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Kyler Murray Should Learn from Russell Wilson in Making Rough MLB vs. NFL Call

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2019

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (1) looks up, during the first half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against Alabama, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

When one professional sports league wants you, you're good. When two professional sports leagues want you, you're in elite company.

That's where Kyler Murray finds himself. The 21-year-old just won a Heisman Trophy playing quarterback for Oklahoma and almost carried the Sooners to a comeback win in the Orange Bowl on Saturday in their ultimate 45-34 defeat to Alabama. He's also committed to play baseball with the Oakland Athletics organization. 

The A's took Murray with the ninth overall pick in the 2018 amateur draft based on a skill set that includes plus speed, an above average arm, power from the right side and the raw defensive skills to stick as a center fielder.

Then he went and threw for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns for Oklahoma and snagged the shiniest hardware available to a college football player. On top of that, he had 1,000 yards rushing with 12 more touchdowns and was the most lethal dual-threat quarterback in college football.

Now, inevitably, the debate rages: Should Murray play baseball for the Athletics or scrap those plans and try to be the NFL's next superstar quarterback?

It's a tough call, fraught with pitfalls either way. If Murray is looking for a roadmap, he could do worse than Russell Wilson.

Like Murray, Wilson rose through the high school and collegiate ranks with the tools to play either baseball or football. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 41st round in 2007 but opted to attend North Carolina State instead. The Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round in 2010, and Wilson played 93 games in their minor league system between 2010 and 2011.

Ultimately, however, Wilson chose football. An undersized, electrically mobile QB with leadership qualities. Sound familiar to a certain 2018 Sooner?

In April 2012, the Seattle Seahawks selected him in the third round of the NFL draft. After impressing in his rookie season and leading the Seahawks to the divisional round of the playoffs, he guided Seattle to a Super Bowl victory in the 2013 season.

He followed that with another Super Bowl appearance a year later and, despite subsequent ankle and knee injuries (which he played through) and bumps in the road (missing the playoffs in 2017), he's authored an exemplary, still-evolving NFL legacy.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

So, back to Murray. One possible knock on him as an NFL quarterback is that he's undersized at 5'10", 195 pounds. Wilson was listed at 5'11", 204 pounds as a Wisconsin senior at the NFL combine. So there's another strong similarity between the two. 

Then there are the words of Murray's agent, Scott Boras, who indicated his client is committed to playing for the A's this spring and going forward.

"Kyler has agreed and the A's agreed to a baseball contract that gave him permission to play college football through the end of the collegiate season," Boras said Dec. 9, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. "After that, he is under contract to play baseball. That is not a determination to make. It's already done."

It's true Murray got a $4.66 million signing bonus from Oakland. He's on the MLB path...for now. But the siren song of the NFL could intercede.

Michael Baumann of The Ringer outlined the argument against going the gridiron route:

"As pro sports leagues go, the NFL is not a great place to work. Careers are short, the money isn’t great by Big Four standards, contracts aren't guaranteed, and the game is dangerous. Athletes in all sports risk suffering life-altering concussions, but nowhere is the risk as great as it is in football. For that reason, when a two-sport athlete has to choose between baseball and football, conventional wisdom says he should choose baseball, because the money is better and the risk of injury is less."

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Therefore, Murray's choice to embrace the crack of the bat and the pop of the glove over the crushing blow of a defensive lineman would appear to make sense on the surface. We know about the NFL's issues with concussions and CTE. 

Though, despite his small stature, it is often those experiencing blows to the head on every play (offensive and defensive linemen, running backs, linebackers, etc.) who are most at risk of developing CTE. Particularly in the present-day NFL, where quarterbacks—and specifically their heads—are protected as much as possible.

Also, after cashing their signing bonus checks, young baseball players have to work their way through the grind-it-out, underpaid ranks of MLB's minor league underbelly and then through the league-minimum and arbitration process if they advance to the highest level.

The best of the best get gaudy dollars within a few years of reaching The Show, but the guaranteed eight- and nine-figure long-term pacts don't come for a while if they come at all. Usually they don't. 

By contrast, becoming an NFL quarterback has its advantages. If you're good enough, you can play at the top level right away. You don't have to toil in third-rate minor league cities with low pay and zero glitz or visibility. Assuming you avoid injury, you could swiftly become one of the most marketable stars in America's most popular sport.

Could Murray chase being a two-sport star in the mold of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders? It's a fun thought experiment, but no. 

Jackson was a running back and Sanders a defensive back in different eras to the present. Both were superb, ridiculously gifted athletes. But the rigors of playing quarterback in the NFL in 2019 and/or playing center field in modern MLB are too great to expect any player, no matter his natural abilities, to successfully attempt the feat. 

If Murray ditches baseball and plays football, he could dabble on the diamond the way Wilson has. In March 2018, Wilson played a little spring training ball with the New York Yankees. He's not going to join Aaron Judge et al in the outfield at Yankee Stadium anytime soon, however.

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 29:  Kyler Murray #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners reacts in the fourth quarter during the College Football Playoff Semifinal against the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Capital One Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Miami
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Murray is leaning toward baseball. The small-market A's have put their faith and close to $5 million into him. His influential agent is indicating that's the plan. 

Things can change in an instant, however. NFL teams won't stop inquiring about the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. The uncanny, unavoidable Russell Wilson comparison looms large. 

Has Murray played his last game under center, as opposed to in center field? Don't bet on it.