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Cardinals battle, but 49ers are just too good

Howard Balzer Avatar
October 1, 2023

Reality bites. It’s really that simple.

A Cardinals team that fought and battled for two hours, 51 minutes Sunday in Santa Clara just doesn’t measure up to the 49ers, a team that now has won 14 consecutive regular-season games, including 10 straight at home. Their four wins this season have been by 23, 7, 18 and 19 points.

Arizona fans rejoiced last week when the Cardinals managed to win at home for only the second time since October, 2021. The 49ers routinely win wherever they play, which is why they are 46-24 since the start of the 2019 season and have advanced to the NFC Championship Game the last two seasons.

It’s almost unfair that the 49ers were able to acquire running back Christian McCaffrey during the 2022 season.

All he did Sunday was total 177 yards from scrimmage (20-106 rushing and 7-71 receiving) and score San Francisco’s first four touchdowns of the game. He already has 600 total yards from scrimmage and 459 yards rushing. McCaffrey entered the game with a league-leading 353 rushing yards (5.9 per carry) and that figure actually went down to 5.7 after Sunday’s game.

He catapulted the 49ers to a 14-0 lead, touching the ball on six of the team’s eight plays on their first possession of the game for 36 yards. After the 49ers reached the Cardinals’ 26-yard line, he had four consecutive touches: two receptions for 26 yards and two 1-yard runs first from the 2-yard line and then the 1-yarder for a touchdown.

On their next possession that extended into the first two plays of the second quarter, there were another six touches for 50 yards, the final two a 12-yard reception and 18-yard run for a touchdown when he hurdled rookie cornerback Kei’Trel Clark, who had gone low for the attempted tackle.

Clark said, “Going into this game, I told myself the thing that I wanted to focus on was to make sure that I am making better tackles than I have done in previous games, so that was a wakeup call. I am not going to throw my body in there again. I am OK with watching it again because you have to learn from your mistakes. You have to be a student of the game always.”

At that point, the Cardinals had been outgained 130-30 and the 49ers had 10 first downs to the Cardinals’ two. Overall, McCaffrey had five runs and four receptions for 10 yards or more.

In classic understatement, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “Yeah, he’s a good player. Depending on what coverage structures and what spacing you’re in, they find ways to get him the ball. I know he played a good game; he’s a good player.”

Ya think?

The 49ers barely used banged-up wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who didn’t have a target in the passing game and rushed three times for six yards, or tight end George Kittle, who had one catch for nine yards.

But they had quarterback Brock Purdy, the guy that some in the football world crazily wonder whether he can keep this up He merely completed 20 of 21 passes for 285 yards and a passer rating of 134.6. He found former Arizona State receiver Brandon Aiyuk six times for 148 yards and plays of 25, 34 and 42 yards.

The 49ers have yet to lose a regular-season game with him as the starter and he has had at least a 90 passer rating in all nine of his NFL starts.

McCaffrey called Purdy “phenomenal” and when asked why, said, “I think you can go down the list of what makes a quarterback good and he checks every box. Then he has all the intangibles that would be phenomenal. He brings a kind of swagger and energy every day that is fun to be around. He’s quiet but very confident and he expresses that in the way he plays. It’s just awesome to have him in the huddle.”

It’s no wonder Gannon signed off on two decisions that probably kept the game from being a total blowout. Even if FOX analyst Mark Sanchez couldn’t figure out the philosophy behind it.

The first came with the score 14-0 in the second quarter and the Cardinals facing fourth-and-7 from the San Francisco 45-yard line. Dobbs scrambled for eight yards after replay reversed the spot of the ball that had his run short of the first down. That led to a 38-yard Matt Parter field goal that got the Cardinals on the scoreboard.

The next one followed a 49ers five-play, 75-yard drive that made the score 21-3 with 5:22 remaining in the half.

After a false start and a third-and-2 incomplete pass from their own 21-yard line, the punt snap went to upback Ezekiel Turner, who barreled forward and barely made the first down.

The Cardinals were struggling on offense, but managed to reach the San Francisco 49-yard line with only 42 seconds showing on the clock. To that point, they had totaled 117 yards on 33 plays in the game (3.55 per play).

However, lightning struck when quarterback Joshua Dobbs hit rookie wide receiver Michael Wilson first for 33 yards and then a 16-yard score that was Wilson’s first touchdown of his career and brought the Cardinals to within 21-10.

Those two plays increased the average per play to 4.74 for the half, which was no match for the 49ers’ 8.87 average on 23 plays for 204 yards.

Like the Giants did in the second half of the Week 2 loss, the 49ers shredded the Cardinals on first down. They entered the game ranked fifth in the NFL with a 6.63-yard average on first down. Sunday, they had 14 first-down plays in the first half for 165 yards (11.79 average). Two of those plays were from the 2- and 8-yard line. Nine of the 14 plays resulted in first downs.

They weren’t as explosive in the second half, but still finished the game with 271 of their 395 yards on first down for a 9.34 average. Because of that, 29 of their 53 plays were on first down and they reached third down only five times in the entire game.

“We didn’t get to third down enough against a good football team,” Gannon said. “A good offense like that is hard to keep points off the board when you do that.”

The Cardinals, though, made it a game after stopping San Francisco on the first possession of the second half, thanks to two consecutive negative plays, one a 12-yard sack by linebacker Dennis Gardeck that led to third-and-24 and Purdy’s only incompletion of the game.

Dobbs and Co. weren’t fazed when they took over after the punt was downed at the 1-yard line. They used the Philly push play successfully on third-and-a half yard and did it again on third-and-1, but didn’t need it when 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead was offside. Dobbs and wide receiver Hollywood Brown hooked up a 41-yard play (Brown led the Cardinals with seven receptions for 96 yards) and later Dobbs ran for six yards on third-and-2. Wilson added another touchdown on an 8-yard pass.

Suddenly, it was 21-16 after a failed 2-point conversion. The 11-play, 99-yard scoring drive took 6:25 off the clock. There was 4:12 remaining in the third quarter.

However, the 49ers calmly went 75 yards in eight plays on a drive that began with a 34-yard pass to Aiyuk and they led 28-16.

But the gritty Cardinals wouldn’t go away. Even with Trystan Colon at center when Hjalte Froholdt was briefly removed from the field to be checked for concussion symptoms, they moved the ball to the 49ers 35-yard line when Dobbs wobbled a pass and missed an open Zach Ertz at about the 15-yard line on second-and-10. He was fortunate it wasn’t intercepted by cornerback Charvarius Ward.

Dobbs was sacked for an 8-yard loss on third down by defensive tackle Javon Hargrave on a play that should have been stopped for delay of game. Right guard Will Hernandez was trying to communicate something to Colon just before what turned out to be a low shotgun snap to Dobbs.

A punt followed, but the 49ers started on their 23-yard line and iced the game going on a 14-play, 77-yard drive that took 7:14 off the clock and ended with a Purdy 1-yard run.

Down 19 points with 1:59 remaining in the game, the Cardinals then gained 60 of their 362 total yards and had two near touchdowns on their final two plays starting with 16 seconds remaining, one on a bad drop by Ertz for a sure touchdown that likely had Cardinals fans that had bet them at plus-14 upset.

While the Cardinals are 1-3, this game surely can be seen as a measuring stick of what this team has to do to truly compete with the 49ers. But, it’s also true to believe they are on the right track, especially when it comes to most of the rest of the NFL.

When left tackle D.J. Humphries was asked if he was happy with the the team rallied, he said, “You’re never happy after an L. But knowing you have some guys in your foxhole that are willing to fight and scratch and claw; that’s always good to know. But happy? No, never.”

As for Gannon’s message to the team, he said, “I just told the guys there I appreciate the fight and the effort. We’ve got to play cleaner, execution-wise, to beat that football team. That’s a good football team. Give them credit because they did a lot of good things out there today. We just didn’t make enough plays there. We got back into the game, but couldn’t do enough to sustain to really make it a game there in the fourth.

“But I’m proud of them, the way they battled.”

Much of that was linked to how the Cardinals hung in after falling behind early.

“The resilience that we showed when we got down and got hit in the mouth; I thought was good,” Gannon said. “The locker room at halftime was good. I understand how we needed to get back in the game, and what we had to do in all three phases. I thought they did that and then it just got away from us.”

Dobbs said, “There’s no moral victories, right? We play to win every single Sunday, and when we don’t, we’re upset about it. We look for ways to improve so that we win no matter who’s across from us. When we play a really good team on the road, with this team obviously being a young team, we take from that. You can’t spot them 14 points and expect to be in the game for four quarters.

“The fight was tremendous to be able to come back and make it a one-possession game late in the third quarter. When you get in those situations where you’re within striking distance and you have them on their heels, you have to take advantage of that momentum, especially on the road. Playing in an environment like this, you’ve got to bring your own energy, and your own juice. I think that’s a learning opportunity for us as a team.”

That learning process will continue next Sunday at home against a Bengals team that is also 1-3 and lost by 24 points to the Titans Sunday while gaining only 211 yards to Tennessee’s 400.

Souvenirs for Wilson

Wilson played at nearby Stanford, as did McCaffrey, who Wilson said he was a fan of since middle school. After the 69-yard play that helped the Cardinals ice last week’s game over Dallas, he had his true coming-out party Sunday with two touchdowns and seven catches for 76 yards. He now has 14 receptions for 237 yards (16.9 average) in four games.

He was able to save both balls he caught for scores. Wilson’s parents came to the game from Los Angeles and one of his best friends, who was his freshman roommate at Stanford, and is now working on his master’s degree, was also at the game.

“I think it’s awesome to score especially close to where I went to school,” Wilson said. “I woke up this morning with a good feeling. I don’t know if that’s because I’m playing in a familiar area or sometimes you wake up just knowing because something good is going to happen. I feel really, really good despite the loss.”

Said Dobbs, “Got his first one which I’m happy for him. Hopefully many more to come, but he does a great job of being exactly where he’s supposed to be. He’s a disciplined player and receiver. His effort is tremendous. He does a great job in the run game, springing blocks, and then when the ball comes his way, he makes plays. We had a lot of guys step up and make some plays, but he did a great job of that today. We’re going to need him moving forward. I’m excited to see his growth.”

A total nothing-burger

That’s the only way to describe the “DEVELOPING NEWS” story on espn.com Saturday in which Adam Schefter essentially reported what everyone here and nationally already knew (or should have known) about the return of quarterback Kyler Murray to the Cardinals practice field.

Of course, when ESPN reports something, and it’s tweeted to Schefter’s 10-million plus followers, it can take on a life of its own.

So, let’s break down the report.

It began with this:

“Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is not expected to come off the physically unable to perform list when he becomes eligible Monday and still is considered weeks away from playing, league sources told ESPN.”

First, even if Murray returned to practice this week, he wouldn’t “come off” the PUP list. Players on PUP that begin practicing remain in that category and do not count against the 53-man roster.

That starts a 21-day notice period, during which the player can be activated to the roster at any time. At the end of the 21 days, the player must either be activated, remain on PUP for the remainder of the season, or even released.

Is there anyone that actually thought if Murray began practicing this week that he would be activated immediately, given that he hasn’t had one rep on the field with the new offense and hasn’t practiced for nearly 10 months? Don’t think so.

Coach Jonathan Gannon said as much prior to Week 3 when he said, “He’s doing well, and we know the timetable of when he can return to play, but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to return to play and open his window then. We’ll get him going when he’s physically and mentally ready to play and knowing that it’s going to take him some time and some weeks of practice to get comfortable with what he’s doing. I’m not in a hurry with that. I’d love to have him out there, he’s itching to be back, but we’ll take that one day at a time.”

It’s noteworthy that the ESPN story used the final part of Gannon’s quote (“I’m not in a hurry with that. [We would] love to have him out there. He’s itching to be back, but we’ll take that one day at a time.”), but not the part about needing “some time and some weeks of practice” before playing. That clearly would have shown there was nothing new in the assertion that Murray is “considered weeks away from playing.”

That was attributed to the ubiquitous “league sources.”

That comment makes another part of the story hardly newsworthy when a Cardinals source said, “It just doesn’t feel like [Murray’s return] is imminent.”

The dictionary defines imminent as “about to happen; ready to take place.”

Again, there shouldn’t have been anyone that thought a return was imminent based on what has been said by Gannon and general manager Monti Ossenfort Friday. He told ArizonaSports 98.7, “Kyler is continuing to progress. We’re excited about where’s he’s at and where’s he going. He’s been involved in all the meetings. He’s been on the sidelines for every game and he’ll continue to be a support for his teammates.Kyler is progressing physically, he is continuing to prepare himself mentally. And we’re getting closer to that time when he’s going to be able to go out there and join his teammates in practice. When he’s ready to do that, we won’t hesitate to put him out there.”

“Getting closer.” Nothing that yells “imminent.”

The ESPN story also said, “The former No. 1 overall draft selection wants and plans to return this season, but he slowly is ramping up his comeback in an attempt to rejoin the Cardinals, sources told ESPN.”

The key word there is “slowly,” which makes it appear that Murray is taking his time with his comeback. Whether it’s “slowly” or being deliberate, it makes absolute sense with an injury of this magnitude and the style that Murray plays.

Tight end Zach Ertz was removed from PUP during training camp, right at nine months from his ACL surgery. Tuesday (Oct. 3) is the nine-month mark from Murray’s surgery and his included a meniscus repair in addition to the ACL.

The league source cited in the story is likely from Murray’s agent, Erik Burkhardt, and we can only speculate what his agenda is in saying what he did.

There is one other item in the story about PUP rules that has created confusion because it’s inaccurate and has been reported elsewhere.

It said, “After a player has missed four games on the PUP list, his team has a five-week period during which to allow the injured player to resume practicing.”

It was that way when players weren’t able to start the practice period until after six weeks, but that’s no longer part of the procedure. Once the four weeks end, a player is eligible to return to practice at any time during the season.

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

Readers can also receive a free weekly newsletter on any team(s) of interest. The Cardinals day is Saturday. Just go to https://gophnx.com/subscribe-to-the-free-phnx-newsletter/

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