ST. CHARLES, Mo. -– The play ends and the signal is sent downfield to Aaron Murray, who makes a final warm-up toss, turns up-field and jogs. It’s his moment, and he knows it won’t be a long one, so he better make the most of it.
He lines up in a shotgun formation, takes a snap, and hits a tailback on a short screen. Next play, he hits a fullback on a dump-off. Andy Reid, the Kansas City Chiefs coach and offensive architect, comes over to say something briefly. Next play, Murray hits a receiver on a short route. Then he goes under center and completes two more passes, including a deep ball in stride. Six-for-six.
But it was only practice. The horn sounds, the period is over and Murray, the most prolific passer in Georgia football history, resumes his spot on the sideline, waiting for another turn.
“You’ve gotta take advantage,” Murray said after this practice, early in training camp. “This is the time, in practice and then in these preseason games, to take advantage of the reps. Because come season time Alex (Smith) gets all the reps in practice, and then Chase (Daniel) and I will do scout team work.”
Back at Georgia, the coaches are trying to sift through three quarterback candidates to find the next Murray. But the old one is with Kansas City, trying to make the best of his limited practice reps, including a mini-camp where he completed passes to rookie receiver Chris Conley, his former Georgia teammate.
“We were able to rekindle that and light up some defenses again, like old times,” Conley said, smiling.
For much of this Chiefs’ practice, Murray stands next to Tyler Bray, the former Tennessee quarterback who has five inches on him. Bray, who signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent the year before Murray was drafted, is injured.
The major knock on Murray coming out of Georgia was his height. No one questioned his arm, accuracy, drive or intangibles, but many couldn’t get over being 6-foot-1.
But Doug Pederson, the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, downplayed it.
“You don’t see many tipped balls from him. It doesn’t matter,” Pederson said. “And we’re such a timing, rhythm offense, that we’re not asking our guys to hold the ball. Slide, find lanes, you can get away with not being a tall guy and still completing a bunch of balls down the middle. He doesn’t get many balls batted down, because the ball’s out on time.”
Pederson can sympathize with Murray. He was a back-up quarterback for much of his 12-year NFL career. He believes that Murray’s rookie year was almost a lost one, thanks to the knee surgery; Murray soaked in the Chiefs’ offense and teaching, but applying it was tough because of the physical limitations.
Now, with a full offseason, there has been progress.
“Aaron, going into his second year like this, he’s in a good spot,” Pederson said. “The thing is with him, and I’ve been there as a third quarterback, he’s got two veteran guys ahead of him who are really good mentors for him. Teachers of the game for him. He pays attention to Alex and Chase, and he takes it. He’s a sponge, he soaks it in. Where he is mentally with our system, no problem, he’s doing very well.”
Smith and Daniel, who have collective 17 years’ experience in the NFL. And Daniel offers some career hope: He was an undrafted free agent out of Missouri in 2009, teams worried about his height. He’s an inch shorter than Murray.
And yet Daniel has been able to stay in the league for five years, rising to No. 2 on the Chiefs’ depth chart, and starting the final game last year after an injury to Smith.
“Those are two guys that know the game of football, know defenses, know the offenses, and know how to handle themselves on and off the field,” Murray said. “So just being able to learn from them is huge. I mean obviously everyone wants to play, everyone wants to get in there, but I have to take advantage of what I’m learning from all these guys.”
All of this is quite a change from at Georgia, where from 2010-14 it was him getting all the reps. He was the unquestioned starter, except for some brief occasions when Hutson Mason gave him a push.
Now Murray is clearly the third-teamer, which means he’ll need injury or struggles from both Alex Smith and Chase Daniel to see the field this year. Long term, it’s likely to be a gradual ascent if Murray can someday be a starter.
If you’re not a first-round pick, the career of an NFL quarterback is so much about luck. Zach Mettenberger, who Murray was ahead of on Georgia’s depth chart in 2010, and who was picked one round after Murray in the 2015 draft, started six games for the Tennessee Titans as a rookie.
“Everyone gets put in different circumstances,” Murray said. “Like I said, I’m enjoying learning. I’ve learned so much about the game of football this past year. And I still have a ton more to learn from coach Reid, our staff and the quarterbacks.”
Murray is now fully recovered from the ACL injury that ended his Georgia career, in the second-to-last game of the 2013 regular season. He didn’t get any snaps for the Chiefs last year, so he has to take advantage during the preseason. In Saturday’s first preseason game he got in late and only attempted one pass, which was incomplete.
Tony Dungy, the longtime former NFL coach who has become close to Murray, told him when he was drafted that there wasn’t a better place to be drafted than Kansas City, because of Reid and his staff.
It may seem an insult to a four-year starter in the SEC, who broke some of Peyton Manning’s records, that he needs to learn and wait. But given Murray’s senior-year injury, and his sunny disposition, it was inevitable he would do just that.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” he said.