GLENDALE, Ariz. — After the Cardinals’ fourth training-camp practice Saturday, Kyler Murray walked off the field at State Farm Stadium with a slight limp. Unlike teammates who wore practice gear, the Arizona quarterback wore a gray sweatshirt and black shorts.
A team official directed Murray to a group that stretched into the tunnel, 75 or so deep, all with Sharpies in hand. Murray approached with enthusiasm. “How ya doing, man?” he said to a young boy.
Murray signed jerseys, footballs and helmets for 15 minutes. He reached down and petted a white poodle. He put his arm around a boy in a Larry Fitzgerald jersey. Signature. Pose. Smile for the camera.
This is not a new routine. Murray, who turns 26 on Aug. 7, has been in the spotlight since his high school days in Texas. But what he is experiencing as a football player? Yes, this is a different kind of grind. As Arizona prepares for its first season under coach Jonathan Gannon, Murray, recovering from right ACL surgery, is on the “Physically Unable to Perform” list. In a season full of unknowns for the rebuilding Cardinals, Murray’s return is the biggest.
Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, signing autographs after Saturday’s practice, says he’s getting closer to football activity.
“It’s a great question,” he said of his potential return. “I have no answer for you, though. I’m taking it one day at a time.” pic.twitter.com/feWoZiXgkV
— Doug Haller (@DougHaller) July 30, 2023
Since his hire in February, Gannon has stuck to a familiar script. That is, Murray will return when he’s ready. Might that be Sept. 10 when the Cardinals open the season at Washington? Probably not. Might it be in Week 4 or 5? No one is saying for sure.
“As you guys know, that’s an injury that kind of goes like that,” Gannon said, moving his right hand in the motion of a roller coaster.
After the autograph session, Murray talked with local reporters for the first time since injuring his knee Dec. 12 in a home game against the Patriots. He talked about the surgery and how nothing really prepares a person for the pain and discomfort that follows. “Two weeks of hell,” Murray called it. He talked about the helpless feeling of laying in bed, leg elevated, not being able to sleep. And depending on others for basic needs.
He would not discuss a timetable.
“It’s a great question,” Murray said of a potential return. “I have no answer for you, though. I’m taking it one day at a time.”
And later: Would a midseason return be considered a victory?
“Again, that’s the timetable stuff,” Murray said. “I’m not like, ‘Oh, I need (a certain number of games).’ That’s not on my mind.”
The theme of this camp has been accountability. It’s mostly basic stuff, but after last season’s 4-13 record, which resulted in the dismissal of coach Kliff Kingsbury, a return to professionalism, with strict attention to details, has been welcomed. Without criticizing the previous staff, players have embraced the changes. Among them: They have to wear team gear in the facility, no exceptions.
Of greater significance: “You get fined if you’re late to a meeting, fined if you park in the wrong place, fined if you’re doing something that puts yourself over the team,” cornerback Christian Matthew said.
Even Murray admitted, when it comes to learning a new offensive system, it’s not so much the scheme that’s made a difference, it’s how it’s being coached. “Every little detail matters,’’ he said. “I think that’s something I know we were missing.”
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Murray spent the end of Saturday’s practice standing behind the quarterbacks, watching every play. He discussed them with injured tight end Zach Ertz. He shifted his feet. He placed his hands on his knees like a baseball shortstop.
It’s not the worst thing, Murray said, to take a step back and watch, learning in a different way, through mental repetition. At home, he barks out play calls in front of a mirror. He does the same to coaches in meetings. Despite missing summer workouts and the start of camp, he does not feel behind.
Murray could not guess how much practice he would need to return to game form. He knows there will be mental hurdles; he’s experienced them in several forms already. The first time he had to bend his right knee, he had to have the physical therapist do it for him. The first time he had to jump, he felt nervous. For an elite athlete, especially one as shifty and explosive as Murray, these are foreign feelings. Like a pianist with numb fingers.
He recently talked with Joe Burrow at an event in Miami. The Bengals quarterback, who injured his left ACL during his rookie season in 2020, told him upon return that he felt hesitant in the pocket. Murray knows he will have similar feelings.
“I mean, really, this whole thing is kind of mental,’’ he said.
It likely will be the biggest test of his pro career. The 2019 AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Murray has been named to two Pro Bowls. He’s led Arizona to the playoffs. Last summer, he signed an extension worth $230.5 million, placing him among the game’s higher-paid quarterbacks. Even so, questions persist about his leadership. About his ability to elevate the franchise.
Asked if he’s learned anything about himself in the past several months, Murray answered no. But he added that it has reinforced his resiliency. To not care about other people’s opinions and just focus on himself. His confidence. His drive. People he trusts have warned him not to try and return too early. To wait until he knows for sure the time is right. That is his plan.
“I get to do what I love every day — play quarterback in the NFL,” Murray said. “Did I get hurt? Yeah. Did I experience something that no one wants to experience? Yeah. But it’s nothing for me to get up and work out every day. I was already doing that before I got hurt, so the fact that now I’m rehabbing a knee — cool. For me, it’s to get back to who I was and be able to play at a higher level. I’m excited.”
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(Photo: Ross D. Franklin / AP)