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How Rams vs. Cardinals could have major implications on future of NFC West

Has Kyler Murray played last game for Cardinals? Will Arizona or L.A. get chance to draft Caleb Williams?

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Has Kyler Murray played his last game for the Arizona Cardinals? Believe it or not, how the Cardinals play against the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday could have some implications on that decision, as well as how the Rams will move forward with their season and quarterback Matthew Stafford depending on the outcome.

Arizona head coach Jonathan Gannon has made it no secret that he’s a huge fan of Murray’s game and by all accounts, isn’t trying to play NFL politics, at least according to those in the Cardinals media. From a debate on the PHNX Cardinals Podcast between hosts Jonny Venerable and Bo Brack, time is running out for the team to activate Murray and see how he fits in the new offense before having to slam the door on the rest of his season. Venerable thinks the Cardinals must activate Murray no later than their game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8, while Brack and others think the team is fine with moving forward with Murray either way.

If the Cardinals lose to the Rams on Sunday and fall to 1-5, inching closer to a guaranteed top-3 pick, will Arizona have any choice but to consider starting over at quarterback?

When will Kyler Murray play football and will it ever be for an NFC West team again?

If the Rams win, Cardinals could inch closer to shutting down Murray return

Head coach Jonathan Gannon said this week that when Kyler Murray “is ready to go, he’ll go” and that he is “champing at the bit” to return to the field. When asked by the radio hosts if he thinks Murray will play “a decent amount of games this season”, Gannon confidently responds without hesitation, “I do”.

There has been speculation all year that the Cardinals might never activate Murray, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered against the Patriots on December 12, because another injury could make it impossible to trade or release him from his contract in 2024.

In addition, there has been speculation that Arizona would rather “tank for Caleb Williams” than bring back Murray, as he played his worst career football in 2022 after signing a $230.5 million contract extension. A deal that was ridiculed online for a number of reasons, including the fact that it had a “homework clause”, which the Cardinals amended and removed after said jokes. Murray posted career-lows in nearly every passing category in 2022, went 3-8 as the starter, and Arizona fired the head coach who they hired specifically to turn him into an NFL superstar, Kliff Kingsbury.

In any case, Murray hasn’t played and hasn’t been activated from PUP in order to return to practice. It’s been almost 10 months since the torn ACL, which is getting on the longer side of the typical recovery time from that injury, so it is believable when Gannon says that Murray is close to being ready to play again.

But if the Cardinals go 1-5 and then 1-6 and then 1-7, hypothetically speaking, at what point does it stop making sense to have the conversation about Kyler Murray’s return?

Would Arizona be competing for a wild card spot in the NFC if they lose the next one or two games? No. Would Arizona be competing for the top pick in the NFL Draft next year and a chance to pick Williams or trade the pick for a massive haul? Yes.

Arizona bringing back Murray when they’re 1-6 or 1-7 or 1-10 could be considered one of the dumbest moves in NFL history, a move so laughably unconscionable that it may only be befitting of one franchise in the entire league...

The Arizona Cardinals.

However, Josh Dobbs has thrown a wrench in any plans for Arizona and Kyler Murray because...he’s playing better than anyone expected.

If the Cardinals win, they’ll soon fall out of the race for Caleb Williams and may want to stick with Kyler Murray...or Josh Dobbs

At 1-4, the only thing surprising about Arizona’s record is the “1”, not the “4”. Few people expected the Cardinals to win more than a few games this year and certainly not that their first win would come against the Cowboys. The Cardinals might only be 1-4, which would be 1-5 if they lose to the Rams, but Dobbs looks as good as a mid-tier starter and no worse than the best backup in the NFL for a team that is competing against almost everyone except the 49ers. He has thrown six touchdowns against two interceptions and Arizona’s offense is 12th in points per drive and 10th in third down conversion rate.

So then it becomes a question of whether or not bringing back Kyler Murray and replacing Dobbs would actually make the Arizona Cardinals better or worse. There’s no guarantee that the team would be better with Murray and in fact Dobbs might be the quarterback who gives the Cardinals a better chance to win.

He’s going to try and win his second game this Sunday against the Rams—Arizona came close to beating the Commanders and Giants the first two weeks prior to upending the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3—and it may be tough for Gannon to justify benching Dobbs if the team remains competitive with him under center.

So let’s say that the Cardinals do win and are 2-4, then go to Seattle in Week 7 and beat the Seahawks to improve to 3-4. Not only could Arizona have a better record than the Rams do at that point, the Cardinals might have more wins than the 3-1 Seahawks would have too: Seattle has to go to Cincinnati to play the Bengals on Sunday, not an easy task.

And there’s no question that the Cardinals are capable of beating their NFC West counterparts. They haven’t presented any challenge to the 49ers since 2022, but did sweep San Francisco in 2021.

Is it really that hard to imagine that Arizona could win their next two games and be in the thick of the NFC West teams behind the 49ers by the time that the Cardinals play the Ravens in the so called “Kyler Deadline” in Week 8? If that is the case, then Gannon, a self-reported huge fan of Kyler Murray, could push for the return of the $230.5 million man by midseason with the intention of shocking the world and being the seventh seed in the NFC playoffs.

That’s a conversation would could TOTALLY be having in two weeks...but only if the Cardinals beat the Rams on Sunday.

That is how much this one game could have an impact on the future of Murray, Dobbs, and what direction Arizona is heading in for the 2024 NFL Draft.

And also how much we’re talking about the direction of the L.A. Rams.

If the Rams lose, then what?

As I addressed earlier this week, the loser of Rams-Cardinals has a lot of thinking to do about the future. You can choose to believe that there’s no way that L.A. would lose to Arizona, but that’s foolish because NFL teams aren’t separated by that much, especially not in the cases of these two franchises right now. You can hem and haw about what the Rams would do if they do lose this game, but you can’t deny that if that happens, Sean McVay will be 2-4 and in last place in the NFC West.

The Rams’ last five games will be four losses and an overtime time over Anthony Richardson if that happens.

After Sunday, the Rams face a Steelers team in Week 7 with a defense that has probably the next winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award (T.J. Watt already has eight sacks, two forced fumbles, three recoveries, a touchdown, and 15 QB hits) and then must go on the road to Dallas and Green Bay...although admittedly those teams haven’t look like what we’ve come to expect of regular season Cowboys or Packers lately.

At 2-4, you can choose to believe that nothing will change. But will you accept that the voices OUTSIDE of the room will get louder about trading Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, and Cooper Kupp before the deadline? At least we can agree that will be the conversation if Arizona beats L.A. on Sunday, right?

If the Cardinals beat the Rams, it will be L.A. and not Arizona that is inching closer to the highest draft pick between the two.

(The Cardinals own the Texans first round pick and Houston could also be 2-4 after Sunday, if they lose to the Saints, which is certainly possible. But we’re just talking about the implications of this game on the picks for Arizona and L.A..)

The NFC West

How quickly things change and it is even easier to identify those changes when we only focus on one position, so forgive me for overrating starting quarterbacks for a minute.

In 2020, the starting QBs of the NFC West were Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray.

In 2021, the starting QBs were Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray, while the 49ers had also traded three first round picks to move up to pick Trey Lance.

In 2022, the starting QBs were Stafford, Garoppolo, Geno Smith, and Murray, but then Brock Purdy took over for Garoppolo who took over for Lance, and Murray tore his ACL.

In 2023, the starting QBs are Stafford, Purdy, Smith, and Josh Dobbs....but it could be Murray again soon. Or not.

Who will the starting QBs of the NFC West be in 2024? I don’t know yet, but I would bet that it is not the same players you see today. And the games between the Rams, Cardinals, and Seahawks will have a lot to say about those changes.