You’d think the NFL, the corporate and cultural behemoth of American sports, would have a set of rules governing the attributes of a franchise quarterback.
You’d think, 100 years into this thing, it would have a stone-scroll template that determines how it chooses the young men who become the most exalted and fetishized athletes in the game.
You would be wrong — not that it doesn’t try. Oh god, how it tries. It has the combine and the pro days and the interviews and the individual workouts and the jumps and the leaps and the shuttles and the endless measuring and the computerized timing and whatever else it can think of to analyze a human being within a centimeter of his life. And yet, when it comes to what’s important and predictive as it pertains to a presumptive franchise quarterback, your guess is probably as good as theirs.
History shows us he can be slow. He can be weak. He can be dumb. He can be a bad teammate. He can even combine a few of those at once and still get drafted before the first bank of commercials. But as the NFL defined itself as America’s favorite pseudo-religion, and as the dumb and the weak and the slow cleared the underbrush for future generations of dumb and weak and slow, there remained just one thing a quarterback couldn’t be: short. Football’s merchants of speculation might argue about Wonderlic scores, hand sizes and the pitfalls of a country-club background, but they all view short the same way: quantifiable and damned obvious. Short can’t hide.
Being tall excuses just about everything. If he’s 6-4 and dumb, they’ll call him football-smart. If he’s 6-4 and slow, they’ll tout his real or imagined ability to move in the pocket. If he’s 6-4 and weak, they’ll change his diet and point him toward the weight room. If he’s 6-4 and a bad teammate, they’ll surround him with veterans who can fix that right quick. Every flaw can be worked around or compensated for or beaten out, organizationally speaking. Except height.
Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray measured 5-10 1/8 at the combine, and the number was reported as an achievement, maybe even a defining moment in the Heisman Trophy winner’s career. He is small, not just for a quarterback but for a high school point guard. And yet the Arizona Cardinals just might make him the first pick of the 2019 NFL draft.
How did this happen? Did the NFL’s thinking change? Or is Kyler Murray that rarest of humans — the kind who can change the NFL’s thinking?
MURRAY IS MANY things other than short. He is wickedly fast, smart, strong and slightly mysterious. He throws the ball with both ease and a force that can be measured audibly. He possesses an undercover agent’s awareness of his immediate surroundings and a distant reserve that is easily — and inaccurately, according to those who know — taken for cold detachment.
Some of the stories seem to border on the apocryphal. He is so fast that his center at Oklahoma, Creed Humphrey, swears there were times he would block on a quarterback draw and “feel the wind coming off him when he’d go by.” At the risk of further hyperbole, Murray’s athletic ability might be generationally transcendent. By the end of April, he will be the only person ever drafted in the first round in both Major League Baseball (ninth, by Oakland, in 2018) and the NFL. The Athletics gave him a $4.7 million bonus and projected him to be their star center fielder of the future. They also gave him their blessing when he said he wanted to play one more year of football at Oklahoma, which he turned into 4,361 yards passing, 1,001 yards rushing and that Heisman. The Athletics’ generosity came with a cost; now he’s someone else’s quarterback of the future. (Unless, of course, they return with the offer of a major league contract that might be lucrative enough to change his mind one more time. Baker Mayfield got $32.7 million guaranteed as last year’s No. 1 pick — the A’s could double that if they choose.)
The analytics that recommended Mayfield, another undersized Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oklahoma, serve Murray well. Murray’s 11.6 yards per pass attempt was the highest by an FBS quarterback since 2004. And despite his height, he had just four balls batted down or defended within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage last season. Daniel Jones, a 6-5 likely first-round pick from Duke, had 14. In addition, the NFL’s lean toward more spread-style offenses (the kind Kliff Kingsbury will employ with the Cardinals) has lessened the perceived risk of a short quarterback. Evaluators can point to Russell Wilson and Drew Brees as evidence that shorter quarterbacks can find passing lanes inside and outside the pocket, and they can fulfill themselves by comparing Murray to Wilson-despite vast differences in speed and style-because nobody has much of an imagination anymore.
“Kyler’s always had bigger people in front of him,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley says. “He’s always had to find creative arm angles, find different lanes, move in the pocket to create them. He’s had to deal with it forever. I’ve always said, ‘If you’re going to be short now, you’d rather be short the whole time.'”
It’s an interesting recommendation: Look, we know he’s short, but he’s always been short.
“Don’t look at his film from college or even high school,” says Tom Westerberg, Murray’s head coach at Allen High, north of Dallas. “Look at peewee football or middle school. He’s always been what he is now — a small quarterback. There was never a time when he was one of the bigger ones on the field. This is all he knows, and I think he’s going to challenge the NFL’s thinking and then blow it out of the water.”
Murray started for Riley at Oklahoma for just one year, and yet when Riley is asked if there’s one play that typifies Murray’s rare skills, he is silent for a full 13 seconds as he sorts them through his mind. Finally, he says it happened midway through last season, against Texas, when the Sooners’ offensive linemen so thoroughly botched a play that it’s a wonder they all made it out alive. The ball was snapped, and the right guard and right tackle pulled to the left while the left tackle pulled to the right. As they tried to dodge one another — there’s a split second where it seems plausible the right guard might ask the left tackle what he’s doing there — Murray acted as if this were the plan all along. He maneuvered past the pileup, sidestepped an unblocked defensive end, turned the corner and ran 67 yards for a touchdown.
“Here’s the one thing you need to know about Kyler,” says former NFL quarterback and coach Jim Zorn, who worked with Murray to prepare him for his pro day. “Short goes away when you see what he can do.”
THE MAKING OF a legend, in three parts:
I. Jeff Fleener was an assistant coach at Allen High — home of the $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium — when he first heard that Kevin Murray had started a business to train high school and college quarterbacks in the area.
Another coach told him, “Kevin’s son can get it.”
That’s a good tip, right? Son of a former star quarterback is training in your area, be worth your time to check it out.
“Oh yeah? How old is he?” Fleener asked.
“He’s 9, but I’m telling you …”
Fleener cut him off. “OK, whatever. I mean — he’s 9.”
The guy shrugged and raised his eyebrows in a suit-yourself kind of way.
“I’m just telling you,” he said, “the kid can flat-out throw — and he can fly.”
“Yeah, but he’s 9,” Fleener said.
“Yeah,” the guy said, “but just you wait.”
II. When Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon was at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia, the last thing his quarterback did before he took the field on Friday night was take out his phone and watch a highlight video to get hyped for the game.
Sermon asked him what he was watching, and the quarterback just held the phone up and said, “Kid from Texas. Kyler Murray.”
The quarterback knew this Murray kid had never lost a high school game. Eventually, he would go on to win three straight state championships at Allen and enter the conversation about the best and most famous prep player in Texas history.
Back in that locker room in Marietta, Sermon watched the video to its end, and when that little kid was finished running past people and throwing over them, Sermon looked at his quarterback and said, “Wow. He’s something else.”
III. Lincoln Riley is sitting in a deep leather couch in his office when he’s asked to recall his first impressions of Murray. The office has the feel of a sacristy — ornate furnishings, ceilings tall enough to create echo-y acoustics, a Vatican-level shrine of the sponsor’s brand of sneakers on one wall. It’s an oligarch’s office presided over by a 35-year-old guy in a sweatsuit and a baseball cap. The scene is worth mentioning because A) guys like Murray helped to build it, and B) it’s so comically outsized and ostentatious that even Riley seems a little embarrassed by it.
Asked about Murray, Riley tugs at the bill of his OU golf cap and starts talking about the one and only occasion he’s known Murray to run a timed 40-yard dash, right after Murray transferred to Oklahoma in 2015.
“He left Texas A&M and came here after the first semester ended, early December, so by the time we got him he hadn’t been playing a sport for about six weeks,” Riley says. “It was the first time in his life he wasn’t playing a sport, and it was easily the most out of shape I’ve ever seen him. For him, he was kind of pudgy. I knew he was very athletic, but I thought he might come in here and run a 4.5, which for a quarterback is blazing fast. Well, we tested him the first week he got here and he ran a 4.3 on a laser. That was just like — wow. Out of shape — wow. And that’s the last 40 he’ll ever run in his life.”
Is that why Murray didn’t run at the combine or his pro day?
Riley draws his words out like blown glass.
“There … is … no … need.”
VIEWED FROM A certain angle, Kyler Murray’s life has taken shape as a variation on a theme. Thirty-six years before Kyler became an Athletic, 18-year-old Kevin Murray, Kyler’s dad, was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers and played one unsatisfying year in the minors before deciding to play quarterback at Texas A&M. He was sued by the Brewers, who claimed breach of contract and demanded that Kevin’s $35,000 signing bonus be repaid.
After leaving baseball, Kevin led the Aggies to two Southwest Conference championships, set SWC records for total offense and sat through 12 rounds of the 1987 draft without hearing his name. Nineteen quarterbacks — Mark Vlasic, Sammy Garza, Ken Lambiotte, Dave Walter from Michigan Tech — were taken in 12 rounds of that draft, and a Dallas Morning News story on Kevin after the draft ran under the headline, “He’s a QB Nobody Wants.” In the story, one NFL scout, as if calling out a 1987 bingo card for criticizing black quarterbacks, said the league decided Kevin was “a little arrogant, didn’t always go to school; his work habits are not good and he’s moody.” There was talk that he was an inaccurate passer, despite his completing nearly 60 percent of his passes at a place and time when throwing the ball happened primarily on third-and-10. An unnamed A&M official at the time told the Morning News that Kevin wasn’t drafted because he was black, and Lynn Amedee, A&M’s offensive coordinator, said, “Somebody blackballed him.”
Kevin, who still runs a quarterback-training service, was a prominent figure at Kyler’s pro day workout in Norman. He was on the field helping his son warm up before his throwing drills, and he and his wife, Missy, stood directly behind Kyler as Zorn led the throwing session. “Kevin isn’t there so he can say, ‘Look what I’ve done,'” Zorn says. “He’s supporting his son. The son could say, ‘Dad, go away,’ and he would. But Kyler respects his dad and appreciates what he’s doing for him.” When I introduced myself to Kevin earlier in the day and told him I’d like to interview him in the coming weeks for this story, he nodded noncommittally and flashed a look that discouraged further conversation.
“Kevin is tough,” Westerberg says. “He has a pretty good front to people who don’t know him. He definitely wants what is best for his son, but he is not a coddling parent. If Kyler does something wrong, he’s going to get the same look Kevin gave you.”
Camp Murray is a tightly sealed ecosystem but is not without its complications: Kevin’s brother, former big league outfielder Calvin Murray, is a longtime lieutenant of agent Scott Boras, who handled Kyler’s baseball negotiations. When Kyler announced his decision to play football instead of baseball, any further public discussion of baseball was prohibited. Kyler and his parents declined to be interviewed for this story, and two sources — despite having nothing but laudatory things to say about Kyler — had to clear it with the family before consenting to speak.
No man’s distrust is abstract, untethered to the lines and angles that shape his life, and in that light, Kevin’s protection of Kyler is understandable. Kyler is a 21-year-old public figure in a hypercritical environment where everyone has a voice, and opinions are wielded like knives. The insulation and learned circumspection is part of the reason Kyler lives in the spotlight and yet remains unconstrained by it. Athletes would seem to face a binary choice: Embrace the fame or avoid it. Either on guard or onstage. Murray resides in a third realm: He ignores its very existence. If you don’t acknowledge it, is it really there? And when it’s been there as long as you can remember — when coaches know your name when you’re 9 and kids four states over are watching your high school highlights as pregame hype — does it eventually blend into the background, just more white noise?
“Kyler’s aware of the attention — he just doesn’t care,” Riley says. “When he first got here, it was almost like he was a little anti-social. He’s come to embrace it a little more. He doesn’t dread that part of it now. When he first got here, he didn’t want to do interviews. He was like, ‘It’s not going to help me become a better football player, so why should I do it?’ Not to be a jerk — it’s just not him. I told him, ‘If you want to be what you want to be — an NFL quarterback or an All-Star center fielder — this is part of it. You have to develop this part just like you do other parts of your game.'”
Did he? Riley says Murray got better, that he tried, but there’s not a lot of conviction in his words, and the results are inconclusive. During Super Bowl week, Murray appeared on the Dan Patrick Show as part of a promotional gig for Gatorade, and the interview devolved into an excruciating question-and-nonanswer session about whether he would play baseball or football. He assiduously avoided any in-depth media interviews as the draft approached. CeeDee Lamb, an Oklahoma receiver who caught 1,158 yards’ worth of passes from Murray last year, says he’s never met anyone who can isolate himself from outside influences, good and bad, the way Murray can. He laughs just thinking about it and says, “Kyler, man — he’s away from everything. Honestly, I don’t know how he does it.”
And within those words is a mystery that remains unsolved: Is he blocking it all out, or taking it all in? Someone, probably someone in Arizona, is about to launch a revolt against the establishment, and who better to lead than a guy who leaves expectations flailing in his wake? Murray’s next challenge is both enormous and simple: upend decades of convention and, along the way, determine whether new expectations represent limits — or possibilities.