Kyler Murray’s return to the Cardinals came down to one play — and it was encouraging

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One play. Forget the other 59 from the Arizona Cardinals. The deep pass that Trey McBride hauled in late in the game. The winning field goal from Matt Prater.

One play trumped them all.

Kyler Murray’s return from knee surgery Sunday went better than expected. Not because the Cardinals edged the Atlanta Falcons, 25-23, at State Farm Stadium. Not because they snapped a six-game losing skid.

But because, for one play, Murray did not look like an athletic quarterback returning from injury. Like someone who had not played for 11 months. Like someone who was learning a new offense from a new coaching staff.

Murray simply looked like Kyler Murray.

For much of the past year, Murray’s status has been questioned, not just for this season but for the future. The Cardinals have two 2024 first-round draft picks. They could be in position to land a talented college quarterback like USC’s Caleb Williams or North Carolina’s Drake Maye. Murray’s performance over the next two months should play a big role in the organization’s decision.

This offered a good starting point.

All last week, head coach Jonathan Gannon was asked about his expectations for Murray. He said he told the quarterback to be careful about expecting too much, too soon. Murray laughed in his face. Not disrespectfully. That’s just not how Murray is wired. “Every time I touch the field, I’m trying to do my thing,” he said.

The fifth-year quarterback downplayed his return. “Emotionless” was how he described the build-up. That changed Sunday morning. Murray returned to his house from the team hotel and felt “the s–t” in his chest start to build up. He tried his best to calm down.

Upon pregame introduction, Murray ran through a tunnel of teammates, then jogged to the corner of an end zone, kneeling near the pylon, surrounded by a dozen teammates doing the same. Murray dropped his head and stayed there for 40 seconds, a final moment alone. Murray last week was asked if he had something to prove. He said he plays only for his friends and family, for those who believe in him.

The first-game history of quarterbacks returning from ACL surgery is mixed. In 2009, Tom Brady was rusty in a win over Buffalo, but mostly he was just happy he could move on from the “ACL” storyline.

In 2018, Houston’s Deshaun Watson botched a handoff on his first play from scrimmage and struggled in a loss to New England. In 2015, Arizona’s Carson Palmer opened on fire and threw three touchdown passes in a win over New Orleans.

The 5-10 Murray is not beloved in the desert. There are some who think he is too short to be a franchise quarterback. In April, The Athletic’s Dan Pompei reported that since 2000, only nine of 368 NFL quarterbacks have stood under 6 feet. Murray has dealt with this his entire football life, and it probably did not help that two of his first-quarter passes on Sunday were batted down at the line.

There are others, however, who applaud the Cardinals for giving Murray a five-year, $230 million extension in the summer of 2022. And who think that a rebuild should not include replacing the quarterback, but building around him. Although Murray entered Sunday’s contest 25-31-1 during his time here, he had led the Cardinals to the playoffs. And he had made two Pro Bowls.

As Sunday’s game unfolded, Murray grew more comfortable. He formed a connection with McBride, who finished with eight catches for 131 yards, becoming the first Arizona tight end since 1989 to post a 100-yard receiving game. “I hope that drought doesn’t last that long again,” McBride said.

Trailing 14-6 in the final minute of the second quarter, Murray faked a hand-off to James Conner, read the Atlanta defensive end and ran six yards into the end zone.

“He gave me a read like my legs didn’t work,’’ Murray said of the defender. “I haven’t had a read like that since like Year 2.”

Murray missed close friend Marquise Brown down the middle of the field, the receiver laying out only to have the ball deflect off his fingers. He threw behind McBride on a pass that resulted in an interception. But overall, Murray was effective as a passer, completing 19 of 32 for 249 yards.

With 2:33 left, Atlanta’s Desmond Ridder scored on a 9-yard run to give the Falcons a 23-22 lead. After the kickoff ended in a touchback, Murray ran onto the field. He looked no different than he had the entire game. “He doesn’t ride the emotional rollercoaster, which I love,” Gannon said. “He believes that if you give him the ball, he’s going to win the game.”

After four plays, the Cardinals faced a third-and-10 from the Arizona 42. In the shotgun, Murray looked left toward Brown. He felt pressure and scooted left. Behind him, Atlanta outside linebacker Arnold Ebiketie had escaped tackle Paris Johnson and was closing in. “At the end of the day, if it comes down to me, it being in my hands, I got to make something happen,” Murray said.

He stepped back and reversed direction, a move not many quarterbacks can make. Holding the ball in his right hand, Murray curled below the 20-yard line — the ball had been snapped 22 yards upfield — and ran right. Atlanta safety Richie Grant and linebacker Bud Dupree gave chase but didn’t gain ground.

Murray raced past the line of scrimmage, past midfield and dropped to the turf, protecting himself just beyond the first-down marker. In all, he had run nearly 40 yards to pick up 13. Asked if that had been a designed plan, Gannon said, “Nah, that was an improv.”

Nah, that was Murray.

“He’s one of those guys, the play is never over with him,” McBride said.

Two plays later, Murray hit McBride for 33 yards. Not much later, Prater ran onto the field. He already had made field goals of  51, 46 and 56 yards. This one, for the win, was much shorter, from 23. On the sideline, Murray took a knee and watched. Right guard Will Hernandez put a hand on the quarterback’s shoulder. The kick was perfect. Arizona improved to 2-8.

“All I was worried about was winning,” Murray said. “It would’ve been a sh—y night to come out here and lose. All this build-up for what? I’m just happy for us and the team. I’m just happy.”

(Photo: Norm Hall / Getty Images)

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