Rocked by scandal involving its most successful and influential owner, sharply critiqued by medical experts and buffeted by opposing winds of its conservative fans and those seeking social progress, the NFL is searching for a hug and a hero.
Major League Baseball, which has its own shame from the owner’s box, might be even more desperate. The game has devolved into such tedium that its guardians worry about game length, mound height and what on earth to do about the designated hitter.
Furthermore, the steroids era has given way to the age of American-born players with beige personalities, seemingly ambling off a factory assembly line in monochromatic lockstep. The casual fan -- once familiar with Jeter, Bonds, Junior and The Big Unit -- rarely recognizes Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, much less Khris Davis, who has hit more home runs than anybody over the past three seasons.
These are challenging times for the popularity of these two American legacy sports, only one of which can anticipate the gift soon to be delivered.
Kyler Murray’s timing is impeccable. The two-sport star and Heisman Trophy winner’s choice to declare for the April 25 NFL draft is a stroke of luck for football and a stinging defeat for MLB, the Oakland A’s in particular.
For even with the A’s recent success and solid young core of players, tickets remain plentiful. The addition of Murray, drafted ninth overall by Oakland last June, would have sent a wave of enthusiasm throughout the organization.
“It’s franchise-changing when you have somebody like that,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco advertising executive and sports marketing analyst. “You can build your whole team around him. You can build your whole marketing plan around him. Merchandise becomes a huge thing. It can improve your TV deals. It can improve your sponsorship opportunities.
“It can completely turn around a franchise if this guy turns out to be all that he’s cracked up to be.”
The perfect package
Every NFL team is fantasizing about The Kyler Effect. All 32 were represented at Oklahoma's March 13 pro day, where he did little more than support his teammates between stepping on a scale in the morning and throwing 66 passes in the afternoon.
The Arizona Cardinals, who hold the No. 1 pick in the draft, envision the quarterback as a catalyst for reviving their sagging fortunes. During his time as coach at Big 12 rival Texas Tech, first-year Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury was so taken with Murray that his comments amounted to breathless admiration. Raiders coach Jon Gruden describes Murray as “like watching a video game,” insisting Derek Carr is his quarterback while clearly intrigued by Murray.
What’s not to like for a team and a league needing a lift? Murray comes with no visible red flags, is young at heart and conveys joy in the midst of mayhem. He can charm the elderly while also enthralling the fifth-grader.
The perfect baseball candidate would be a five-tool center fielder or shortstop. Murray plays center field.
The perfect football candidate would be a quarterback capable of sprinting through defenses and throwing over them. Murray is, ahem, that quarterback.
If this were an auction, the bidding between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred might go on for months, with Patriots owner Robert Kraft (under investigation) and San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer (suspended without pay) leading cheers.
Murray fits the magnetism profile. Team owners see revenue. Coaches, scouts and fans swoon over his dual-threat talent. As a Korean-American, his multicultural ancestry (hello, young Tiger Woods) should, at least theoretically, broaden his appeal.
Murray’s ordinary stature, listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds at Oklahoma, invites skeptics -- some still question his height -- but also adds the underdog element that captivates the casual fan and opens the window to transcendency. He’s an instant name-brand star, with the potential to be a visible ambassador for a team and a league and a sport that needs as much positive recognition as it can get.
Consider: In a recent ESPN poll ranking the global fame of current athletes, MLB struck out among the top 50, and just two NFL players -- quarterbacks Tom Brady of the Patriots and Cam Newton of the Panthers -- were included. The NBA, by contrast, had three in the top 11 (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry) and nine in the top 50.
The addition of Murray to the NFL has no less than national implications.
“It’s kind of a movie script,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “The ups of being the player he was in high school. Then he goes to Texas A&M, and the ups and downs he had there. And then he comes here and sits for a couple years. He’s a backup in football. He’s not playing that great in baseball in his first year.
“And then all of a sudden, he kind of gets settled in -- or however you want to describe it -- and then becomes a top-10 pick, most likely, in two different leagues. It’s just stupid. That’s just unheard of. You couldn’t even dream that up.”
Murray, 21, might have “settled in” with the Sooners last fall, but he also introduced himself to America beyond Texas. The junior did it with spectacular exploits, destroying opposing defenses with his arm and his legs, passing for 4,361 yards (42 touchdowns, seven interceptions) and rushing for 1,001 yards and 12 more scores.
Not that any of this surprised the folks back home in Texas, where Murray’s career at suburban Allen High School, about 25 miles northeast of Dallas, was as celebrated as those of Lone Star legends Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson. The Eagles were undefeated (43-0) in Murray’s three seasons as the starter, with him passing and rushing for 186 touchdowns.
Murray initially chose to attend Texas A&M, where his father, Kevin, played quarterback 30 years earlier after a brief minor-league baseball career. That lasted one uneven season, during which the true freshman made three starts. Kyler announced during winter break that he was transferring, and one week later chose Oklahoma as his next stop.
The Sooners at the time were coached by Bob Stoops, the famous sideline presence who spent 18 seasons at Oklahoma before retiring in the summer of 2017 and endorsing Riley as his successor. Stoops could not have predicted Murray’s rise to the top of the NFL draft board, but he is not surprised.
“When I first laid eyes on him, he was a junior in high school and I saw him coming out of a weight room in Allen,” Stoops recalled. “He was put together physically even then. I tried to recruit him then and didn’t have much luck. But the second time, after leaving A&M, he called us, and we were elated to have him coming to Oklahoma.
“In fact, Lincoln’s comment watching his tape was, 'If Kyler comes to Oklahoma, he could win the Heisman Trophy.' I guess it was prophetic.”
Murray sat out the 2016 season by NCAA mandate, spent the ’17 season backing up eventual Heisman winner (and No. 1 draft pick) Baker Mayfield, and used the 2018 season to build such a remarkable brand that he has reached first-name-only identification.
That’s a by-product of piling up preposterous stats by throwing perfect 60-yard spirals over defenses, using 4.3 speed to dart through them, winning 12 of 14 games and, along with the Heisman, Associated Press Player of the Year honors and the Davey O’Brien Award, which signifies college football’s top quarterback.
Yet there are a few scattered skeptics. Some question Murray’s leadership, and one in particular, former general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charley Casserly, claims to have gotten a heavy dose of negative feedback from some of the teams that interviewed Murray at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
“These were the worst comments I ever got on a top-rated quarterback, and I’ve been doing this a long time,” Casserly said on TV. “Leadership -- not good. Study habits -- not good. The board work -- below not good.”
Asked to evaluate his leadership, Murray responded logically: “Ask my teammates.”
Oklahoma coaches and teammates offer a vigorous defense of Murray’s toughness, knowledge -- he was on the Big 12's All-Academic second team -- and leadership.
“Kyler’s a different breed,” said Sooners offensive lineman Cody Ford, also projected as a first-round pick. “He’s a great leader and a great teammate. Even when he didn’t play, he was pushing everybody, pushing anybody. When he was sitting back watching Baker do his thing, he always took a leadership role. So, for somebody to say he’s not a leader is not right. They’re wrong in so many ways.”
After the decision
It’s not only what Murray has accomplished that impresses observers but how he has done it, skillfully straddling that subjective line between confidence and humility while offering up a face full of cherubim -- all of which sets him even further apart from other draft-eligible players.
“No. 1, he won the Heisman Trophy,” Dorfman said. “That’s no guarantee of future success, but it does put you at the top of the heap coming into the league. No. 2, the whole baseball versus football thing was, intentional or not, a brilliant marketing strategy. It made him much more popular and a topic of discussion. He became a subject on sports-talk radio, with everybody wanting to know if he was going to go with baseball or football. It made him stand out in ways that nobody else could.”
Murray says he grappled with the choice, and there are reasons to take him at his word. Drafted ninth overall by the A’s last June, he quickly came to the Oakland Coliseum with his family, signed a $4.66 million contract -- with a $1.5 million bonus -- before donning the green and gold, grabbing a bat and taking a few swings.
A’s baseball boss Billy Beane that day described Murray as “arguably one of the most dynamic athletes” drafted in his 29 years as a scout and executive. The A’s approved of Murray’s decision to play football last fall. Represented by super-agent Scott Boras, they also expected him to choose baseball.
Though Murray has returned about $1.3 million in bonus money and forfeited the additional $3.16 million, he acknowledges that informing the A’s of his decision was not an easy conversation.
“At the end of the day, they drafted me. In my heart, I'll always feel like I'll be an A just because they took the time to do that, and obviously it's a dream come true to be drafted No. 9, first round,” he told Dallas sports-talk station KTCK-AM last month. “It was definitely tough. It's not like breaking up with a girlfriend, but it was hard to have that conversation for sure."
The A’s declined to comment for this story, citing they still own the rights to Murray and implying they still hope he’ll someday join the organization. Asked about a future in baseball, Murray gives himself an invisible fraction of wiggle room.
“I love baseball. I’ve always loved baseball,” he said. “I don’t know why everyone is trying to make me un-love baseball. I grew up playing baseball and football and basketball. But, at the end of the day, I can’t play both. Is it out of my system? I guess. But I don’t know.”
NFL teams don’t care. They are content to accept that Murray’s passion for football trumps his love for baseball. They’ve studied the video. They’ve met with him. They’ve tested him.
They also sense someone with his backstory and electric skills potentially can be a star off the field.
“He’s special,” said 86-year-old Gil Brandt, the godfather of NFL personnel men. “I don’t know that staying (at Oklahoma) for another year would do him any good. The way the league is going, with movement at quarterback, his timing is pretty good. He just has to get to the right situation. If he does, he’s going to be really good.
“If he goes first to the Cardinals, can you imagine the excitement in Arizona?”
Long and short of it
The blueprint for NFL quarterbacks indeed is changing. New Orleans' Drew Brees, at 6 feet, has won a Super Bowl. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, at 5-11, also has one ring and was within a questionable play-call of a second.
Noting the doubters, his smallish physique and running ability, some NFL teams believe Murray is the man who can silence once and for all the debate at about a quarterback whether a “small,” dual-threat quarterback can thrive in the league.
“I haven’t really thought too much about it, but I think it’s a cool deal, being different and not marginalizing shorter quarterbacks just because they’re not as tall,” Murray said. “I go out and play the game at my height -- whether it’s 5-9 or 5-10 -- I just love playing the game. I love to win. The fact that I might be able to change it is pretty cool.”
Wherever Murray lands, the hype will burn hot enough and high enough to leave a vapor trail. He’s the Golden Child the NFL badly needs, and the league surely will put his wholesome mug in front of as many cameras as it can find.
It’s a lot to live up to, but Murray comes with a cheering section befitting Superman in a modest physical package.
“The $4.66 million contract he got from the A’s, he’s going to make that in endorsements in the NFL,” Dorfman said. “Probably in his first year.”
Had Murray chosen baseball and the A’s, he’d likely be living in the Stockton area as a member of the Ports, Oakland's Class-A affiliate. He’d be bracing for months of cheap chow on long bus rides between two- and three-star hotels.
The Ports open their season Thursday at 5,200-seat Banner Island Ballpark. Even with the nice yard and the good crowd, they’ll miss Murray more than he’ll miss them.