Kyle Murphy awakens into key performer on Packers' offensive line
GREEN BAY - On the night before the biggest game of his football life, offensive lineman Kyle Murphy enjoyed 10 hours of sound sleep at the Green Bay Packers’ team hotel. He woke Sunday morning feeling refreshed — not nervous — and bided his time before the first start of his professional career.
Murphy’s position coach, James Campen, had given his second-year pupil what amounted to 24 hours notice that Bryan Bulaga would not suit up for the regular season opener. The ankle injury Bulaga suffered during training camp still lingered, and Murphy earned the nod ahead of fellow lineman Jason Spriggs, a second-round pick last year.
“Sometimes during the week I don’t have the best sleep,” Murphy said. “But regardless of what the game is going to be or how much I’m going to play or who I’m going to play against, I always find a way to sleep pretty good.”
There’s a good chance he slept well again Sunday night.
Murphy played every snap against the Seattle Seahawks in what amounted to a new-look offensive line for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Packers were forced to pair the integration of veteran right guard Jahri Evans with the spot duty from Murphy, a sixth-round pick in 2016, as the right side of the offensive line was filled with newcomers. That they did so against what might be the best defensive front in football only complicated their task.
But what might have been a recipe for disaster finished as a dish far sweeter. The Packers out-slugged the Seahawks 17-9, and the debutante Murphy performed well enough to assuage the inquisition of the offensive line’s depth.
“I don’t know how much you know Kyle, but he doesn’t blink,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “His personality is perfect for this situation. We went five-man protection a bunch. It wasn’t like we parked someone behind him all day, either. He had to play and he played big today.”
Said Rodgers: “I thought Kyle did a really nice job at right tackle, and this was a good building block for us.”
Because he was making his first start for the Packers, a team led by the idiosyncratic Rodgers, Murphy was presented with certain challenges unique to the starting quarterback. He had taken reps with the starters in practice, splitting with Spriggs as the coaches made their assessments, but Murphy never had experienced the rapid-fire tempo changes, staccato hard counts and endless play extensions Rodgers employs each week.
“He’s obviously one of a kind when it comes to how he commands things,” Murphy said. “You obviously saw all those free plays we got. That’s all him driving the ship and seeing things and his confidence to kind of get us to the line and know that they’re going to get off there.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things I probably could have done better today was finish on some of those pass blocks where you have your guy for a few seconds and then he kind of slips off or you get tripped up and (Aaron) is still looking downfield making guys miss, and you’ve just got to be able to block for that dude forever.”
It’s a style that requires adjustment, and early on there were a few blips.
Murphy allowed two sacks in the first half as he acclimated himself to the complexity of the Seahawks’ talented line. Defensive end Cliff Avril beat him with speed around the corner for a sack that froze a drive on third and 10 in the first quarter. One series later he was late to recognize a twist up front, and veteran Michael Bennett looped around to smother Rodgers and halt another possession.
Rodgers was sacked four times in total with a net loss of 25 yards. The pass protection fluctuated between decent and dangerous for all five starters along the line.
“I thought I did all right, Murphy said. “I think there were a few things where Jahri and some of the tight ends helped me out, where I could have done better fundamental-wise or strain better, finish blocks. Whenever I played, since I was a little kid, games never feel perfect. There’s always goods; there’s always bads. I’m just glad it was good enough to get our team the win today.”
Though the Packers refrained from helping Murphy on every snap, he welcomed the subtle assistance of Evans and tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, two more newcomers.
Evans, the 12-year veteran, found simple ways to nudge the rushers barreling toward Murphy. He peeled away from his own player whenever possible and shaded toward Murphy by default, disrupting the momentum of rushers in pursuit of Rodgers.
For their part, Bennett and Kendricks chipped defenders on their release from the line of scrimmage to buy Murphy and Rodgers an extra sliver of time.
“He went against a good player (in Avril), probably one of the better pass rushers in the league,” left guard Lane Taylor said. “It’s good for him to get that experience out there so next time, whenever he’s on the sidelines, if someone were to get hurt again and he had to go in, or if someone lost their shoe and he had to go in, he wouldn’t have those nerves of, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to go in.’ When you’re young, you have anxiety about going in when you haven’t had any playing time. Now he has that start under his belt, he got some game time, he’ll be more confident when he goes out there next time.”
More important than Murphy’s performance against the Seahawks is what it means in a broader context. The emergence of Murphy as a reliable option at right tackle and, perhaps, right guard offers a crucial insurance policy against the uneven development of Spriggs, whose training camp was marred by poor play.
Murphy handled himself well enough to inspire confidence in himself, his quarterback and his coaches.
“It really has nothing to do with Jason; it has everything to do with Kyle,” center Corey Linsley said. “ … I’ll say this: I think he’s improved the most out of anybody on the offensive line. He comes in every day and works hard, puts his head down, doesn’t say too much. Last year, he’ll even tell you at the beginning of training camp he was winded and stuff. Now he had a hell of a training camp and I think he did pretty well today against a great pass rush, too.”
Of course, the drop-off from Bulaga to Murphy is understandably steep, both in current level of play and optimal potential. If Bulaga’s absence is a crack in the damn, Murphy is best thought of as a temporary patch.
He did his job and got the Packers through the week.
“I just went out there and battled my butt off as best I could,” Murphy said, “and luckily it was good enough to pull out with the win.”