We can safely assume that the 3-7-1 Cardinals will miss the playoffs in 2019. But it has not been a lost season in the desert.
The Cardinals have found a genuinely promising young quarterback for the first time in more than 20 years. Not since Jake Plummer arrived on the scene in 1997 have the Cardinals established a rookie as their foundational starter as they have with 2019 No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray. And based on Murray's first 11 games, it's fair to project a much higher ceiling for him than Plummer, a gifted scrambler who threw an NFL-high 114 interceptions during six seasons as the Cardinals' starter.
Murray compiled a career-high 93.3 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) in Sunday's 36-26 loss to the 49ers, a game that demonstrated his exceptional poise against a fierce pass rush, as well as his instincts as a runner in key moments. Had the 49ers not stormed back to score a pair of touchdowns in the final minute, Murray's 22-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run would have been the difference in the game.
We'll examine Murray further in ESPN's Week 11 QB Awards, our Tuesday assessment of highs and lows using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.
QB of the Week: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
It might seem odd to highlight the performance of a quarterback who threw for 150 yards in a 10-point loss. But many of the high-end attributes we've seen from Murray this season were on display at Levi's Stadium, along with a few new ones.
First, Murray faced continual harassment from the 49ers' strong defensive front. He was pressured on nearly half of this dropbacks (17 of 38), and the pressure rate of 44.7% was the highest of his career. He took four sacks but otherwise went about calmly finding holes in the 49ers' defense. He threw 84.8% of his passes less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, the highest rate for a QB in Week 11 and the reason his total yards were low. Murray's accuracy has been inconsistent for parts of this season, but on Sunday, only 9.1% of his passes were off-target -- the fourth-best rate of the week.
And when he needed to run, Murray showed that he can make timely decisions and avoid extra risk. All but 3 of his 67 rushing yards came before first contact. Overall this season, he has run for 418 yards -- but only 34 after first contact. Although he ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards by a quarterback, five others have more yards after contact.
There are multiple ways to look at those numbers, but to me they suggest that Murray runs decisively to open space and then smartly avoids the kind of extra hits that might prove a mythical level of toughness but in reality would subject him to a greater risk of injury. After all, it is not as though he is skirting through the season without getting hit; his 20.6% contact rate is the fourth highest in the NFL.
Taken as a whole, Murray has shown that he is an incredibly polished young player. He is processing the passing lanes quicker than we would expect from a rookie, and he has been smart about when to run and how many yards to push for. It's true that he must navigate the terrain of being the NFL's shortest starter (5-foot-10). He has had eight passes tipped at the line of scrimmage, a relatively high number but still fewer than Baker Mayfield (11), Ryan Fitzpatrick (10), Andy Dalton (nine) and Carson Wentz (nine). All told, the Cardinals have plenty of reasons to be excited about where Murray can take them in the coming years.
Are We Trusting Jimmy G? Award: Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Garoppolo's teams have won 17 of his 20 career starts, a notable winning percentage whether or not you think quarterbacks should be credited with wins and losses. This season, Garoppolo has helped the 49ers to a 9-1 record. They have the inside track on the top seed in the NFC playoff picture. Garoppolo has completed 68.8% of his passes, sixth best in the NFL, and thrown 18 touchdown passes, tied for seventh most in the league.
But a fair question looms as the playoffs approach: Can he be trusted in the biggest moments of the biggest games?
Garoppolo's reaction to a zero blitz Sunday against the Cardinals suggests yes. Trailing by three points with 31 seconds remaining, Garoppolo found running back Jeff Wilson Jr. behind the pass rush for what turned out to be a 25-yard game-winning score. Overall, he completed a career-high 19 passes against the blitz Sunday, second most by any quarterback this season. Three of those completions went for touchdowns, the most by a 49ers quarterback against the blitz since 2012.
However, his struggles protecting the football suggest no. Two interceptions Sunday contributed to the 49ers' early deficit and brought his total to 10 for the season. Two other possible interceptions have been dropped by opponents, as judged by ESPN Stats & Information video analysis. This season, Garoppolo's interception rate of 3.2% ranks No. 27 in the NFL and is the highest of any qualified quarterback on a winning team.
There is no doubt that he has a tendency to sail passes and throw into coverage. The 49ers' postseason success might well ride on whether he can reign it in.
Impact QB Protection Award: Lane Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles
We often talk about the impact of a quarterback losing his favorite receiver or a trusted running back. In Philadelphia, we all know how important tight end Zach Ertz is to quarterback Carson Wentz. But there is another player, in this case the Eagles' right tackle, whose presence seems equally as significant.
Entering Sunday's game against the Patriots, according to my colleague Bill Barnwell, Wentz had a 98.1 career passer rating when Johnson was on the field and 79.8 when he was not. Johnson suffered a concussion in the second quarter Sunday, and the numbers split along similar lines.
Johnson's final play was Wentz's 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dallas Goedert, putting the Eagles up 10-0. To that point, Wentz had completed 67% of his passes and had not taken a sack. After that point? The Eagles went scoreless as Wentz was sacked five times and completed only 43% of his passes. It's not often that you see such a one-to-one ratio of success and failure surrounding a single offensive lineman.
Bengals Gift of the Week: Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Week 11 was Carr's turn to face the worst pass defense in the NFL. And he did what he had to in order to earn recognition in this space: accomplish something beyond his previous best.
In a 17-10 victory over the Bengals, Carr threw five passes that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. He completed all five, the first time he has ever thrown as many such passes in an NFL game without an incompletion. Overall, Carr completed 86.9% of his passes (25 of 29), the second-highest completion rate in his career.
The Bengals' 26.2 defensive EPA is the lowest in the NFL, as is their 62.6 opponent QBR. Because teams have so quickly and efficiently taken leads on them, they have had the second-fewest attempts (292) made against them. But make no mistake. When you face the Bengals this season, you've got a pretty good chance to have a career day.
The More You Can Do Award: Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
Sutton was involved in two of the nine most difficult pass completions in Week 11, one as a receiver and one as -- yes -- a quarterback. The plays occurred within minutes of each other in the first quarter of the Broncos' 27-23 loss to the Vikings.
First up was a 48-yard reception that had a 23.3% completion probability, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Sutton had 0.53 yards separation on Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes at the end of a corner route and jumped over him to catch a Brandon Allen pass that had 56.8 yards of air distance.
But earning him honors in this space was what he did for an encore. On the Broncos' next possession, Sutton threw a receiver option pass 45.2 yards in air distance to fellow receiver Tim Patrick, who jumped over Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes to make the catch for a 38-yard play. That connection had a 23.8% completion probability, per NFL Next Gen Stats, as Patrick had just 0.7 yards separation from Waynes. We'll be hard-pressed to see a similar combination of plays anytime soon.
Is there anything @SuttonCourtland can't do?!@Broncos pull out the WR pass! #DENvsMIN #BroncosCountry— NFL (@NFL) November 17, 2019
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Interception Conundrum Award: Four-way tie
Interception rates have been decreasing for decades, the result of many factors, including shorter passes and a steady stream of rules that favor offenses. In fact, the current league INT total of 254 is the second fewest through 11 weeks of a season since at least 2001.
That's why I took notice when four quarterbacks -- the Steelers' Mason Rudolph, the Buccaneers' Jameis Winston, the Panthers' Kyle Allen and the Chargers' Philip Rivers -- all threw at least four interceptions in the same week. According to research by Douglas Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information, the last time that happened was 1983 (Week 16). The offending quartet was the Eagles' Ron Jaworski, the Broncos' John Elway, the Packers' Lynn Dickey and the Redskins' Joe Theismann.
Winston threw five interceptions himself, raising his NFL-leading total to 18. There hasn't been a player with 18 interceptions through 10 games of a season since Peyton Manning threw 20 during his rookie season in 1998. When players start throwing historic levels of interceptions in an era when they have never been less common, it's worth taking special notice.