Imagine, for a second, that Kyler Murray was a minor leaguer right now. While Murray was preparing to toil in the Oakland A’s farm system, the Arizona Cardinals would still be irrelevant…
Kyler Murray and the Cardinals edged the Seahawks in their first meeting of the season.Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press
Imagine, for a second, that Kyler Murray was a minor leaguer right now. While Murray was preparing to toil in the Oakland A’s farm system, the Arizona Cardinals would still be irrelevant. They’d maybe still be hoping something would click with Josh Rosen. Deshaun Watson could still be playing with his buddy DeAndre Hopkins, or Hopkins could be up in Cincinnati making Joe Burrow’s job a little easier.
Now, midway through his second NFL season, and fresh off the first Hail Mary of his football life, we should all thank Murray for choosing the NFL over MLB. He said on Tiki & Tierney this week that he misses baseball and still wishes he could play both sports (via The Oklahoman). But his impact as an electrifying second-year quarterback is far greater than he likely could ever have had as an outfielder.
And tonight he’ll be sharing the Thursday Night Football stage with another guy with a pro baseball history: Russell Wilson, whose grip on the MVP might be slipping a bit while players like Murray grab for it.
Bleacher Report polled five NFL evaluators, and all but one agreed that Murray is an MVP candidate at this point in the season. “Hard to say he is the winner,” says an NFC scout. “Because Russell Wilson might be the best [candidate].”
According to DraftKings as of Wednesday night, Patrick Mahomes was the favorite to win MVP (+180), followed by Wilson (+225), Aaron Rodgers (+300) and then Murray (+700). After those four, the odds spike to +2,500.
But the real race for Murray and Wilson is in the NFC West, where both their teams are 6-3, in a three-way tie with the Rams at the top of the most competitive division in the league.
Murray is a younger version of Wilson, as an undersized quarterback who can make tough throws, create offense from nothing and beat defenses with his legs. Arizona has the league’s best offense, at 425.4 yards per game, with Seattle in third, 405.9 yards per game.
“Kyler is a candidate but Russ is on a different level right now,” says another NFC scout. “I know they lost the past few games but Russ is elite right now. Kyler’s time is coming as well, but Russ has been doing it for so long and continuing to do so.”
There may not be another quarterback in the league who is asked to do more every week than Wilson. But while Seattle’s heavy reliance on Wilson may make him a better award candidate, it might also be why the Seahawks could end the season looking up at the Cardinals in the standings.
“Russell is the gift and the curse,” says one of the scouts. “When you have a talent like him, you let him do whatever, but they really need to restrict him some and run the ball.”
Seattle’s defense is allowing the most yards per game in the league (448.3), the most passing yards per game (353.3), and the most first downs (246) and completions (281). Seattle’s opponents are scoring on nearly half of all drives (48.5 percent). Coming off a loss to the Rams where they allowed only 23 points, the Seahawks still are fifth-worst in points allowed per game (29.6).
Murray and Wilson after a 2019 gameRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press
That loss in Los Angeles was the Seahawks’ second in a row, and they host the Cardinals having lost to them 37-34 in Week 7. That gave Arizona the division tiebreaker for the moment, but it’s only Week 11. This second matchup will be a crucial chance to stake a claim at the top of the West.
Wilson is in a two-game skid where he’s turned the ball over seven times (four interceptions and three lost fumbles). His passer rating against the Rams was 57.0, his lowest in almost two years, and Seattle’s 16 points were their fewest of the season.
One of Wilson’s two interceptions at L.A. looked like an example of his taking risks to try to keep up with the opponent’s offense. On 2nd-and-5 at the Rams’ 22-yard-line, with L.A. already at 17 points in the first half, Wilson had an open lane in front of him to rush for a first down. Instead, he forced a throw to tight end Will Dissly in the right corner of the end zone, and Rams linebacker Darious Williams made an easy pick.
Seattle has been without lead backs Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde for the last three games because of injuries. In their absence, the Seahawks offense has lacked that power run game, putting Wilson under pressure to do it all. Carson is questionable for Thursday’s game, but Hyde is expected to return after practicing fully this week.
Murray, too, carries much of his team’s ground game. He is eighth in the NFL in rushing, with 604 yards, the most rushing yards of any quarterback. Those numbers naturally bring up the question of whether that much running is sustainable, especially at his size (5’10”), but scouts point out that Murray is smart about when he chooses to run and will scramble out of bounds when he needs to.
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
So while Wilson has the edge in the MVP conversation, Murray has the better team around him and might have the best shot at the postseason. Arizona’s defense is improving as the unit gets healthier. Ranked in the middle of the league in most categories, it is not the dead weight that Seattle’s defense is to Wilson. And this season, Murray has Hopkins, a receiver so talented and reliable that Murray laughed when he saw him facing man coverage against Seattle in Week 7.
“Getting better each week it seems like,” says the second NFC scout.
“I don’t think they are playing their best ball yet,” says the scout whose team played Arizona. “Their defense hasn’t caught their offense yet. Lots of upside with that team. They haven’t been this exciting since they went to the Super Bowl vs. Pittsburgh [in 2009].”
One executive pointed out that winning the division is a prerequisite for a quarterback to win MVP, and Wilson or Murray will have to do that to compete with Mahomes. Whoever comes out ahead of this Thursday night matchup will be one step closer to a division win. So if Arizona wins, Murray could very well jump him in the MVP conversation. The last MVP winning quarterback who didn’t also win his division was Peyton Manning in 2008.
In their previous meeting this season, Murray outdueled Wilson in a thrilling overtime win for the Cardinals. These back-and-forth games between Wilson and Murray’s high-powered offenses are quickly becoming must-see TV. The path to the postseason and MVP contention is on the line.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings: @KalynKahler.