Kyler Murray will be the Most Valuable Player in the NFL in 2020. Yes, we are months out from training camp, let alone the regular season. So much can change from basic cuts and trades to devastating injuries. But the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 is uniquely outfitted to bring the award to the desert.
Sure, this sounds crazy now. The Arizona Cardinals just finished a 5-10-1 season. It was their fourth-straight losing season, and seventh in the past decade. But there were some mitigating factors (on top of Murray’s inexperience) that played a large part in that. Not the least of which is the defense that allowed the fourth-most points in team history.
Since this is about the MVP, an individual award, we can (somewhat) take his team’s success with a grain of salt and focus on Murray and why he makes sense for 2020 MVP.
Kyler Murray Will Be the Next MVP
Before we get into the numbers that Murray put up himself, let’s do a quick skim of the history of the MVP in the NFL. And we don’t even have to look too deep to recognize the pattern that has developed over the years. One that has shown a clear bias towards who will and won’t win the most-coveted individual award in the League.
Established in 1957 (yes, the award pre-dates the AFL-NFL merger of 1970), the MVP award has been awarded to the player thought to be the most indispensable to his team. That has usually been an offensive player. More often than not, that has meant awarding a quarterback. More specifically, 38 quarterbacks have been named MVP compared to just 16 running backs.
That pattern has through recent times as quarterbacks have won every MVP since Adrian Peterson won it back in 2012. Before him, it was Shaun Alexander (05) and LaDainian Tomlinson (06) winning back-to-back. But this isn’t the biggest historical factor leading to this proclamation. We only need to look at the past few years to find that.
The past two winners of the coveted award were Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Aside from both sharing the NFL’s glamour position, they both won the award in their second season. Unlike either Jackson or Mahomes, however, Murray started every game of his rookie campaign, perhaps giving him a leg up in development.
Murray enjoyed a fantastic collegiate career at Oklahoma playing for Lincoln Riley. His dynamic skill set made him the perfect fit for Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid scheme and he proved it in 2019. It was an uneven start but it didn’t take long for the jitterbug passer to show what made him special.
The Cardinals quarterback threw the sixth-most passes (542) in for a rookie in NFL history and joined some notable company in doing so, including a Hall of Famer. He joined Cam Newton and became just the second rookie ever to throw for over 3700 yards and run for over 540 yards, and the ninth player overall to do so.
Arizona, as mentioned, was bad on the whole and the porous offensive line allowed the sixth-most sacks. But they still managed to rank 10th in rushing. That was thanks in no small part to Murray who finished 36th overall in rushing yards. His dual-threat abilities were on full display during a three-game stretch where he averaged 10 carries per game.
He did all this with the terrible blocking, yes. But he was also the victim of depleted weaponry. His All-Pro running back David Johnson has been reduced to a shell of his former self. He saw himself replaced by his backup Chase Edmonds and later (and for good) by Miami Dolphins castoff Kenyan Drake. His top receiver was the ageless Larry Fitzgerald. That’s not good.
The Sooner the Better
Murray finished the season 15th in passing yards and completion percentage despite all the shortcomings around him. He’s in a system that is geared towards his strengths, something else he has in common with Jackson and Mahomes. This system has never featured the run and the defense will still be bad next season. In other words, he’ll need to throw a lot.
An infusion of talent is on the horizon via free agency and the draft. Depending on how they feel about young pass-catchers Christian Kirk, Damiere Byrd, and KeeSean Johnson they could focus heavily on the offensive line. They could also focus on cornerback and pass rush help because they will want to at least try to stop their opponents.
The success of Mahomes has been the result of the perfect marriage of a great situation and superb individual talent. And he still sat for a season behind Alex Smith. Baltimore overhauled their coaching staff to implement a system that would best utilize Jackson’s abilities (a novel concept, right?). But only after his rookie season.
Murray will enter his sophomore campaign with far more experience than either of those two. He’ll also have a system in place that was seemingly designed for him and that he won’t have had to learn in one offseason. All this along with the organization assumedly having a better understanding of what pieces he needs around him only enhances his prospects.
Kyler Murray, 2020 MVP
This is speculating to the extreme. No one knows how anything in the offseason will play out. But Murray answered two very important questions last season. He proved he could play in the NFL and he proved he can survive a 16-game season at his size. The next step will be improving his consistency and turning drives into points. If he does that, he will certainly be the MVP in 2020.
All of you “defense wins championships” folks will hate to read this but, the 2020 NFL off-season is just another dominated by quarterbacks. They’ve dominated the headlines and are the object around which NFL general managers formulate their off-season plans. Even the ones who are trying to build their defenses do so with the intent of negating opposing quarterbacks.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs just gave us our most recent example of this playing out. A stout San Francisco 49ers defense (2nd in yards per game allowed) couldn’t hold the third-year, former MVP down for an entire four quarters. In a league that has shifted so far towards favoring offenses, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Quarterback Talk Will Dominate Headlines Again
Since the league went to 32 teams, the NFL has seen its average pass completions per game jump from 20.1 in 2002 to 22.1 in 2019. It should also be noted that the 2002 number was a relative outlier. The average was around 19.3 and lower the six years prior and four years after the ‘02 season. But all this proves is that teams are passing that much more, right?
Wrong! In this same period, pass attempts have gone from 33.8 18 years ago to 34.9 this past season. That’s an increase of nearly three completions per game but only 1.1 more attempts. Put simply, quarterbacks got more accurate as displayed in the average completion percentage rising nearly four points from 59.6 percent to 63.5 percent.
Any number of metrics can back this up, but we only need to look at the headlines to see the trend. Mahomes winning Super Bowl MVP aside, the next biggest talking point has been about where Tom Brady will play in 2020. He’s 42 years old and didn’t have his best season (statistically or via the eye test) but that hasn’t stopped the rumor mill from churning.
Among the many hypothesized destinations have been the newly-dubbed Las Vegas Raiders, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition to the potential drawbacks to making a large commitment to a quarterback who is less than a decade away from AARP eligibility, all of these teams have quarterbacks either in place or in limbo.
Those incumbents have also been the subjects of trade rumors in their own rights. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers recently moved (a la Brady) to Florida turning up the volume on speculation he could be elsewhere in 2020. Cam Newton has been tabbed by speculators to replace him in L.A. after his Carolina Panthers hired a new head coach and general manager.
It isn’t just the big-name guys getting all the headlines either. Cincinnati Bengals free-agent quarterback Andy Dalton, an average starting quarterback by most metrics, has been spoken of as a possible savior for teams viewed by many as being a “quarterback away” from being true contenders. Even perceived busts like Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans have been given new life by the rumor mill.
The NFL Draft is in April and guess what position the presumed first pick, Joe Burrow, plays. Yep, quarterback. A draft that is thought to be strong at wide receiver and other skill positions could have five passers go in the first round. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is one of those prospects and he is recovering from a serious hip injury just to illustrate.
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young at the top of a lot of big boards and the Bengals have a significant need for a pass rusher. But that is dwarfed by their need to upgrade the quarterback position. This illustrates the shift in ideology. Rather than build from the trenches, Cincinnati is set to pick Burrow based on one (historic) season.
Even supposed projects or guys missing something are getting first-round love. Justin Herbert was buzzing last year but needed the Senior Bowl to solidify his spot near the top of the draft. The Jacob Easons and Jordan Loves of the world, though, are first-rounders based more on potential than production.
This isn’t some earth-shattering revelation. The transition to a quarterback-driven league has been advertised and vocalized to the point that it’s almost fait accompli you’ll hear “it’s a quarterback-driven league” after a play. The announcers and pundits know it. The fans know it.
Even the league knows it. After revamping the protections on quarterbacks and receivers some years back, the NFL did so again recently. The most heavily debated being challenging pass interference. It’s a change that can and has aided defenses but was clearly developed with offenses in mind.
This might not even just apply to current and future quarterbacks either. It’s fair to wonder if the controversial Colin Kaepernick would be such a lightning rod if he played any other position. His very vocal supporter and former teammate Eric Reid did sign a multi-year deal last February.
Headlines Were Made for Quarterbacks
Again, this isn’t exactly new or revolutionary, we’ve always idolized the quarterback position. But it has become more intentional along with the devaluation of the running back has been the elevation of the quarterback. Super Bowl Sunday was just a reminder that while defense wins (conference) championships, it is quarterbacks that win Super Bowls.