Why you should care
Because Kyler Murray doesn’t fit the mold of an NFL quarterback, which is why he deserves a top pick.
Kyler Murray won’t have to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft today to signal a paradigm shift in the league. Murray couldn’t have been the No. 1 pick a decade ago. The 2018 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback never played right behind center in Lincoln Riley’s offense at Oklahoma, which is light on traditional NFL concepts, run entirely out of the shotgun with simplified reads and easier throws.
For decades, the only greater sin a quarterback prospect could commit than being from some variation of the Air Raid offense was being short. The 5-foot-10 Murray checks both boxes, yet when Roger Goodell opens the draft, Murray will be one of the first players to hear his name called, a year after Baker Mayfield was the very first — in the same offense, standing a modest 6-foot-1.
Mayfield set the all-time college efficiency mark for quarterbacks in 2016, then broke his own record in 2017. (The efficiency rating takes into account how often a quarterback is completing passes, how productive these passes are on average and the rate of touchdowns versus interceptions.) Murray would have eclipsed Mayfield to become the most efficient quarterback ever — records go back to 1956 — with a ridiculous 199.2 rating, except sophomore Tua Tagovailoa (the presumed No. 1 overall pick when he’s eligible in 2020) hung a 199.4 at Alabama. In fact …
The six most efficient seasons in college football history have all come since 2011, and all from quarterbacks who break the physical mold the NFL has for the position.
Only Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson came from an offense that wouldn’t be considered “spread,” a dirty word in NFL circles for years and a catchall for offenses that run almost entirely out of shotgun and through the air. The result? The NFL is now more often imitating college offenses than vice versa.
In Doug Farrar’s book The Genius of Desperation, he points out the historical drivers of innovation regularly came from a disadvantaged position, the football version of “necessity is the mother of invention.” This premise goes back not just to the NFL but the high school level. Teams without as much talent had to find ways to compete with the bigger, stronger, faster opponents.
Those innovations spawned a generation of players who operate in shotgun formation, with receivers all over the field, running concepts made to stress opposing defenses, particularly those who want to play traditional defense. They practice 7-on-7 because most conferences and states regulate the number of practices teams can have with pads on.
Chris Ault, the Nevada coach who supported the early rise of Colin Kaepernick, says getting the NFL to break the mold is like pulling teeth. His work with Andy Reid as a consultant set the table for the reign of the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Patrick Mahomes, and Alex Smith before him. Ault says he never understood why more NFL teams didn’t recognize the value of using a quarterback’s legs as a weapon, something all these top college quarterbacks have in common.
“Who knew Russell Wilson could drop back and throw it his first season like he did?” Ault asks rhetorically. It’s his mind — the ability to process information to go along with his athletic gifts — that made him so efficient in college. The brain game translates and grows from there. “The more they can eat, the more you can feed ’em.”
From time immemorial, NFL teams preferred dropback passers, because that’s how most teams played. The Air Raid and versions of the spread run in college were gimmicky and are still sneered at by evaluators around the league.
Greg Gabriel worked as a talent evaluator in the NFL for the Bears, Giants and others for nearly three decades. He says a main driver of the league’s acceptance stems from a simple supply problem, as more college teams run the spread. Teams who draft quarterbacks with top picks are starting to understand that letting a quarterback go do things he’s been doing since he was 11 serves as the fastest course to success.
When Washington drafted Robert Griffin III, the second-most efficient college quarterback at the time behind Wilson, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan integrated Baylor concepts into the playbook and RGIII shined. Cleveland did the same for Baker Mayfield last year, leading to one of the great rookie quarterback seasons of modern league history. According to Ault, Washington also did a study that found Griffin got hit more in the pocket than he did on designed run calls, the arrow in his quiver that truly made him dynamic before injuries robbed him of a more impressive career.
Wilson and Mayfield regularly use their wheels to escape trouble or generate plays. Murray, like those two, possesses game-breaking speed to go with breathtaking arm talent. But he’s significantly smaller than those two, and 6-foot-2 is considered the floor for NFL quarterback height. If Wilson and Mayfield opened the door for outliers, Murray provides an ideal test case for how far the NFL has come in its thinking.
There are certainly spread offense busts worth noting, such as Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Blaine Gabbert. That said, none of them put up the kind of passing efficiency stats in college as Murray, Mayfield or even Marcus Mariota. It wasn’t the system that was the problem, but rather it was the other way around. The spread propped them up, turning them into fool’s gold for NFL teams.
Of late, NFL teams seem to have found the most success adapting their playbooks to the strengths of their quarterbacks: Witness how Reid put Mahomes in an offense much closer to what the QB ran at Texas Tech than what Reid used to run in Kansas City and Philadelphia.
If Murray goes in the top five on Thursday, then we’ll know attitudes truly have changed. Either that, or a team got desperate. And as Farrar shows us, over the course of NFL history, sometimes we get genius out of desperation.