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Year of the Black QB

Kyler Murray’s NFL debut a promising start — and thrilling finish

Arizona’s new face of the franchise delivered down stretch to earn Week 1 tie

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals went all-in on Kyler Murray in hopes he could help revive their franchise, making him only the fifth black quarterback selected first overall during the 83-year history of the NFL draft.

And there’s much for the Cardinals and their fans to be encouraged about as the Murray era began in earnest Sunday, albeit without a victory. Then again, it didn’t start with a loss, either.

Undeterred by Arizona’s brutal performance on offense for most of the game, Murray led a fourth-quarter charge that erased a late 18-point deficit and extended the game into overtime, enabling the team to finish in a 27-27 tie with the Detroit Lions. The Heisman Trophy winner completed 29 of 54 passes for 308 yards with two touchdowns — both in the final six minutes of regulation play, the second within the last minute — and one interception.

“Obviously, it was pretty ugly at first,” Murray said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the win. But a tie’s better than a loss, I guess.”

Down the stretch (in the fourth, he completed 15 of 19 passes for 154 yards), Murray delivered in a manner that may enable him to one day achieve NFL superstardom like many other active African American signal-callers. Quickly putting the opener behind him will be part of his growth process.

“I felt like I was going to do anything in my power to kind of get [the offense] going,” Murray said. “I felt really bad at times.”

The four other black passers selected atop the draft could relate to Murray’s mixed emotions after his first start.

On Nov. 11, 2001, Michael Vick, the first black quarterback to hold the distinction, had only 32 yards passing and misfired on eight of his 12 pass attempts against the Dallas Cowboys. Vick, however, completed his first career touchdown pass and helped the Falcons win 20-13. Years later, Vick recalled that “you just have to get out there and keep believing in yourself and your teammates. You just have to remember you’ve been playing this game [your whole life]. No matter what happens, you can’t [lose sight of the fact you belong].” Vick went on to have a successful NFL career, rebuilding it after he served 18 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation.

JaMarcus Russell’s poor beginning actually was a harbinger of a short road ahead for him in the NFL. In Week 17 of the 2007 season, Russell made his first start for the Oakland Raiders against the then-San Diego Chargers. A week earlier, Russell came off the bench and had a three-interception performance during a 38-point loss to Jacksonville. Operating from a scaled-down playbook against the Chargers, Russell went 23 of 31 for 224 yards with one touchdown and one interception in a 13-point loss. But Russell’s NFL career would be over in 2010.

Jameis Winston, who’s still trying to gain his footing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had a forgettable outing against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 13, 2015. Winston completed fewer than 50% of his passes (16 of 33) for 210 yards. He threw two touchdown passes but also had two interceptions in a 28-point loss.

Only one member of the group had a dazzling display statistically: Cam Newton.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton leaps over the Arizona Cardinals defense for a touchdown on Sept. 11, 2011, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Newton passed for 422 yards, the most in an NFL debut in league history, and accounted for three touchdowns, but the Cardinals won 28-21.

David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Facing the Cardinals on Sept. 11, 2011, Newton passed for 422 yards — the most in an NFL debut in league history. Newton also accounted for three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). Although the Panthers lost to the Cardinals, Newton served notice that much bigger things were on the horizon for him.

As the NFL commemorates its centennial season, black signal-callers, historically the most marginalized players in the league, have never wielded more power and influence over how the game is played. Murray’s standing as the face of the Cardinals franchise is another indicator of how far African Americans have come at the position, and his debut was among the most intriguing storylines of the NFL’s kickoff weekend.

The fact that just four other African American men in the league’s existence have traveled a similar path to the one Murray is on now makes his story especially significant for many black fans, some of whom have turned away from the NFL in allegiance with Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers signal-caller, who protested against police brutality and systemic oppression before games, has not been on a roster since the 2016 season. The fact is, the NFL is determined to move on from the controversy that Kaepernick’s peaceful protests ignited, and league decision-makers hope that newcomers such as Murray revive black fans’ interest in the game.

Having watched Murray work for a good stretch now in the offseason, training camp and the preseason, Arizona’s future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald believes the talented rookie will, indeed, be a big part of the league’s future.

“This is his first time playing in the National Football League, but he’s got unbelievable confidence,” said Fitzgerald, who finished with eight receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. “I told him he’s been groomed for this, groomed for this role.

“He won three state championships in high school. He went to Oklahoma and led his team to the college football playoffs. He won the Heisman Trophy. He’s used to being the best at what he does. That’s his mindset. That’s what he wants to be here.”

Murray wasn’t at his best in his first start. But he got started, and that’s what he needed to do to eventually wind up where he plans to be.

Liner Notes

ESPN Stats & Info Group contributed to this report.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.