A fresh start, but not a free pass

GLENDALE, Ariz. — On the list of inevitable questions about the future of the Arizona Cardinals, the Kyler Murray conundrum will always be in low satellite orbit around this franchise.

That much was guaranteed in a 2023 season dominated by bold font headlines squeezing the quarterback at every turn: His massive contract extension and an eyebrow-raising study habits provision in the deal; a hugely disappointing season cut short by a torn ACL in his right knee; and a seemingly inexhaustible narrative accusing Murray of being (pick one or all) aloof, uncoachable, selfish, immature, etc. By the time former Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury had been fired and former general manager Steve Keim had stepped down this offseason, the door into the franchise for the next regime was framed through a passageway seemingly built out of one question:

How would the next coach and general manager handle the quarterback?

This is the Kyler Murray conundrum. And nearly seven months since the hiring of general manager Monti Ossenfort and six months since the addition of head coach Jonathan Gannon, the resolution continues to be studied, analyzed and adjusted based on every interaction, comment, bit or byte collected. Last week, a still-mending Murray was observed at a training camp practice having an animated Q&A session with Gannon. Later that same day, Ossenfort was asked if he’d consider using a high 2024 selection on a quarterback — in a draft that’s nearly nine months away.

“Holy moly, man,” Ossennfort said. “I’m just trying to get through Tuesday.”

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray has the support — and the expectations — of new head coach Jonathan Gannon (right) and general manager Monti Ossenfort. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray has the support — and the expectations — of new head coach Jonathan Gannon (right) and general manager Monti Ossenfort. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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This is a microcosm of where the Cardinals are this season. Grinding their way through culture creation, schematic install and roster renovation. And orbiting around it, the Murray conundrum: what to do with a player being paid to be a franchise quarterback … by a franchise that is squarely in the midst of reinvention. All the while knowing the entire revamp balances on figuring out whether that quarterback fits.

How future of Kyler Murray, other Arizona holdovers will be evaluated

When you ask Gannon and Ossenfort about what that means, what you get is layered response that seemingly measures the distance between a pair of markers. Marker one was laid down in the offseason, when the new regime delivered Murray a clean slate that wiped away the residue of everything prior to 2023. Marker two will arrive next offseason in a report card of sorts, measuring every inch of progress or regression — setting up a crossroads at quarterback that could determine the course of the franchise for the next decade or more.

What won’t happen is a re-litigation of previous events or commentary. That means flushing ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast from last November, when the network made a lengthy and unflattering comparison between the work habits and professionalism of Murray versus backup Colt McCoy. It also means tuning out Keim, who went on “The Herd” with Colin Cowherd in July and leaned into the thought that Murray could be replaced as the team’s quarterback if Arizona ends up with a high draft pick next offseason. Perhaps more than anything, it means everyone in the organization understanding clear messaging from Gannon and Ossenfort: Murray has their support, as well as their expectations.

“You can approach it two ways: Perception is reality or perception is not reality,” Gannon said. “I think a little bit of what went on since he’s been in the league [was] with the old regime, the contract, all of that. That’s what I mean about a clean slate. I don’t give a f*** about any of that. I think if you go talk to the locker room and the guys that we have in there now, they don’t care about any of that.”

“When I got here, and I know he’s hurt, but it was like ‘If you f***ing have a problem with this guy, your ass is probably going to be out of here. So you need to get on f***king board, because that’s who I’m playing with.’ Now, that’s not an end-all-be-all. On the flip side of that, it’s like, ‘Hey Kyler, these couple things that you said you had to do a better job of, 1691389797 you have to do a better job of it.’”

That clean slate will apparently go both ways in the coming assessment. Not just for Murray, but for every holdover on the roster. Past failures or successes are going back to zero in the organization for each individual, meaning that any roster decisions from this season forward will be on the basis of how players fit into the culture and expectations being set in place now. Whatever structure (or lack thereof) that existed under Kingsbury or Keim is now irrelevant — replaced by a clear set of expectations in game performance, meetings, practice and everything else that entails being employed by the Cardinals.

“Everyone is on a clean slate — good, bad or indifferent,” Ossenfort said. “Even if we came in here and someone was praising [Kyler], I don’t care what happened in the past. Everybody has got to prove themselves every day. That individual conversation didn’t happen, other than, ‘These are the expectations we have for you. I don’t know what’s been asked of you in the past and frankly I don’t care. But this is what we need out of you and for all of our players. Going forward, this is what we have to do.’”

Gannon insisted that’s not a reboot mentality. After all, to reboot you first have to consider the past and whether or not something needs to be started over. This regime isn’t doing that. Instead, the goal was to present what the expectations will be and then challenge players to live up to it. That means being on time for meetings, not expecting cell phone breaks to check social media accounts, wearing team-provided attire around the facility and a host of other expectations both big and small.

“It wasn’t a reboot as far as trying to be different from the last regime,” Gannon said. “It was more of, ‘Hey, we’re deciding that this is what we have to do on a daily basis to win games and this is how we’re going to operate.’ That’s it. If that’s a culture shock, or they’re more accountable, or more disciplined, or we’re more honest with them, or there’s more communication, or we’re willing to call guys out — it’s [a message] of, ‘Do we understand that this is what we’ve got to do to try to win games? OK, yes. So when it’s not right, here’s what we have to fix. And when it is right, you’ll see this is what we’re talking about.’ It’s nothing more than that.”

One word new Cardinals GM would like to see from Murray

So what will that mean for Murray?

Neither Gannon or Ossenfort is putting much specific on it. But it’s worth noting that Gannon spent three years as an NFL personnel evaluator early in his career, so his study of Murray is going to come from more than just the vantage of a former defensive coordinator. He’s going to expect Murray to showcase leadership and command of his huddle, as well as a penchant for quick decision making. When Gannon talks about the quarterbacks he values most, those are the points he hammers home.

“The quarterbacks that are the best players, they play so fast,” Gannon said. “They make decisions so fast. They don’t put the ball in harm’s way. It’s, ‘Here’s what the defense gave me, here’s what I’m supposed to do, here’s where the ball is going.’ That’s what I mean by fast. That example I just gave you, that’s Tom Brady in a nutshell. He’s saying, ‘OK, I’m good with that checkdown versus that route, versus this call.’ It’s so fast. It’s just a whole different game. That’s what I want the quarterbacks to be about. Play fast.”

“[Measuring Kyler], that’s a big gray area, but I think one word I’d like to see is growth,” Ossenfort said. “I think growth can come in many forms for all of us. Obviously growth from a getting healthy standpoint. … Kyler, right now, that’s all he can do — focus on routine and the mental side of it and meetings. I think he’s passed those tests with flying colors right now. He’s been locked in and engaged, certainly with rehab, but also with meetings and the walkthroughs.”

Of course, that expected growth will be measured beyond quarterback. But it will require some patience from ownership and the fan base. Ossennfort and Gannon are believers in a more traditional build, turning over the roster with draft classes and building a talented and reliable core that will be manned by players three, four and five years down the line. For those counting at home, that means at least a few more draft classes and some modest free agency accentuation before this regime feels like it will have a roster that is truly homegrown.

The bottom line: Regardless of what happens at quarterback, this is never going to be a shake-and-bake situation where high draft picks are traded away for veteran starters and splashy free-agent signings are made to microwave a Super Bowl window. What Ossenfort and Gannon want is the decades-long consistency of a front office and coach tandem that mirrors the franchises in Seattle, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and a handful of others.

“That’s what I came in pitching,” Ossenfort said. “That’s how I was raised. That’s how I see the most successful programs of the last 20 years. It’s been continuity of system, continuity of beliefs.”

Not to mention continuity of quarterback, which might ultimately be what makes or breaks the 2023 season and well beyond it.

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