Training staffs around the NFL should take note of how the Arizona Cardinals handled Kyler Murray’s injury. When their franchise quarterback went down with an ankle injury in Arizona’s first loss of the season, they didn’t rush him back. Even with two divisional games in the next three weeks, they kept Murray sidelined to give him time to recover. Backup Colt McCoy went 2-1 in his three starts and the Cardinals were able to maintain their top spot in the NFC.
A big part of why Arizona had the freedom to give Murray the time he needed was their investment in a good backup quarterback. We all know what usually happens when teams lose their starting quarterback—the backup comes in and simply isn’t able to perform at a high enough level to keep the team in positions to win. Yet, with the NFC’s No. 1 seed potentially on the line, McCoy kept the Cardinals afloat.
Now, Murray is back, leading the way to Arizona’s 10th win of the season. They’re alone in the pole position in the NFC at 10-2. And although Murray didn’t put up show-stopping numbers in his first game back, he did enough to convince anyone watching that his ankle was good to go for game action. His 59 rushing yards and 10 carries were both season highs, and he finished the afternoon with two rushing touchdowns, along with 123 passing yards and two touchdown throws.
While he was responsible for every Cardinals touchdown, Murray wasn’t throwing the ball very often. When he was, it was usually for short yardage. According to Next Gen Stats, just four of his 15 pass attempts had an intended air yardage of more than 10 yards. That isn’t a reason to panic though. For one, the conditions in Chicago—very cold and very rainy—were less than ideal for any reliance on the passing game. For another, it feels more likely that it’s a product of head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury taking it easy on Murray in his first game back in five weeks.
Even without even half as many dropbacks as he usually has in a game, Murray’s production in his return was a really promising sign for the Cardinals in this home stretch. He didn’t seem to have lost any of his mobility with the injured ankle, and he was still just as fast.
As weeks go on and with likely better conditions, Kingsbury and the Cardinals will start to ramp him back up to more action in the passing game. After all, Murray is so dangerous because of his dual-threat abilities in the air and on the ground. With his ground game clearly not taking a step back, he’ll continue to be a fantastic yards-producer under center in both facets.
Now, with their 10-2 record and a remaining five games that include matchups with the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals are all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. Their bigger challenge is locking up that No. 1 seed and the first-round bye that comes with it.
Arizona’s remaining strength of schedule is easy with Detroit and Seattle still to play, but they’ve also got three against the playoff-contending Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys, and Indianapolis Colts. To make things more complicated, their primary competition for the NFC’s top seed—the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both 9-3—have even easier remaining schedules. The final five opponents for each team have a combined .415 win percentage.
Murray and DeAndre Hopkins have returned at the perfect time for this final push for the NFC’s top spot. With neither looking like they’ve skipped a beat despite missing time, the Cardinals are in a good spot to lock up that first-round bye.