During Jalen Hurts’ tenure at Oklahoma, I sent this Twitter poll out:
It’s not really a fair question. Hurts and Murray are about as different as running quarterbacks can be. Hurts is built like an NFL running back, can withstand contact from linebackers and slip arm tackles from defensive linemen. He’s a straight-line, explosive runner who is at his most dangerous when he’s moving with speed throughout the second level. Murray is a jitterbug, the subject of many jokes on Twitter for the unique style of his scampering. He’s at his most dangerous in space, almost never taking on contact and breaking tackles even more rarely. His change of direction, acceleration, and ability to vary speeds allow him to win.
Murray ended up being the first overall pick in 2019, and his running ability was a part of that valuation. As everyone remarks these days, dwindling are the days in which you can be an above-average NFL quarterback without passable mobility. The age of pocket passers like Josh Rosen, for example, has died off when held in the face of the value that the QB run, the extended play, and the scramble all bring to the modern offense.
Now that Murray’s in the league, his exact placement on the ladder of running quarterbacks is again in question. You have Lamar Jackson, who has talent like a runner the likes of which we’ve never seen and struggle to describe: below him are Josh Allen and Murray and even still Cam Newton, a decade after he took the league by storm with his running ability.
So far this year, Murray has been a better runner than Newton and Allen—in fact, he’s been the most valuable runner in the league.
While deciding who’s a “better” runner can be a tricky conversation, wading deep into the weeds of independent film evaluations, figuring out who’s the most valuable runner at quarterback is a lot easier. Murray’s 31.7 EPA on rushing attempts this year wildly outpaces the rest of the quarterback landscape (Jackson is second at 14.7), and he leads his position in both touchdowns and first downs generated on his runs, passing Newton just on Sunday with his two touchdowns against the Bills.
Murray’s red zone running game has provided an elegant solution for one of Arizona’s problems as an offense. The Air Raid passing game is obsessed with space, and the closer the Cardinals get to the end line, the less space they have to throw the football. Yes, adding DeAndre Hopkins gives you a quality isolation passing target—and Kingsbury has his own solid red zone passing designs, no doubt. But the Cardinals now have a strong enough tight end room to enter the red zone with multiple tight end sets and multiple running back sets, put Murray in the pistol with H-backs available, and run quick-hitting read-option plays that maximize his short-area quickness and decision-making. The Cardinals have deployed 12 personnel for 31% of their snaps this year—that’s second only to Philadelphia—and run the ball 66% of the time out of such snaps. Last year, that was only 23% of their offense.
But beyond red zone touches for a team without much of a power running game, Murray’s rushing ability isn’t only valuable for timely pulls and quick darts into the end zone. It’s also valuable because Murray still isn’t the best processor of his route progressions, and accordingly can invite pressure and take himself out of good throws. When faced with pressure, Murray is perhaps the most elusive quarterback in the pocket in the league. His instincts for space, his last-second departures, and his unbelievable acceleration turn scramble plays into positive gains for his offense, ensuring the Cardinals are rarely behind the sticks.
We don’t have enough here to say it is better when Murray scrambles than when he passes—the touchdown numbers and the designed runs conflate that discussion. But what this does tell us is that Murray has been more impactful to his team as a runner than as a passer on an every-down basis. Much of that is due to the 10 rushing touchdowns that are buoying his running value—only Dalvin Cook has more—but much of that again is due to the negative plays that Murray avoids and escapes when he scrambles.
Many other run-heavy quarterbacks in the league are also sack-heavy quarterbacks due to their unwillingness to throw the ball away. Daniel Jones, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Jackson, all of whom are among the top rushing quarterbacks in the league, are also top 10 in sack rate on their respective offenses. Even big bodies like Newton and Allen, for all of their size and athleticism, are right around average.
Murray is 29th of 35 passers, surrounded by such players as Jared Goff, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. His quick passing game and heavy skew toward throwing the football in the Cardinals’ run/pass balance helps, but there is no denying that Murray’s magical pocket escapes not only keep the Cardinals ahead of the sticks but also conceals some of his deficiencies as a passer. Throw in the touchdowns, and you have the most valuable running quarterback in the league—and while he may lose the crown next year, I doubt he’ll ever stray far from first place. He avoids contact to ensure longevity, and for as long as Kingsbury is throwing four or five routes down the field with every snap, defenses won’t have the resources to place QB spies in Murray’s lap and discourage his scrambles.
The Murray RC car is here to stay for good.