For most of 2021, the Redbirds looked like one of the better teams in the NFC. But after a 10-2 start, they fell apart down the stretch, losing four of their last five games before being embarrassed in the Wild Card Round by the Los Angeles Rams.
They're now embroiled in a contract standoff with Murray that is showing no signs of abating anytime soon.
Murray is a talented, young quarterback with a potentially bright future. However, it's still unclear whether he's a true "franchise" quarterback who's worthy of a massive financial investment.
The easiest way for the Cardinals to avoid a potentially catastrophic mistake is to let Murray earn that whopper of an extension by showing he's capable not only of making the playoffs, but of making noise once he gets there.
The latest chapter in the ongoing saga came Monday, when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Murray will not be in attendance when Arizona opens OTAs this week:
Things may be "quiet" on the contract front right now, but that hasn't been the case for much of the offseason. Murray's agent, Erik Burkhardt, released a statement back in February about an extension proposal that he sent to the Cardinals.
"Actions speak louder than words in this volatile business," the statement reads in part. "It is now simply up to the Cardinals to decide if they prioritize their rapidly improving 24-year-old, already 2X Pro Bowl QB, who led the organization from 3 wins before his arrival to 11 wins and their first playoff appearance in 5 years."
Just before Burkhardt released his statement, Murray scrubbed all references to the Cardinals from his social media, leading some to speculate that there was acrimony between him and the team. ESPN's Chris Mortensen added fuel to that fire by tweeting that said acrimony wasn't necessarily one-sided.
"The odd vibe between the (Cardinals) and Kyler Murray is indeed alarming," Mortensen said. "Murray is described as self-centered, immature and a finger pointer, per sources. Murray is frustrated with franchise and was embarrassed by playoff loss to Rams and thinks he's been framed as the scapegoat."
Since then, both sides have been conveying that all is well and hugs and rainbows. Murray decried any talk of a rift as "nonsense," while the team released a statement supporting the 24-year-old signal-caller (via Pro Football Talk).
"Nothing has changed regarding our high opinion and high regard for Kyler Murray," the statement said. "We as a team and Kyler individually have improved each year he has been in the league. We are excited to continue that improvement in 2022 and are excited that Kyler Murray is the quarterback leading us."
During a recent appearance on The Pat McAfee Show, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network said he thinks the Cardinals will get a contract done for Murray:
"I think they are fine. I think they are on the same page. I think they are moving forward together. He's going to be there; he's going to be the Cardinals' quarterback this year. ... They just aren't there yet when it comes to a contract, and I think this summer's probably a better timetable as far as when it might get done. ... He'll be at mandatory [camp], I think—I shouldn't say 'I'm sure'—I think."
Here's the thing, though. The Cardinals' wisest course of action is to not re-up Murray. Not yet.
For starters, it isn't like Murray would be hitting free agency next spring. Arizona already picked up his fifth-year option for 2023, which will pay him around $29.7 million.
It isn't surprising that Murray's agent would point to last year's 11-win campaign as proof that he has earned an extension. When a team succeeds in the NFL, the quarterback often gets the credit.
However, Burkhardt failed to mention that the past two Decembers have been a much different story. And when we last saw Murray on the field, it was in perhaps the most abysmal effort of his NFL career.
In the Cardinals' 34-11 loss to the Rams in the Wild Card Round, he was 19-of-34 for 137 yards and a pair of interceptions, including one of the ugliest pick-sixes you'll ever see.
That wasn't the first time that Murray was ridiculously careless with the ball in his own end zone, either. In a Christmas Day loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Murray was whistled for intentional grounding (and a safety) after chucking up another wobbler while under duress.
Poor play down the stretch has been more rule than exception for Murray the past two years. Over his first nine starts in 2021, Murray posted a passer rating of over 100 seven times. Over his final five regular-season games, he hit that benchmark only once—in Arizona's lone win over that span.
It was a similar story the year before. After a Week 10 home victory over the Buffalo Bills, the Cardinals were 6-3 and on track for the playoffs. Over those first nine games, Murray had a passer rating of 100-plus four times and multiple touchdown passes in five games. Over the last seven games of the 2020 campaign, Murray posted a triple-digit passer rating only twice and managed multiple scoring passes three times. Arizona lost five of those final seven games and missed the postseason.
In fairness, Murray isn't solely responsible for the team's December swoons over the past two years. Injuries played a part, and last I looked, Murray doesn't play defense.
But it can't be ignored that in each of the past two seasons, Murray's level of play dropped off considerably as the pressure mounted. He also supposedly refused to re-enter the blowout loss to the Rams late in the fourth quarter despite being implored by veteran backup Colt McCoy to get back out there with his teammates, according to NFL Network's Mike Garafolo.
That doesn't alleviate concerns that Murray cares more about himself than his team. Neither does skipping OTAs as he angles for a fat payday.
Murray's next contract is sure to be mammoth. We're likely talking $45 million or more per season. And after the Cleveland Browns fully guaranteed every cent of Deshaun Watson's new deal, Murray will likely want most of his money to carry similar guarantees.
That type of contract will dictate everything else the Cardinals do financially over the next several years. And it could bury the team if Murray turns out to be less Aaron Rodgers and more Jared Goff.
Many will dismiss the notion that Murray is anything less than a superstar in the making and the face of the Cardinals. And in fairness to him, we have seen flashes of that kind of ability. If he digs in over the summer, fans will want the team to pay the man.
But Murray hasn't shown that he can play at an elite level consistently for an entire season, much less back that up the following year. His lone playoff start was a nightmare.
Before the Cardinals break the bank and pay Murray like a superstar, the team needs to be sure that he is indeed a superstar. The easiest way to do that is to make him prove it—before they cut the check.