After three years of working with their 24-year-old franchise quarterback, the Cardinals did not have enough confidence in Murray’s professionalism to resist taking the flabbergasting step of putting in writing their desire to micromanage his preparation. After feeling like he took too much blame for Arizona’s latest collapse last season, Murray had already showed signs of disenchantment with the Cardinals before this contract negotiation. The team and its most indispensable player may have a piece of paper that can keep them together for six more years, but this is no fairy-tale sports marriage.
It’s a business arrangement that both sides would have been foolish to abandon too early. The Cardinals have the most coveted asset in football: a young, multifaceted quarterback who can carry an offense. Murray, the first pick of the 2019 NFL draft, plays for a coach who has known him since high school and in an offense that suits his dual-threat abilities. With his five-year extension, he will be among the league’s highest-paid players starting next season. Stars are always in a hurry to sign that lucrative second contract. Yet for all the security this deal gives Murray and Arizona, the relationship seems so fragile.
Candace Buckner: Kyler can’t play today, guys. He’s got to finish his homework.
They can try to use the fan and media reaction to the leaking of that short-lived homework clause as the source of their frustration, but it won’t mask the real problems. The Cardinals do not trust their quarterback. Murray cannot trust a franchise that would insult him like that. And on the field, no one can trust this team because, under Coach Kliff Kingsbury, it has played its worst during the most important times.
When Arizona paired Kingsbury with Murray and then traded for game-changing wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins a year later, General Manager Steve Keim thought he was creating alignment with a team built around a creative and potent offense. Well, how about this for alignment? Going into the 2022 season, the Cardinals have a middling head coach, an upset quarterback and a star receiver serving a six-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Dysfunction and dissatisfaction abound.
On Thursday, after his study addendum had become public, Murray met with Arizona reporters to express frustration with being perceived a slacker.
“To think that I can accomplish everything that I have accomplished in my career and not be a student of the game and not have that passion and not take this serious is disrespectful, and it’s almost a joke,” said Murray, who became the No. 1 pick despite concerns that, at 5-foot-10, he was too short to be a top-tier player. “To me, I’m flattered. I want to say flattered that you all think that at my size, I can go out there and not prepare for the game and not take it serious. It’s disrespectful, I feel like, to my peers, to all the great athletes and great players that are in this league. This game is too hard. To play the position that I play in this league, it’s too hard.”
Murray focused on the public criticism, but it was just a way to show how hurt he was without blasting the team. Arizona had rewarded him with life-altering money, but it came with a caveat. And now the entire world knew about it. Many considered it a character flaw.
During a week in which the Athletic wrote a story in which anonymous league sources disparaged former MVPs Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, it felt like open season on the accomplishments of Black quarterbacks who have graced the game with their exciting brands of football. Such negative perceptions are ludicrous — and informative, because they show how hard it will be to achieve lasting change in a sport that still otherizes Black quarterbacks instead of respecting them as standard bearers in an evolving game.
“Obviously, the Black quarterback has had to battle to be in this position that we are in, to have this many guys in the league playing,” Mahomes told reporters after being referred to as playing “streetball” in an anonymous quote. “Every day, we’re proving that we should have been playing the whole time. We’ve got guys that can think just as well as they can use their athleticism. It’s always weird when you see guys like me, Lamar, Kyler kind of get that on them when other guys don’t. But at the same time we’re going out there to prove ourselves every day to show we can be some of the best quarterbacks in the league.”
But it’s also important to look beyond surface-level generalization here. The anonymous criticisms of Mahomes and Jackson were remarks to a reporter from outside sources. In the case of Murray, the Cardinals did the smack-talking, then wrote it down, with rules that specified not playing video games while studying, among other things. And for some reason, Murray, with the guidance of his agent, still went with it and signed.
It leaves a sense that Murray knows he has some maturing to do. Which is not an indictment at his age. When reporters asked if he was mad the Cardinals included the addendum, he didn’t comment. So he was very mad. But with an offer that guaranteed him more than $100 million, he opted for pragmatism over emotion.
After the news got out, though, Arizona looked much worse than Murray. It either handed out a monster contract grudgingly to a young player with commitment red flags, or it has yet to understand and appreciate him. No matter how you look at it, this does not bode well for a partnership that is supposed to last.
As soon as there was scrutiny, the Cardinals struck the homework requirement.
“After seeing the distraction it created, we removed the addendum from the contract,” the team said in a statement. “It was clearly perceived in ways that were never intended. Our confidence in Kyler Murray is as high as it’s ever been and nothing demonstrates our belief in his ability to lead this team more than the commitment reflected in this contract.”
Good try with that boilerplate defense. The commitment reflected in that contract is one that any other team in Arizona’s situation would have offered Murray. At 24, he’s a top-10 NFL quarterback. If he were available in an open market, three-fourths of the league would stampede to pay him nine figures. The contract is smart business, for asset protection if nothing else.
For Murray and Arizona, confidence in each other is priceless. It will require a lot more work. Six more years of this partnership feels more like a dare right now. Never has the contract extension of a quarterback prodigy seemed so glum.