be a fun game to watch.  Over the past couple years, the Cardinals have enjoyed some success in the East time zone, which is something that used to trip this team up badly.  

14 no pun intended?

why would there be a growth?  and hence why the need for the no pun intended?  does he have one? just curious.