Kyler Murray didn’t miss a beat on Sunday in Chicago, dicing up the Bears in his much-anticipated return to the football field.
The Arizona Cardinals’ third-year signal-caller had four combined touchdowns in the 33-22 win, finishing with an 85.5 Total QBR that was best among quarterbacks this week, pending Monday Night Football.
Consistent excellence has been a theme for Murray in 2021 as he has sparked the Cardinals to an NFL-best 10-2 start.
Murray leads the NFL in yards per attempt (8.9), passer rating (112.2), completion percentage (72.7), touchdown percentage (7.0), adjusted yards per attempt (9.1), net yards per attempt (7.7), completion percentage over expectation (6.5) and EPA per play (.263).
2021 EPA/attempt on non-BS throws*
1. Kyler (+0.51)
2. Cousins (+0.36)
15. Mac (+0.20)
*removes passes behind the LOS, RPOs, screens, jet sweeps
— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) December 1, 2021
Normally, that resume would make a player the MVP favorite, but Murray is lagging behind Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen in the consensus odds.
The culprit: Murray missed three games in November due to a sprained ankle, which means he will play in less than 83% of Arizona’s games this season.
It’s a significant absence in the battle for such a prestigious award, as no player since Joe Montana in 1989 has won NFL MVP after sitting out for three games.
So as the regular season hits its stretch run, I posed a simple question to several NFL analysts: Can Kyler Murray win MVP despite missing those three contests this season?
The responses were, surprisingly, almost unanimous in the affirmative.
“I absolutely think it is possible,” said Ben Baldwin, NFL writer for The Athletic. “This situation brings to mind the 2016 MVP vote, where Brady missed four games due to suspension and the Patriots went 3-1. Brady received 10 of 50 MVP votes, but ultimately lost out to Matt Ryan, who received 25. The main difference that gives Murray a chance this year is that, in contrast to Brady in 2016, there’s no other quarterback with a dominant statistical season, leaving the door open for Murray if the Cardinals can earn the No. 1 seed in the NFC.”
MVP race might be Brady & Kyler? pic.twitter.com/5519Mro0qK
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) December 6, 2021
The Cardinals are currently one game ahead of the Packers and Buccaneers in the conference. Football Outsiders gives them a 35.3% chance to finish as the No. 1 seed, which is higher than Murray’s implied 10.1% odds of winning MVP.
Myles Simmons, a writer for Pro Football Talk, also believes team success could make or break Murray’s chances.
“I tend to think the quarterback of the NFC’s No. 1 seed will be the MVP,” Simmons said. “So if the Cardinals make that happen, I can definitely see Murray winning.”
Simmons’ concern is less with the games missed and more with Murray’s interception percentage of 2.6, which is higher than Brady and more than double that of Rodgers.
“It’s about taking care of the football,” Simmons said.
A pair of former NFL quarterbacks have conflicting opinions about Murray’s chances.
Ex-Buccaneers and Cardinals signal-caller Shaun King believes Murray has already missed too many games and should be out of the running because Brady has played in every contest this year and Rodgers has only missed one.
— Keyshawn, JWill & Max (@KeyJayandMax) December 6, 2021
But former Rams and Saints signal-caller Jim Everett thinks Murray is still in the mix.
“The MVP race is wide open this year, so yes, if Kyler has a huge December, he’s as good of a choice as there is,” Everett said. “And his team is hot (as hell).”
Former Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson pointed out that the team went 2-1 without Murray, which, combined with the three-game absence, may keep him out of the race.
“I don’t know, man,” Johnson said. “Initially I’m saying no. Three games is a lot. That’s almost a quarter (of the season). With him missing three and the Cards still being as successful as they were in that timeframe — I definitely think he’s a special player and I think he’s going to be the key piece to them winning the championship, but I think three games is too much. Maybe if he missed one.”
Several players have missed one game during their MVP seasons, and three have recently won the award despite missing two games: Titans quarterback Steve McNair, who split the honor with Peyton Manning in 2003; Rams running back Marshall Faulk in 2000 and Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith in 1993.
In the NBA, only Bill Walton in 1977-78 has won MVP while playing in less than 83% of his team’s games. In Major League Baseball it’s more common, with Mike Trout being the most recent.
The Angels outfielder captured the 2019 MVP while playing in, interestingly, exactly 83% of his team’s games. Trout missed the final three weeks of that season with a foot injury and told MLB.com after winning the award that he thought it might cost him the MVP.
Mike Trout is your 2019 American League MVP. He received 17 of 30 first place votes to finish ahead of runner-up Alex Bregman
— Kyle Glaser (@KyleAGlaser) November 14, 2019
It’s a debate that can be argued either way, so it was easy to understand the initial hesitancy from Steven Ruiz, NFL writer at The Ringer, when he was asked about Murray’s candidacy.
“In a normal season, I’d say no… but this season has been anything but normal,” Ruiz said. “The more trendy MVP picks from the first two months have taken a step back while Kyler has stayed put while out injured. Now it appears that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who have combined to win six MVP trophies, could be Kyler’s biggest competition for the award, so voter fatigue could be on his side when it comes time to cast ballots. A hot finish to the season and a No. 1 seed in the NFC could be just enough to earn him the nod.”
The Cardinals are 8-1 in games played with Murray this season, including dominant road wins over the Titans, Rams and Browns.
The loss came to the Packers, although they easily outgained Green Bay on a per-play basis and ultimately fell, 24-21, because they lost the turnover battle 3-0.
Arizona has only been on national television once this year despite the gaudy record, and it was the loss to Green Bay, but the attention will be back on Murray down the stretch.
The Cardinals play the Rams on Monday Night Football in Week 14, then face the Colts in primetime on Christmas Day.
National television games can have an outsized impact on perception, so if Murray is still a viable candidate, he has a chance to impress and pull off the unlikely feat of a 14-game MVP.
“In short, yes, Kyler Murray can absolutely still win the league’s MVP Award, especially if the Cardinals continue to run away with the NFC West,” said Joe Fann, co-host of the Bet To Wynn podcast for WynnBet. “Murray leads the NFL in big time throw percentage (8.8%), completion percentage (72.7%), adjusted yards per pass attempt (9.1) and touchdown percentage (7%). Still, voters will likely weigh counting stats too heavily, which means Murray will need a clunker or two from the likes of Tom Brady, Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers.”