It's the season opener and there's plenty of mystery. Detroit News reporters John Niyo and Justin Rogers break down what we know and what we don't. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions have been preparing for Kyler Murray for some time. It started before training camp, even before the players reported for the first stage of the offseason program in March. At the very least, it dates back to when the Lions were doing their due diligence during the NFL scouting combine late in the winter.
Sure, meeting with Murray at the combine could be viewed as the Lions preparing for all possibilities. General manager Bob Quinn had made it known he was open to drafting a quarterback in the first round, where the Lions held the No. 8 pick. And it was early enough in the process, draft boards were far from finalized, that there was a realistic possibility the undersized Heisman Trophy winner could slide to Detroit.
Of course the Lions had to be prepared, you'll say. And you're right, it's good business to be prepared for all possibilities. But during the combine word was rapidly spreading the Arizona Cardinals planned to select Murray with the first overall pick.
And even if it wasn't the Cardinals, who is to say Murray wouldn't end in with the Raiders, Broncos or Giants? The common theme with all those teams is they are 2019 opponents for the Lions.
So, yeah, the Lions wanted to take the opportunity to chat with a quarterback they might see later that season.
"You do your due diligence on all of them knowing that if you have an opportunity to get a guy in the draft, you’re going to get one or you’re probably going to play against them," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "You make sure you do that process and you understand that it’s going to help you in the end, from that point.
"I don’t know if there is anything that gives us an advantage from that standpoint, but I definitely think it solidifies how he carries himself," Patricia continued about meeting Murray at the combine. "I was really impressed with his interview, his mental preparation, his process, his maturity. You feel it right away, even within 15 minutes you can get that sense. Certainly, that is validated by his play on the field and how quickly he can make decisions and how quickly he gets rid of the ball, and deciphers what the defense is doing, and his confidence out there on the field. You see all that on tape and it’s backed up with – it sounds crazy, but it’s backed up with 15 minutes of just meeting him."
The Lions had the good sense to know they might see Murray this season, but that was before the schedule was released. As it turns out, they'll be the first team to see how his skill set translates to the professional level.
Playing a rookie quarterback in his first start should be an advantage. No matter how good the skills, there's a natural adjustment period making the jump from college to the NFL.
Even still, that didn't work out well for the Lions last year.
In Week 1 of the 2018 season, the New York Jets rolled into town with Sam Darnold, the youngest quarterback to ever start an NFL game. And he looked the part, too, throwing an ill-advised, cross-field interception that safety Quandre Diggs returned for a touchdown.
But Darnold quickly settled down, completing 16 of his final 20 throws for 198 yards and two scores as the Jets went on to embarrass the Lions in their house, 48-17.
There's nothing to guarantee the Lions are any better prepared heading into this season, other the fact the team has had a full year to learn and adapt to Patricia's schemes and made some on-paper upgrades to the personnel.
One advantage the Lions may have against Murray, if you believe there's any carryover from the previous season, is the team had tremendous success shutting down the running aspect of the dual-threat passers they saw a year ago.
The Lions played five of the top-10 rushing quarterbacks last season — Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Allen — and that group combined to run for just 53 yards on 19 carries (2.8 YPC) against Detroit.
Even though Murray has drawn comparisons to Wilson, Patricia cautioned that Murray's ability to make plays with his feet are unique.
"I don’t know if we’ve seen a guy that gets to top speed as fast as this guy does," Patricia said. "He’s dynamic, explosive – when he gets out and can get an edge, you think you have him contained but you really don’t. ...It’s a big challenge for us from that standpoint. He’s going to run it, he’s going to have some designed runs. That’s what’s a little bit different about this offense. There’s plays that are specially designed for him to get the ball. They’re schemed up that way. They really have the guys block, so it’s kind of a different run game to defend against."
Murray's presence certainly adds a layer of intrigue to the opener, which should draw some more eyeballs, nationally, than the Lions might otherwise get this early in the year.
Murray's coach, Kliff Kingsbury, an NFL rookie in his own right after spending his formative years at Texas Tech, just wants his quarterback to stay relaxed and enjoy the moment.
“I just want him to play his game, cut it loose," Kingsbury said. "We know there’s going to be some ups and downs. It’s not easy starting Day 1 as a rookie quarterback in this league, and we understand that. I want him to just relax, know he doesn’t have to win or lose a game by himself and go out there and do the best that he can.”
Meanwhile, the Lions will look to make sure Murray is anything but relaxed, and when he decides to bolt from the pocket because of pressure, they want to make sure he doesn't get far before he's swallowed up.
This is a chance for the Lions to show they're not the team that got stream-rolled by the Jets last season, they're not the team that chronically under-performed on their way to a 6-10 record, and that they're prepared to make a leap in Patricia's second season at the helm.
Lions vs. Cardinals
Kickoff: Sunday, 4:25 p.m., State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV/radio: Fox/760 AM
Records: Season opener for both teams
Line: Lions by 2.5