Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is always the best athlete on the field, no matter the field. In 2019, he became the first athlete ever to be selected in the first round of both the NFL and MLB drafts. Murray is blazingly fast, impossibly quick, and throws a 93 m.p.h. fastball.
“He can ball,” Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty said. “I mean, he was the No. 1 pick for a reason.”
But it wouldn’t always have been so clear-cut in the NFL.
Murray is listed at 5 feet 10 inches, a height that used to essentially disqualify someone from playing quarterback in the NFL. Doug Flutie, a 5-10 quarterback and the best player in college football in 1984, wasn’t drafted until the 11th round in 1985 and eventually was exiled to the Canadian Football League to prove himself. As recently as 2012, 5-11 Russell Wilson lasted until the third round solely because of his height.
“Were we affected by it? Yeah, we were, just because of the tradition,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in 2019 of Wilson’s height. “I don’t know if it was a mistake, but it was a hindrance.”
But the success of Wilson, along with 6-foot Drew Brees, has shattered the notion that height matters in the NFL. And Murray is reaping the benefits.
The Cardinals had no qualms about drafting Murray No. 1 overall in 2019. He has rewarded their faith with dynamic quarterback play over the past two seasons. Murray has never missed a start, and he has the Cardinals at 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff hunt entering Sunday’s game at New England.
“I don’t know how big of a factor height is,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said this week. “He moves in the pocket. He can slide and find space, and I think we’ve seen plenty of examples of that — Drew Brees, Flutie going back a ways, guys like that. They don’t get many passes batted down, no more than anybody else.
“So, it’s really about vision and quickness and being able to find a clean throwing lane. Murray can definitely do that.”
Murray has compiled impressive stats in his 26 NFL starts, particularly this year. He is throwing for 264 yards per game, completing more than 68 percent of his passes, has a healthy 19-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and ranks 14th in passer rating (98.7).
And Murray is “dynamic” as a runner, as Belichick put it. He is 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (61.9), leads the NFL in yards per carry (6.7), and is second in rushing touchdowns (10).
Extrapolate Murray’s numbers over a 16-game season, and he’d have 4,230 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions, 990 rushing yards, and 16 rushing touchdowns. Final stats like that, and a spot in the playoffs, could earn Murray the MVP.
“He might not be the ideal size of a quarterback, but he can do everything any other quarterback can do,” McCourty said. “He continues to break the mold and break down any doubts or any naysayers that have talked about him throughout his career.”
In fact, Murray’s small stature may help him as a runner. Smaller, quicker runners are lower to the ground, present a smaller target, and are generally shiftier than their larger counterparts (think 5-6 running back Darren Sproles, who lasted 14 years in the NFL).
This season, Murray has broken off a run of 10-plus yards on 28.3 percent of his rushes, by far the best rate in the league.
“I think he has a smaller surface for them to try to attack,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Even sometimes when he comes out of the pocket, he’s hard to find in between all those giants. So I do think that works as an advantage sometimes.
“Even when he gets into the open field, guys aren’t used to seeing a quarterback that quick and as small a stature, they’re trying to get their hands on him and he’s hard to grab.”
Durability hasn’t been an issue for Murray, as he has not missed a start in 1½ seasons (though he is currently dealing with a shoulder injury). And Murray’s height has not necessarily led to more batted passes at the line of scrimmage.
In his rookie year, Murray had just 2.4 percent of his attempts batted down, which was 12th-most in the league. This year, Murray ranks fifth (3.1 percent), but it may not necessarily be because of his size. Cam Newton, who stands 6-5, has the highest percentage of batted passes among all NFL quarterbacks (4.8 percent).
“Just following Kyler in his career through high school, through college, it never was an issue,” Kingsbury said. “There weren’t a high number of batted balls, there was never any vision problems, he always progressed the field well.
“So we felt like he would be in that mold of Russell and Drew, being able to maneuver in the pocket and find those windows. Obviously he has that second gear when he takes off with the ball that is very rare as well. So I think all of those things really help him overcome the height argument.”
Back in 2012, when Wilson was a draft prospect, Flutie lamented that shorter quarterbacks don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
“A guy that’s undersized has to prove himself right away,” Flutie said then. “And if you don’t have success right away, you’re out the door.”
Murray certainly doesn’t have to worry about that.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.