Fears that Murray would dash back to baseball or shatter after his first sack proved unfounded. Yet it was clear from their 2019 N.F.L. debut — a 27-27 tie against the stodgy, mediocre Detroit Lions — that Kingsbury and Murray would do things differently. Kingsbury deploys four or more wide receivers roughly four times as often as the typical offensive play-caller, and only the Baltimore Ravens’ Jackson executes more designed quarterback runs than Murray, according to Sports Info Solutions. Kingsbury stacks and spreads receivers all over the field and conceals easy short throws beneath layers of misdirection, while Murray dodges defenders and launches rockets like a video game character.
Last season’s results were more entertaining than effective, and the Cardinals finished with a 5-10-1 record. This year’s Cardinals roster is far stronger. Keim pilfered a three-time All-Pro wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, via a trade during one of the former Houston Texans generalissimo Bill O’Brien’s fits of self-sabotage; Hopkins leads the N.F.L. in receptions (57) and yards (704).
New superstars are emerging, too, most notably Budda Baker, an undersize ball-hawking defensive back. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, a holdover from the days when Kurt Warner was the team’s quarterback, grooves along with the vibe like a radical professor at a 1967 Jefferson Airplane concert.
The Cardinals do not appear quite ready to be Super Bowl contenders this season: Their offensive line and defense are still rather shaky, and Murray’s passing remains a little too scattershot. For now, they must settle for wreaking havoc on the playoff picture and leading the N.F.L. in sheer delight. Murray was caught by cameras laughing at Hopkins thriving in man-to-man coverage against Seattle on Sunday night before he lofted a 35-yard touchdown pass. Kingsbury told reporters after the game that he and Murray shared a chuckle on the sideline over how it had unfolded much like in their college days.
In some ways, Kingsbury and Murray are merely following in the footsteps of Mahomes and Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jackson and John Harbaugh of the Ravens by letting their spread-formation, quarterback-option freak flags fly. The Cardinals are nonconformists, just like everybody else. But they also take even greater organizational risks than the more established Chiefs and Ravens: a younger coach, a tinier quarterback, bolder trades, weirder play designs.
The Cardinals are helping to redefine what’s normal in the N.F.L. If they keep winning, the establishment will soon be forced to conform to them, not the other way around.