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Rams-Cardinals: Not the “MVP” showdown that it was in Week 4

Kyler Murray has fallen off in the second half of the season, as Arizona loses four of last five games

NFL: OCT 03 Cardinals at Rams Photo by Icon Sportswire

On October 24th, Kyler Murray went 20-of-28 for 261 yards, three touchdowns, one interception during a 31-5 victory over the Houston Texans. Through seven games of the season, Murray had completed over 73-percent of his attempts, posted a 17:5 TD:INT ratio, was averaging 9.0 yards per pass attempt, and rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns.

He had even somehow managed to recover more fumbles (7) than he lost (6).

Murray was tied with Dak Prescott for the best MVP odds at the midpoint of the season. Praise? Effusive:

His highlights are even more ridiculous. During Patrick Mahomes’ breakout year, the Chiefs quarterback put together a highlight reel the likes of which the NFL had never seen. Murray’s best highlights look like Mahomes’ in fast-forward including impossible scrambles, back-foot throws, and on-the-run deep heaves that appear 60 yards downfield as if fired out of a cannon.

Effusive:

Murray is the unquestioned leader of the MVP race at the moment as he has led the Cardinals to a 6-0 start to the season, making Arizona the lone undefeated team in the league. He is throwing for a career-high 290.2 yards per game, while also completing a career-high 73.8 percent of his passes. Murray is also on pace to throw a career-high in touchdown passes, as he has 14 through six games, while throwing just four interceptions.

Even “analytically” effusive:

In addition, no one has defied the odds through the air at a higher rate than Murray, who leads the league in completion percentage over expectation at +9.2 percent, per Next Gen Stats.

Conventional defensive wisdom might say to blitz Murray to get him out of his comfort zone, but the NGS metrics advise against that: Murray is averaging 13.1 yards per attempt (best in the NFL) and has a 153.8 passer rating (second best in the league) against the blitz this season.

Even the backhanded compliments are effusive in their efforts to praise Murray as a backyard player:

They’re also the only team that has successfully designed an offense solely around vibes. If you want schemed open receivers and perfectly executed timing throws, this is not the unit for you. But if you enjoy pure, unadulterated chaos, you’ve come to the right place.

But that was well over two months ago, when the 7-0 Arizona Cardinals were undefeated, and I’m sorry but Nextgen Stats is no more accurate than the Nextdoor app in predicting a player’s future.

Over the next three games after Houston, the Cardinals would go 1-2 but with understandable defeats at the hands of the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. Murray had the Cardinals in position to either beat the Packers or send it into overtime, but threw an interception on a miscommunication between himself and A.J. Green. The moment came two plays after Murray suffered a knee injury that would eventually hold him out of the next three weeks, a stretch that saw Arizona go 2-1 without him.

The Rams had a more convincing win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10, but that game was also marred by inactive players on the COVID-19 list before it was moved to Monday night and by the torn MCL of DeAndre Hopkins during the contest. Before then, Hopkins had been held to just five catches for 54 yards on 13 targets but no less that injury serves as a turning point for Arizona.

Against the Packers and Rams, Kyler Murray played well and yet he ultimately had zero touchdowns, four interceptions, and two fumbles. In the meat between those games, Murray scored four touchdowns and had zero turnovers in a 33-22 road victory against the Chicago Bears to open his comeback tour; all told, I think it is fair to say that at that point, Murray was fine and there was little for the Cardinals to be concerned about with their offense.

However, adding that three game stretch onto the beginning of the final month of stumbling backwards into the playoffs, Kyler Murray and the Cardinals seem far off from the “undefeated MVP campaign” that ripped through the Rams in Week 4.

Over the final four weeks, facing the Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, and Seattle Seahawks, Murray posted these stats:

104-161, 64.6-percent, 1,005 yards, 5 TD:1 INT, eight sacks, 6.2 Y/A, 22 rush, 156 yards, 0 TD, 3 fumbles (20.7 points per game)

Murray’s first four games of the season:

102-134, 76-percent, 1,273 yards, 9 TD:4 INT, eight sacks, 9.5 Y/A, 23 rush, 109 yards, 3 TD, 0 fumbles (35 points per game)

The Cardinals were the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team at 7-0, but then since Kyler Murray’s injury that happened about a minute before his game-losing pick against the Packers, Arizona is 4-6. That includes a 34-10 loss to the Panthers with Colt McCoy at the helm, a 30-12 loss to the Lions, a 22-16 loss to the Colts, and a 38-30 loss to the Seahawks.

Those four teams combined to go 24-43-1 with no playoff appearances.

The other two losses were to the Packers and Rams, and Murray had DeAndre Hopkins in those games.

Over the first seven games, Arizona ranked third in points per game (32.1), second in points allowed (16.2), and second in point differential (+111) behind the Bills.

Since their eighth game of the season, Arizona ranks 16th in points per game (22.4), 23rd in points allowed (25.2), and 19th in points differential—behind non-playoff teams such as Indianapolis, Miami, Seattle, Chargers, Broncos, Vikings, and Saints.

A drop off of 10 points per game scored and nine points per game allowed is a dramatic change to watch happen in real time midseason.

And over the final four games, the Cardinals gave up the fifth-most points in the NFL and were 26th in point differential (-29).

Though fans know the names of Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, and Andy Isabella pretty well, the wide receiver who has taken DeAndre Hopkins’s snaps for the most part has been Antoine Wesley. Why would that be?

Well, Wesley had 88 catches for 1,410 yards and nine touchdowns during his final college season. In 2018. At Texas Tech. Playing for Kliff Kingsbury. Wesley went undrafted in 2019 and didn’t make his NFL debut until earlier this season. When Hopkins went down, Wesley saw his playing time increase to 85-percent of the snaps vs the Lions, then 77-percent, 57-percent, and 75-percent over the final four games.

He was targeted 21 times in those games, catching 11 passes for 95 yards.

Even though Hopkins didn’t cross over 90 yards in any game in 2021 and at 29-years-old doesn’t seem to be the same dominant receiver he was...at 28...he is no less DeAndre Hopkins and Antoine Wesley is no more than Antoine Wesley.

Without Hopkins, A.J. Green has been targeted 26 times, catching 12 passes for 194 yards with zero touchdowns. His catch rate has dropped from 64-percent to 46-percent over the final four games, and his yards per target went from 9.9 in the first 12 contests to 7.4 in the last four.

Kirk had a 75-percent catch rate and 10.2 yards per target with Hopkins, but 72-percent and 8 yards per target in the final four; despite career-best stats for the season, Christian Kirk has proven to be a good complementary piece and not a fitting number one.

Rookie Rondale Moore had to be one of the most exciting players to watch in training camp and the first month of the season, but his production had fallen precipitously prior to Hopkins injury and he was only averaging 4.1 yards per target with zero touchdowns in the nine games prior to his own injury in Week 15.

As a matter of fact, since the Packers game, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Rondale Moore have combined to score one touchdown. Kirk caught one against the Lions, an 18-point loss.

Kyler Murray has not been the same player that he was when he completed third-and-16 and beat the Rams by 17 points in Week 4. The Cardinals go as Kyler Murray goes, as was clearly explained to us during the arguments for his MVP case: “This is a wild ride, but so long as Kyler is Kyler, Arizona is successful and fun to watch.”

It’s been a long time now since Kyler has been “Kyler” and now the Rams get their chance to knock him and Kliff Kingsbury out of their first playoff game on Monday Night Football. It’s hardly going to be easy—Arizona went 8-1 on the road this season—but if the Cardinals offense doesn’t find its heartbeat again in time, it will surely be easier than when Murray was the most valuable player in the league.