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The Cardinals’ Future Is Being Constrained By A Surprising Influence

People can debate whether Kyler Murray’s performance last year was worthy of the contract he got from the Cardinals that offseason. However, it’s undisputable whether his level of talent warrants it. He’s capable of turning the Cardinals into a super bowl-level squad, but to do that, the OU product needs to purge himself of the influences of his former mentor Lincoln Riley.

A Breakdown Of The Riley Way

Of course, Lincoln has to do something right to be this touted as a head coach and have so many wins in his collegiate coaching career. First of all, he’s an excellent recruiter and has a good eye for talent, both in terms of high school players and players at other schools. Particularly at skill positions, he’s able to land fast, explosive, athletic, and dynamic players who can change the entire complexion of a team. Kyler, in his time with the Cardinals, is an example of that.

As a play caller, he’s good at capitalizing on his player’s strengths and exploiting obvious mismatches. At the collegiate level, seven times out of ten, those mismatches will be there to exploit between a blue chip and a two or three-star recruit or such.

However, come playoff times, it becomes clear that his recruiting is a way of masking his lack of strategic coaching ability. As soon as a team with good skill positions come, all of a sudden it becomes clear that he didn’t prioritize the trenches in his recruiting. It becomes clear that while his quarterbacks have amazing arms, speed and agility, they don’t learn how to read defenses from him – which isn’t surprising given how poor the defenses have been in his head coaching years.

The ability to beat an equally matched team skillwise in a tactical battle isn’t something Lincoln has been able to do. And as a result, when it’s been Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, Kirby Smart or other great schematic minds on the other side, he isn’t able to win those games. The dichotomy of his ability to recruit talent and his inability to optimize it into the best team possible is clear in his excellent 62-11 overall coaching record and his dreadful 0-3 college football playoff record.

Another issue with Riley is the fact that he doesn’t prioritize discipline and work ethic to the extent of some of the great coaches in the sport. This became glaringly evident in the opening of the Brent Venables era when players struggled at first to adjust to the intensity of his practices relative to what they had. His teams don’t often have to string together four complete quarters on both sides of the ball because of how talented they are, but when they do, it’s often trouble, and stamina is absolutely a reason for that.

What Does This All Mean For Kyler And The Cardinals?

Starting quarterbacks and coaches, especially offensive-minded coaches like Riley, spend a lot of time together. Kyler and the way he does things with the Cardinals is absolutely influenced by his interactions with Riley and the way Lincoln ran his teams at Oklahoma.

So far, Kyler’s career with the Cardinals has been very reminiscent of a Riley product. Lots of promise and talent, except for the big games against talented defenses. His athleticism has made him an incredibly tough force to reckon with and his strong arm opens up a lot for the Cardinals offense. Having D’Andre Hopkins and his former sooner weapon Hollywood Brown allows for some serious explosiveness.

His performance this season has shown both his potential and shortcomings. With almost 2300 total yards and 12 total touchdowns, he’s been able to make plays both in the passing and running game. With that, though, has also come some questionable decision-making. His seven turnovers, six interceptions, and one lost fumble (with five others that he recovered) are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Cardinals’ QB is a whopping 33rd in the NFL in terms of yards per attempt and has simply not been efficient when throwing the ball. Too many times he’s making the wrong read, or missing opportunities for bigger plays. He’s not able to decide when to throw the ball away, and often looks like he’s lost in the pocket upon any pass rush, and for someone as mobile as him, taking 19 sacks in just eight games is unacceptable.

In general, too little of his potential is being realized. The one playoff game he’s played in for the Cardinals was a horrible performance against the Rams with just 137 passing yards (143 total), no touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Cardinals lie at 3-5 on the season, a significant regression from last year’s playoff season, and in many statistical metrics, including yards per attempt, passer rating, and (projected) interceptions, he’s having his worst NFL season so far.

A number one pick and heisman winner, Kyler is too talented for his arc and level of output. The Cardinals are too talented to be 3-5. And to make it worse, questions have been raised about Kyler’s work ethic, prompting the film study clause in his contract that was eventually removed, largely because of the bad optics. Both the limitless potential and the inability to realize a lot of it screams “product of Lincoln Riley”.

Another Riley product is a cautionary tale of all this. Baker Mayfield, someone who started his career promisingly, also won a heisman and was a number one pick. In college, it was the Kyler Murray script, merely offset by a year. In the NFL, Baker has gone from leading the Browns to the AFC Divisional and almost winning to barely being able to keep his head above the water and being replaced by PJ Walker in Carolina.

Kyler’s far from beyond repair, but a change in philosophy and mentality are at the center of the improvements he needs to make.

The Bottom Line

Kyler has good mentorship currently in Kliff Kingsbury, and he will need to channel that and his own resolve to form a new set of values, independent from the Riley way. Certainly, the Cardinals need talent, explosiveness and dynamic traits in a franchise QB, which they certainly have in Murray, and traits that Riley saw and honed in Kyler’s time at OU. However, dedication, resilience, intelligence, loyalty, and the ability to adapt to what he’s given are equally if not more important, and Lincoln Riley’s methods and values are, in many ways, the opposite of these qualities.

His current surroundings can bring him there, though, however, if he chooses to make the call to change. If he does, the future for the Cardinals can be extremely bright.

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