TEMPE, Ariz. — Kyler Murray took the snap and fired a sharp pass across the middle to an Arizona Cardinals practice squad receiver. The fifth-year quarterback then reviewed his footwork with teammate Jeff Driskel. Once, then twice.
Behind them, starter Joshua Dobbs and backup Clayton Tune worked at the team’s practice facility. The 1-5 Cardinals travel to Seattle on Sunday to face the Seahawks. After a decent start, the Cardinals have lost three in a row. Local optimism has faded. Murray’s potential return, however, brings intrigue and perhaps key answers about the organization’s future.
More than 10 months after Murray suffered an ACL injury, the Cardinals on Wednesday opened Murray’s practice window, the first step in the quarterback’s return. They have 21 days to activate him. After visiting Seattle, Arizona hosts the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 29 before traveling to Cleveland on Nov. 5. The Cardinals host the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 12.
Coach Jonathan Gannon said the Cardinals will take this day by day and that Murray’s return to game action would be an organizational decision. Since his hire in February, the first-year head coach has kept Murray’s recovery status mostly private. When asked, Gannon has said the quarterback would return when he was ready, physically and mentally. Wednesday, Gannon said Murray informed him that the time had come.
Per Gannon, the conversation went like this:
Murray: “I’m practicing today.”
Gannon: “Great, see you out there.”
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) October 18, 2023
Receiver Marquise Brown, who’s close with Murray, said teammates and others should understand that Murray isn’t coming back to be average. He’s returning to prove a point. “That he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Brown said. “That he’s a winner.”
Star safety Budda Baker, on injured reserve since Week 2 with a hamstring issue, also practiced. As with Murray, the Cardinals have a three-week window to activate him. Baker’s return will give the Arizona defense a significant boost, but for the rest of the season, Murray and his performance will be the team’s top storyline.
This has never really changed.
Murray’s body of work over four seasons has been mixed. At times, he’s looked fantastic. At other times, he’s looked average. In the summer of 2022, the Cardinals signed Murray to a five-year extension worth $230.5 million, making him one of the NFL’s highest-paid quarterbacks. Murray responded with a disappointing season before injuring his knee. Since then, his future in the desert has been in question, at least publicly.
First-year general manager Monti Ossenfort has overhauled Arizona’s roster, discarding high draft picks selected under previous management and setting up the Cardinals for the future. The organization has two first-round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft, which includes talented quarterbacks Caleb Williams of USC and Drake Maye of North Carolina.
Murray can put the speculation to rest. All he has to do is play like a franchise quarterback, which is what makes the next two months so important.
“Certainly, (we) have an extremely high opinion of him as a player, as a person, what he’s capable of,” offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said this week. “I mean, he’s a franchise quarterback, and there’s not a lot of them out there.”
Petzing, however, has cautioned Murray and the offense about expecting too much, too soon. Until Wednesday, Murray had not practiced in 10 months. He also has a new offense to learn. It might take time.
“He’s a great player, and he’s played at a really high level, but even if we were in the same offense, there would be a learning curve,” Petzing said. “If you haven’t done something in a long time, there’s going to be some rust to knock off.”
Murray did not speak to reporters after Wednesday’s practice.
Dobbs, acquired via trade just a few weeks before the season opener, has started all season in place of Murray. A career backup, he led the Cardinals to a Sept. 24 win over the Dallas Cowboys, raising season expectations, but Dobbs has since struggled. In Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams, he twice missed Brown on deep passes that could have gone for touchdowns. He also had two turnovers in the fourth quarter.
“It was great having K1 out there, seeing him running around and everything, slinging it, but it doesn’t change my approach at all,” Dobbs said. “We’re still preparing for Seattle.”
Over the next few weeks, the Cardinals will have to prepare two quarterbacks — one for the upcoming opponent, one for the rest of the season.
“Look, the guy who’s playing in the game has got to get ready to go. That’s priority No. 1, always will be,” Petzing said. “But there’s extra time in the day, there’s downtime during practice, there’s other windows within the rules where we are allowed to make sure (Murray’s) getting his work physically and mentally so that he feels like he’s getting those reps and getting ready to go.”
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(Photo: Norm Hall / Getty Images)