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Kyler Murray is ready to take the next step

Entering his third season, Murray is determined to help the Arizona Cardinals reach the next level under head coach Kliff Kingsbury

GLENDALE, Ariz. – At the outset of a new season, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray isn’t interested in yet again recounting the signature play of his career – one of the most spectacular game winners in NFL history.

“It was a great play,” Murray said. “But I don’t want to be known just for that.”

Of course, there’s no chance of that happening. As Murray, only the fifth Black quarterback selected No. 1 overall in NFL history, begins his third season, he’s anything but a one-hit wonder.

Already, Murray has been selected both as Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowler. He has produced consecutive strong seasons statistically while emerging as one of the game’s most effective dual-threat signal-callers. Although Murray enjoys individual accolades as much as the next star passer, team success is what drives him, and he measures up well there, too: Arizona had three more victories last season than in Murray’s first. Now, Murray and the Cardinals want more.

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (left) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (right) during OTAs on June 2 at the Cardinals’ training facility in Tempe, Arizona.

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After a second-half collapse extended the club’s playoff drought to five seasons, the Cardinals expect to make a major move in the NFC West standings behind Murray, who’s thrilled that management added perennial Pro Bowler A.J. Green and promising rookie Rondale Moore to a receiving corps led by All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. Steadily, the Cardinals have been building toward accomplishing something significant, Murray said, and it’s time for them to complete a big phase of the project.

“For me, going into every year, I ask myself, ‘How can I be the best me? What can I do to get better?’ ” Murray said after practice last week at State Farm Stadium. “And as far as the team goes … we took a step last year. But we felt disappointment not making the playoffs. With the fast start that we had, we felt like we should’ve been in the playoffs. Going into Year 3, a lot of these young guys have played.

“Now, they know what to expect, especially late in the season when you’re trying to [earn a playoff berth]. No more butterflies. None of that. It’s full go now. We’ve also added a lot of veterans who have played at a high level, who bring a lot of leadership, and that will be good for our team. As a team, we’re at that point where it’s time to put up or shut up. It’s time to take the best of what we did last year and really build on that.”

Murray’s iconic touchdown pass to Hopkins marked the high point of the Cardinals’ 2020 season. For that reason, regardless of Murray’s level of engagement in discussing the matter, the play bears revisiting.

Playing host to the Buffalo Bills in Week 10, the Cardinals trailed 30-26 with only 11 seconds remaining on the game clock. On first-and-10 at the Bills’ 43-yard line, Murray, in the shotgun formation, received the snap, looked right and, remaining behind the line of scrimmage, sprinted left to evade pressure. At the Cardinals’ 47, Murray made a nifty stutter-step move to elude a would-be tackler. Then with another Bills player closing on him near the sideline at Buffalo’s 49, Murray quickly set his feet and launched a desperation pass.

Hopkins did the rest.

After lining up alone wide left in Arizona’s four-receiver formation, Hopkins ran a straight-line route, stopping about 3 yards into the end zone. The Bills weren’t caught by surprise: Three defensive backs bracketed Hopkins. And it didn’t matter. Hopkins, who has huge hands and whose vertical leap has been measured at 36 inches, outjumped the competition and came down with the ball.

Final score: Arizona 32, Buffalo 30.

Instantly on social media, the play was dubbed “The Hail Murray.” Hopkins’ ridiculously difficult catch was one for the ages, earning him well-deserved praise. But Murray’s incredible athleticism and arm strength were sights to behold, too. The list of other quarterbacks capable of eluding such a formidable pass rush and making a pinpoint throw in that situation is as short as it is distinguished.

The Cardinals improved to 6-3 and moved into a three-way tie atop the NFC West. Not surprisingly, Murray emerged as one of the league’s top MVP candidates. The Cardinals, however, couldn’t hold it together. They lost three consecutive games and finished 2-5 to miss the playoffs. Still, Cardinals officials could point to many areas in which the team improved. And Murray’s production across the board was better than his first season.

As a rookie, Murray completed 64.4% of his passes. He had 3,722 yards with 20 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Murray also rushed for 544 yards (with a 5.8-yard average) and four touchdowns. The Cardinals, who went 3-13 the season before Murray arrived, improved to 5-10-1. Granted, some would argue that the Cardinals made only moderate progress. But it was progress nonetheless.

Last season, Murray and the Cardinals continued to trend in the right direction. His completion percentage increased to 67.2. Murray also had 3,971 yards passing, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. As a runner, Murray finished with 819 yards (with a 6.2-yard average) and 11 touchdowns. For only the second time in the past five seasons, the Cardinals finished without a losing record.

After winning the 2019 Heisman Trophy while starring for the University of Oklahoma, Murray quickly validated the Cardinals’ faith in him. But the slide that precipitated the team’s failure to qualify for the playoffs was, as Murray explained, frustrating for everyone.

Part of the problem was Murray played through injuries down the stretch in an effort to help the Cardinals clear the hurdle. He just wasn’t where he needed to be physically, and it showed in his uneven performance. When Murray is in top form, the Cardinals can compete with any opponent, head coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

“At times last year, I felt Kyler was dominant. Then there were games that I felt like we could have played better,” Kingsbury said. “And that’s what you have when you have young players who are trying to improve. So to take that big step in a quarterback’s third year … you have to surround him with high-level talent. And we feel like, hopefully, we’ve done that.”

In March, the Cardinals moved to bolster their receiving corps and offensive line. They signed Green – who with the Cincinnati Bengals was selected to seven straight Pro Bowls to start his career – in free agency and acquired three-time Pro Bowl center Rodney Hudson in a trade with the Las Vegas Raiders. Once one of the league’s most productive wideouts, Green, 33, missed the entire 2019 season after suffering torn ligaments in his ankle. Last season, Green had career-lows in yards receiving, yards per reception and touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Green, who’s off to a fast start in practice, rebounds impressively this season, Murray said.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver A.J. Green runs a route during training camp on July 30 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“It’s only been a couple of weeks, but it feels like he’s been here for a year,” Murray said. “The guy is smart. He has played a lot of football. Many times, I’ve said, ‘Dude, I don’t know why people are doubting you and questioning you like you’re not A.J. Green.’ He’s a guy who I grew up watching, going crazy [during games]. He’s an All-Pro type of guy, an elite receiver, and I’m very grateful to have him on my team.”

Murray is also excited about Moore. At his pro day, the former Purdue standout recorded a time of 4.29 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Green and Moore have been the talk of training camp, and the Cardinals are counting on them to help replace 17-year veteran and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, who is a free agent and has not announced whether he plans to retire.

With Murray on the rise and team management having put more talent around him, the Cardinals appear poised to reach a new level this season. And providing they do, that’s something Murray would surely be eager to talk about.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.