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Bye week Cardinals hoping, wondering, knowing featuring J.J. Watt, Budda Baker, DeAndre Hopkins

Howard Balzer Avatar
November 30, 2022

I hope . . .

That Budda Baker remains the top vote-getter from fans among strong safeties for the NFC Pro Bowl team, which he was when the first counts were announced Monday. The fan vote counts one-third along with the same amount for players and coaches.

It surely didn’t hurt when Baker was featured on Hard Knocks in episode 1 after injuring his ankle and then being able to play the next week.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, amazed that Baker was able to play in the game following the injury, can’t help but rave about Baker when asked about him in his weekly talk with the media.

He loves tracking the progress Baker has made since being drafted in 2017, while Joseph came to the Cardinals two years later.

“When we first got here, he was more of a (special-) teamer and kind of just a down, like an outside ‘backer type, nickel player,” Joseph said. “But he’s become a great safety. He’s worked at that stuff. He wasn’t a great thirds or halves player first couple of years, but he’s developed those skills and he now he gets the ball. And I think Budda made his first couple of Pro Bowls with no interceptions. Now he gets the ball. He’s so smart. His IQ’s grown so much from the first time we’ve met this kid to now. I mean, he’s on top of it, man.”

Joseph said Baker often challenges the coaches.

“He makes our jobs hard,” Joseph explained, “because he brings in questions that are really good questions. And he’s the guy in the room that keeps everyone sharp. He sees it all. But his work ethic is off the chain as far as his body work, as far as how much studying he does. He is always doing football. A guy with his size to play like he plays … his body is flexible, he’s in great shape. And he bangs around pretty good on weekends. And he’s never pretty much hurt (knocks on table). But obviously he’s a great player. He’s worked at that. And his IQ has gotten so much better from the first time we met him.”

There is one problem, though. Offenses work to stay away from him.

After the crushing loss to the Chargers, Baker was asked about the 2-point conversion that won the game and said, “For me personally, I was in a situation where I was double-teaming the slot receiver to the right and the ball got caught to the left. For me it’s kind of like a broken record. If I’m on the right, it’s going left, and if I’m on the left it’s going right. It’s kind of getting boring, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to continue to do my job.”

I wonder . . . 

What it will be like when the Cardinals and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins face the 49ers in the regular-season finale.

The odds are the Cardinals will have little to play for except potentially affecting San Francisco’s playoff seeding. However, there could be a game within the game between Hopkins and 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward.

While Hopkins had nine receptions for 91 yards in the 38-10 loss in Mexico City, Ward decided to go off on Hopkins during a radio appearance on KNBR Radio in San Francisco.

Said Ward, “DHop, he thinks he’s a tough guy. He thinks he is still one of the best receivers in the league and he’s really not. He was trying to talk noise and talk hard all game. We’re not scared of him. He thought we were scared of him. He tried to intimidate us, but forget him, we did our thing. We went out there and got a ‘dub’ and we did our job. He was just yip-yapping all game, but we don’t care about that. We just wanted to win.

“He was getting locked up. He was doing some dirty things. He tried to clip me, he grabbed me by the throat. He grabbed my facemask on one play, so I don’t respect his game. That’s steroid boy.”

A few days after the game, Hopkins spoke to a small group of reporters, including gophnx.com, and said, “I’ll handle things on the football field. Obviously, that was very personal. When a young guy like that says something like that, to me, I don’t care. It’s he-said, she-said. It’s a lot of talk. To me, it’s laughable. It’s funny.”

With a wink, he added, “I’m not a guy that goes to social media for stuff like that. The thing about this league, you never know when you’ll end up on a team with somebody. I’m not the kind of guy that does a public service announcement about somebody else, but we’re all in the fraternity together. I hate to hear a guy talk like that about anybody, so for me I pray for people like that.

“A lot of people are tough when they can say something, but I respect guys like (former NFL running back) LeVeon Bell that get in that boxing ring.”

Hopkins then issued something of a challenge when he said, “I wish football players could have a boxing match where we could go a couple rounds. I think someone like him, he obviously has something he needs to get off his chest. I’m a guy who would help him get it off his chest. I would love to get in the boxing ring and see how tough he is in real life.”

Circle the date Jan. 8 when the two teams meet again. If Hopkins and Ward have an encore performance, that might be more interesting than the game.

I know  . . . 

That Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt is totally invested in how the United States men’s soccer team will fare against the Netherlands Saturday.

After Christian Pulisic scored the only goal in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Iran and was injured in the process as he crashed into the goalkeeper, Watt took to Twitter to praise Pulisic.

There were differing explanations for his injury, which was described as a pelvic contusion, but when coach Gregg Berhalter spoke to the media and was asked about the injury, he turned his head and someone said, “we’re calling it an abdominal injury.” Right.

Watt had other ideas, as his Tweet said, “Sacrificing the crown jewels for a massive goal in the World Cup … that’s dedication. @cpulisic_10 We salute you.”

Last Friday at practice, Watt was wearing a sweater with his name and No. 99 that also had Fox displayed on it along with the USA emblem. His wife Kealia played for the United State women’s national team.

Watt told azcardinals.com that the sweater “just showed up in his locker” and that he and his wife watch together. “We talk tactics a lot. It’s a lot of fun,” Watt said. “The World Cup’s awesome. Everybody can have a club team, everybody can have a team, even the NFL, you can have a team to support. But at no point is it ever, besides the World Cup or the Olympics, where the entire nation is on board with one team. You just can’t get those kind of emotions anywhere else.”

Meanwhile, coach Kliff Kingsbury revealed that soccer was his favorite sport and he played at the club level while growing up. So, what happened?

“When you’re the son of a Texas high-school football coach, when you get to high school you’re not playing soccer,” he said. “So that was that. That dream got crushed.”

I hope  . . . 

Like all Cardinals fans do, that rookie tight end Trey McBride is able to step up in the final five games of the season after the bye to be able to create some confidence, momentum and good feelings heading to the 2023 season.

It’s been a slog for McBride this season and he’s now being looked to more with Zach Ertz out for the season. McBride has managed only nine receptions for 46 yards (5.1 average) with a long of 11.

More disappointing is that since Ertz left early in Week 10 with a knee injury, McBride has caught only six passes for 22 yards (3.7 average) with a long of seven. In the loss to the Chargers, he had one reception for one yard.

Kingsbury remains hopeful the light will come on, and soon.

“He’s just growing into it right now,” the coach said Monday. “We see some real flashes at practice where you know he’s going to be a very good player in this league. And then sometimes in the games, it seems a little sped up for him, but that’s all rookies.

“The more reps he gets with Zach being out, I think it’s going to continue to help him and you’ll start to see some of those flashes as the season starts to wind down.”

I wonder  . . . 

If critics of offensive play-calling actually listen to explanations when they are given. Play-callers are often blamed when specific plays don’t work, but the reality is many plays have different options while some are changed by the quarterback based on what the defense is doing.

There was significant chatter on Twitter when Kingsbury decided to go for a first down on fourth-and-inches from the Cardinals plus-34-yard line in the second quarter while leading 10-7. A Kyler Murray 10-yard pass for Hopkins was intercepted by safety Derwin James at the 44-yard line. Five plays later, the Chargers led, 14-10.

Fans were up in arms that the play-call was supposedly Murray throwing to Hopkins even when Murray said after the game that wasn’t the case.

“That wasn’t for (Hopkins) actually,” Murray said. Schematically, we were kind of f-ed.”

Kingsbury didn’t go into detail after the game when he was asked if he thought twice about going for it. He said, “I don’t. I liked what we had. They played it well. I thought we’d have a shot, but they played it really well, so you have to tip your hat to them.”

The next day when Murray’s comment was mentioned, he provided more detail when asked again about the play.

“It was an RPO (run/pass option), and we have options on those things,” Kingsbury said. “They lined up in a front that basically took away the run, so we had a quick pass built off of it. They played it well and it went into a scramble drill. That’s when we tried to throw it down the field to DeAndre and Derwin made a good play on it.”

James did, but Murray also underthrew the ball. Had it been a tad longer, Hopkins would have had a better shot at it. Of course, at that point, an interception was better than an incompletion because of the resulting field position.

Still, the issue that’s important to emphasize is the different options within the call on many plays, which means the end result can be often sabotaged by poor execution or simply an opponent making a good play.

By the way, I’m also wondering if the day will come when the Cardinals make an excellent play on defense but instead of crediting their “own” player, fans will criticize the play-call of the opposing coach.

I know . . . 

How difficult of a season this has been for right tackle Kelvin Beachum as he has become the de facto leader in the offensive line room with Justin Pugh, D.J. Humphries, Rodney Hudson and Will Hernandez all on reserve/injured.

He acknowledges how tough it is, but then manages to find the bright lights in the gloom.

Asked about leading the line, he said, “It’s been challenging. But at the same time, you’ve got to find a way to thrive. It’s been cool to have some different guys in and find a way to lead in a different way. It’s being able to talk on the sideline, being able to talk during the week. It’s being able to have the conversations that I’m having with our staff about things that we’re thinking about and how we’re putting guys in situations to be successful.

“It’s been cool to be a part of that entire process, but it’s been emotionally and mentally draining. But that’s what we’re paid to do. We’re paid to win games, we’re paid to prepare, we’re paid to find a way to get wins. This year we just haven’t done that consistently enough.”

The missing players were challenging enough, and that was compounded by the firing of offensive line coach Sean Kugler for allegedly groping a woman while the team was in Mexico City.

The level-headed Beachum said, “Although he’s no longer part of this roster and this team, the relationship will still stay the same. I have respect for him. This is the guy who drafted me, so you have an affinity to him. But at the same time, this is a business. We’re professionals, we’re called to do certain things and act in a way that’s becoming of being an Arizona Cardinal.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

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