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Last Thursday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport reported a deal just ahead of training camp that raised a lot of eyebrows. Arizona Cardinals signal-caller Kyler Murray became the latest beneficiary of rising salaries at the quarterback position, signing a five-year extension worth a whopping $230.5 million, with $160 million guaranteed.
By average annual value (AAV), the deal trails only Aaron Rodgers’ three-year, $150.8 million deal signed in March. In terms of guaranteed money, Murray’s contract is only eclipsed in the NFL by Deshaun Watson’s fully-guaranteed five years at $230 million.
It’s not the value of the contract itself that is drawing scrutiny. It is, after all, an increasingly quarterback-driven league seeing exploding salaries at the position. Teams are scrambling to lock up their young talent before they ever get anywhere near the open market. The Chiefs and the Bills displayed this with their deals for Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, respectively.
So it’s not the amount of money doled out that is puzzling. The timing was right. Arizona deciding that Murray was worthy of being their franchise centerpiece, however, seems like a massive gamble, at best. Murray’s record on the field, as well as rumors of his immaturity and poor leadership, make it feel closer to an unmitigated disaster to come.
Further bolstering the latter point, some embarrassing details of Murray’s contract were released on Monday. A source close to the deal revealed to NFL Network’s Rapoport that included in the contract is an addendum that mandates independent film-study time.
The film study clause, which Rapoport tweeted a photo of on Monday, states that Murray will need to study four hours a week worth of “material provided to him by the Club in order to prepare for the Club’s next upcoming game.” This independent study is in addition to mandatory team meetings.
Such a clause is already considered extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, within NFL circles. To make things even more surreal, a section of the contract states that Murray will be in breach of contract if he is not “personally studying or watching the material while it is being displayed…” and will not receive any “credit” for studying if he is “engaged in any other activity that may distract his attention (for example, watching television, playing video games, or browsing the internet)…”
Once more for emphasis, and without the legalese. A 24-year-old, professional athlete just got a massive raise in his allowance, but only if he gives an honest effort during study hall.
In fairness to Murray, it seems possible that this clause could stem from comments he made to Ben Shpigel of The New York Times last December:
“I think I was blessed with the cognitive skills to just go out there and just see it before it happens,” Murray said. “I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit there and kill myself watching film. I don’t sit there for 24 hours and break down this team and that team and watch every game because, in my head, I see so much.”
That being said, even if it is only this quote that served as inspiration for the homework clause, and not a pattern of behavior witnessed by the organization, it is a pretty damning indictment of Murray’s ability to lead a football team. That is especially true at a position with the mental complexities of quarterback.
Another facet to consider with this unorthodox section of Murray’s contract is how (or if) it will really be enforced. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is not generally quiet about being an ardent supporter of Murray’s, and denied on Tuesday having anything to do with his contract.
“Honestly, my whole entire role in (the contract) was prayer and pleading to both parties,” he said.
After an offseason full of drama regarding his contract and unhappiness with the team, it just strikes as odd the Cardinals made this deal now. Between signing Murray to this franchise-altering deal, allowing details of the “homework clause” to be released, and even extending Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim through 2027 after several years of only marginal success, some very strange decisions are being made in Arizona.
Could Murray still be worth it?
Murray is only 24 years old and has already shown flashes of brilliance in his first three years in the league. Young players still entering their prime years are paid for their potential all the time. It’s completely plausible that Murray will grow up and develop into a franchise quarterback.
However, Murray was still under contract through 2024. It is hard not to be confused by Murray getting a deal comparable to Mahomes and Allen, when his body of work to date isn’t comparable, and his maturity and commitment are questionable. The Cardinals caved when faced with Murray’s offseason tantrum even though they still had two seasons left to evaluate him.
In fact, let’s play a little game. Here is a comparison between Murray and another pro quarterback’s first three NFL seasons:
Wondering who “Player A” is? Believe it or not, that’s Baker Mayfield. I’ll admit these stats don’t give the whole picture, but they’re not exactly cherry-picked, either. Murray’s completion percentage in his first three seasons is significantly better (66.9, versus 62.0), but that is at least partially thanks to Kingsbury’s air raid system of high-percentage throws. The graphic doesn’t account for the offense Murray generates with his feet, either. Murray’s 881 rushing yards in 2020 alone are more than Mayfield has amassed in four years in the league.
So the comparison above isn’t perfect, but it illustrates a lot of similarities in the career arcs of two quarterbacks that have been offered very different fates. One just got run out of town by the organization that drafted him, discarded for a conditional fifth-round pick. The other just got rewarded with one of the richest contracts in NFL history.
This isn’t a defense of Mayfield as much as a critique of Murray and of the Cardinals’ decision-making. Murray may be an exciting player who is capable of burning defenses with his legs as well as his arm, but that could very easily be his undoing. No quarterback that depended as heavily on mobility as Murray was able to sustain success for more than a season or two, especially one that is (generously) listed as 5’10”/207 pounds. Injuries were no excuse for Mayfield’s poor late-season performance prior to being booted from Cleveland, but Murray seems to have gotten a pass.
In fact, while some have correlated Murray’s late-season slumps in 2020 and 2021 to the release of Call of Duty games (perhaps a bit more likely now, but still a stretch), it is far more reasonable to link it to Murray’s playing style and tiny body not being able to hold up throughout a 17-game season.
The Seahawks are in major flux after trading away Russell Wilson, and the 49ers are a wild card after the decision to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo and hands the keys to the offense to Trey Lance. However, the Cardinals still share a division with the Super-Bowl champion Rams, who just thumped them 34-11 in the Wild Card round of last year’s playoffs, perhaps the worst game of Murray’s career (19-34, 137 yards, two interceptions).
Murray’s favorite target, DeAndre Hopkins, is suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who the Cardinals received from the Ravens for a first-round pick in this year’s draft, is on the non-football injury list with a bad hamstring. The Cardinals’ elite pass-rushing threat, Chandler Jones, is now in Las Vegas. It’s shaping up to be a difficult year in Arizona.
Related: The ‘Wide Receiver Boom’: How the NFL has lost its collective mind
All of this bluster over the massive mistake the Cardinals just made is easily erased by an MVP-candidate season from Murray. As it stands now, though, after an ugly playoff loss, a tumultuous offseason, and the surfacing details that Murray is being assigned homework, it sure feels like the Cardinals would have been justified in requiring a “prove it” year from Murray before betting the farm on him. Win or lose, Murray and the Cardinals are going to be well worth watching this year.
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Feature image: Photo by All-Pro Reels via Flickr
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