To put it simply, Kyler Murray looked like Kyler Murray.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Murray answered the immediate questions about his surgically repaired right knee in his return to the field Sunday, and he also added context to the existential question about his long-term viability here.
Exactly 11 months after suffering torn right anterior cruciate ligament on the third play of a 2022 loss to New England, Murray pushed the Cardinals to a 25-23 victory over the Atlanta Falcons to break a six-game losing streak.
In so doing, Murray looked every bit of the player who was taken with first overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. The one who led the Cardinals to six fourth quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives before the injury.
Make it seven and nine.
“Felt normal,” Murray said. “Felt right.”
Murray gave a vintage performance that sparked comparisons to his pre-injury heroics, passing for 249 yards and rushing for another 33 yards and a touchdown. It was not 300-yard game — he has 13, two of 400 — but it was efficient.
Murray saved his athletic, what-knee-injury? best for the game-deciding drive, after the Cardinals regained possession with 2:33 remaining and a 23-22 deficit.
On third-and-10 from his own 42-yard line, Murray scrambled away from pocket pressure and rolled left before giving ground and doubling back to his right, where he found open space. He outran Falcons’ defenders for a 13-yard gain and a key first down. The scramble covered 74 yards, and he reached a speed of 20.17 mph, according to NextGen stats.
“A premier player making a premier play,” Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon said. “He wants the ball in his hands to win the game, and that’s what he did today. I’m just happy for the guy, what he came back from and what he put into this.”
Murray’s 33-yard back-shoulder pass to tight end Trey McBride two plays later set up Matt Prater’s 23-yard field goal as time expired, after the Cardinals opted to stay out of the end zone on their final three plays from scrimmage so as to keep Atlanta from another possession.
Gannon had a few words for Murray as he reached the sideline before the final kick.
“I said ‘That’s what you are supposed to do. Thank you for doing it,’” Gannon said.
Several storylines accompanied Murray into the game. One dealt with rust. He showed none. Except for one poor throw that resulted in an interception, he made the proper throws and was not happy-footed in the pocket, a previous criticism.
He looked comfortable in offensive coordinator Drew Petzing’s new scheme. Murray lined up under center about 10 times Sunday, something he rarely did under former coach Kliff Kinsgbury. Audibles seemed to go smoothly, although the play clock expired once.
His 6-yard touchdown run that brought the Cardinals within 14-12 at halftime came on a pet play, when he faked a handoff and sprinted around left end untouched.
“Being in the huddle, having Drew any my ear and all that is obviously new for me, but it felt good the first game back,” Murray said.
Another storyline considered whether Murray was the right man for this team, given the Cardinals’ regression from their 11-6 season capped by a lackluster 2021 playoff loss to the Rams to their 4-8 start before his injury in 2022. He missed three midseason games in 2021 because of a sprained ankle and missed two with a strained hamstring in 2022 before being lost for the season Dec. 12. Injuries always are a concern for a running quarterback.
There was a school of thought that Gannon and Petzing might want to explore a different option for for their system. Neither was here when Murray was drafted, and neither was here when he signed a $230.5 million contract before the 2022 season that is good though 2028, with an opt-out after the 2027 season. Murray’s $36 million 2023 option bonus just kicked in last week.
Gannon and Petzing saw Murray play like Murray in their first sideline glimpse, and they saw the team respond.
“There was no panic in his game,” Gannon said. “Obviously a jolt of energy and belief within our team. That’s why he is who he is. Those guys who can make plays their legs, that’s tough, man. To extend plays, it’s invaluable.”