The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Kyler Murray soars, Dwayne Haskins is still playing catch-up

Dwayne Haskins raises a fist before Sunday's game against the Cardinals. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

That Kyler Murray is a better quarterback than Dwayne Haskins right now — and almost certainly will be in the future — is a sun-rises-in-the-east takeaway from Sunday’s 30-15 Arizona Cardinals victory over the Washington Football Team. One was chosen first overall in the 2019 draft. The other was taken 15th. If, when their careers are over, the gulf remains just those 14 picks apart, then Washington will have done well.

It’s both unfair and inevitable that the Cardinals’ cakewalk result will be viewed through the prism of the two quarterbacks. But what should also be considered: how these teams were built — or not built — around their quarterbacks and what that says about their franchises’ current standing.

To get a sense of how each got here, it’s worth looking back on their previous matchup.

Two years ago, Washington traveled to Arizona to open the season and fairly clobbered the Cardinals, a 24-6 victory that seemed so rosy for Washington at the time. Now it can be seen as a demarcation point for how the franchises diverged — and how each ended up with its current quarterback situation.

That game has nothing to do with Sunday’s drudgery, in which Washington trailed 20-0 at halftime and the glow of a Week 1 victory over Philadelphia fully dissipated. But it is instructive as to how each franchise got to its current position, with Arizona clearly ascendant behind its mesmerizing quarterback and Washington trudging forward with an exciting defense and, uh, Terry McLaurin.

Washington unable to overcome big halftime deficit, loses to Arizona, 30-15

Back in that 2018 opener, Arizona was under a first-year coach, Steve Wilks, who ownership determined by the end of a 3-13 season wasn’t worth moving forward with. The Cardinals made a firm, decisive move — not to mention a gamble — to fire Wilks and end up with Kliff Kingsbury, a former gunslinging quarterback who had most recently been fired as the head coach at Texas Tech. Fired in the Big 12 to hired in the NFL? Sure, why not?

Simultaneously, Washington was under a fifth-year coach, Jay Gruden, who was nothing if not middling and managed another shrug-of-the-shoulders 7-9 campaign. Rather than be bold or gamble, Washington ownership stuck with Gruden heading into 2019.

Those developments directly affect Murray and Haskins and the regimes with which they work.

In 2018, Arizona had drafted a quarterback, Josh Rosen, in the first round. In 2019, Kingsbury became the coach. Kingsbury didn’t want Rosen. He wanted Murray with the first pick in the draft. Don’t blink. Just do. And thus, the Cardinals have as intriguing of a combination as there is in the league: an offensive head coach building an offense for a multitalented quarterback who is fully finding himself in his second year.

Watch the Cardinals, because they’re a blast, and Murray’s the reason. Patrick Mahomes became the NFL MVP in his second season. Lamar Jackson became the NFL MVP in his second season. Watch Murray, because there’s a pattern.

Which brings us to Haskins, in his second season, a lesser quarterback in decidedly lesser circumstances — not of his own making.

If Haskins was indeed foisted upon Gruden — as The Washington Post has reported — then it’s just another data point of the dysfunction that has defined Washington for a generation and that Coach Ron Rivera is trying desperately to expunge in his first season. Whatever the backstory, Gruden was fired after a hideous 0-5 start to 2019, and Haskins’s first season was played in limbo — with a veteran free agent quarterback, Case Keenum, hired essentially to try to save Gruden’s job, even when Gruden’s job wasn’t worth saving.

Which means this, in a way, is Haskins’s true rookie season — particularly as it compares with Murray, who has had Kingsbury as his head coach and play caller for all 18 of his career starts. Haskins, by contrast, didn’t start until Washington’s ninth game last year. He’s on his third head coach. He’s not Murray in physical skills, for sure. But his working environment as a professional hasn’t allowed him to be — yet.

Still, it’s hard to watch Sunday’s game and not wonder, “What if Washington had Murray instead of Haskins?” Or to glance at Thursday night’s NFL game, in which the first pick in this year’s draft, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, looked very much like the league’s next big star, and think, “I love Chase Young, but would it have been better if Washington had the first pick in the 2020 draft rather than the second?”

Watch the game, and choose the quarterback you want. It’s painful. Yes, there’s Murray’s extraordinary running ability — eight carries for 67 yards and two incredible touchdown jaunts. Haskins is never going to be that kind of threat. But Murray is also a far more accurate passer, which plays out statistically (66.7 percent completion rate to Haskins’s 56.3 percent through two games) and to the naked eye. Yes, Murray has all-world DeAndre Hopkins and Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting Larry Fitzgerald. Haskins doesn’t. That all matters.

But the visceral separation between the two is impossible to ignore. Take a stretch of a couple of minutes in the third quarter Sunday. Trailing badly, Washington — which has shown it won’t roll over under Rivera — moved the ball inside the Arizona 10. On third and goal from the 6, Haskins had tight end Logan Thomas with a step on his defender in the end zone. He either threw it too hard or with not enough touch or both. It went over Thomas’s head. Instead of a touchdown, Washington kicked a field goal.

Week 1 showed where Washington can go, but Week 2 showed where it is right now

On the Cardinals’ next possession, Arizona faced fourth and four at the Washington 37. Kingsbury made the easy decision to go for it, and Murray zipped a perfectly accurate ball to Fitzgerald for the first down. Five plays later, Murray was shaking and baking his way to a 21-yard touchdown run that essentially put the game away.

Now, let’s be clear: This is one of those seasons — and there have been lots of these in Washington over the past quarter-century — in which the main objective is discovering what young pieces will be able to develop and be key contributors to a winner in two or three years. Even if the results are tough to take, each week can be a discovery that highlights not the struggles of the present but instead the possibilities of the future.

Wait till they add a true deep threat to complement McLaurin. How long might this defensive front stick together, and what nickname should it have? The week-to-week wins and losses matter less when there is real development to chart.

But it’s hard to think that, even as progress is made, there won’t be a week-to-week referendum on Haskins as the franchise quarterback. That’s not necessarily fair. It’s just reality. Because you can’t help but look around — at Mahomes and Jackson, at Murray and Burrow, at the veteran star quarterbacks who persist. It all makes it hard not to wonder what it might be like if Washington had one of those transcendent talents here, with the right structure and staff to support him.