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The narrative is inescapable as the Cardinals with Kyler Murray at quarterback and the Bears with Justin Fields face each other in Soldier Field Sunday on Christmas Eve. These are players with immense talent, but the subject when talking about them is mostly about if they will be each team’s starter when the 2024 season begins. As if what is happening around them has nothing to do with how they perform.
Consider this: The NFL will crown its MVP for the 2023 season on Feb. 8, three days before the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, and many believe the winner will be San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy.
While no one knows what’s in the minds of the 50 people that will make that decision (full disclosure: I am one of the 50), betting odds that change on a weekly basis are cited as ample evidence of what will be the result.
However, I digress. This isn’t about Purdy, but it is about the ever-changing perceptions prevalent in the current landscape of analysis.
When the 49ers lost three consecutive games earlier this season and were playing with compromised running back Christian McCaffrey (oblique injury) and without left tackle Trent Williams and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, the focus instead was on Purdy’s subpar play, not the missing pieces on San Francisco’s offense. They scored only 17 points in each of those losses and some even suggested the 49ers should switch to Sam Darnold.
However, since good health returned for that trio of players, the 49ers have won six consecutive games by an average of more than 19 points, averaging 34.5 per game, and have scored at least 30 in nine of their 11 victories. In the other two wins, they scored 27 and 28.
So, the intriguing question for those that believe the Bears and Cardinals should move on from their current quarterbacks is this: Would either team be 11-3 like the 49ers if Purdy was their quarterback? I say, no way. Flipping the question, might San Francisco’s record still be 11-3 with Murray or Fields under center and the identical talent around them? A case could be made for that.
One thing is surely true: Just like those that play with their new toys on Christmas Day and then never play with some of them again, a sputtering NFL offense will result in many wanting a new toy at the position even though the problems usually go much deeper.
And that’s why, even when a team does decide to discard the used toy for a bright, shiny new one, it’s often not long before it happens again, albeit with a new coaching or general manager toy.
So it was, that Murray, who replaced Josh Rosen as the Cardinals’ new toy after the latter was with the team for one season, was asked this week if he has empathy for the chatter in Chicago about Fields’ future.
Murray said, “I don’t know as far as if it’s unwarranted or warranted or what’s going on over there. I don’t know. I think when you’re not winning, everybody wants to look for the next thing, but the guys in the locker room; I saw something this week, so those guys I think they believe in him. That’s really all you can ask for (that) the guys that you’re going to war with believe in you.
“Again, for him, I’m sure he’s trying to prove himself every time he touches the field. In this profession, football, basketball, baseball — it doesn’t matter — they’re trying to replace you in a sense. It’s on you to make them realize or make them understand what type of player you are and that they’ve got something in you.”
It’s also on the team to do its part and surround their quarterback with coaching stability and the necessary player pieces to be able to meet those lofty expectations.
Murray was also asked if he believes the Cardinals were or are searching for their next quarterbacks. He said, “I personally don’t feel that way. Also, I dealt with the whole thing last year. It’s a situation that you all know about. I don’t feel that way. I’m worried about playing football.”
Since Fields returned from a thumb injury, the Bears are 2-2 and the two losses were by five and three points.
In the 10 games he’s played, Fields has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,976 yards with 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s also rushed for 488 yards and two touchdowns.
His favorite pass-catchers are wide receiver DJ Moore (80-1123-14.0-7) and tight end Cole Kmet (66-571-8.7-6). Those 66 receptions for Kmet are the same as Cardinals tight end Trey McBride, who has 141 more yards.
So, Budda Baker, is it exciting to play against a dual-threat quarterback?
With a chuckle, Baker said, laughing, “No. It’s not exciting. I’m a defensive back, I’ll be in the back, either in my man coverage or playing zone and I’m looking at this guy scramble around. I don’t like going against scrambling quarterbacks because it could be third-down-and-10 and we know it’s a passing situation and we’re thinking the ball is going to come out and he’ll scramble for 40, 50 yards.
“Being in coverage for eight seconds, and seeing the quarterback scramble, now you gotta get out of coverage and you got to try to tackle the quarterback.
“Justin Fields does a great job of sliding, but he also tries to run DBs over. Me being a safety, seeing him run full speed at me, and I’m ready to tackle, and then he slides; that’s the worst thing for me personally when I try to tackle a quarterback because you never know if he’s going to slide, or he’s gonna dip his shoulder, or if he’s going to try and shake you.”
Noting that the Cardinals will probably have some spies around Fields to keep him from running out of the pocket, Baker added, “But you see it on film. He’s out-running spies, he’s out-running those guys that specifically their main job is if he gets out of the pocket, you gotta tackle him and he’s out-running those guys.”
Coach Jonathan Gannon said early in the week, “He can make every throw on the field and when it’s cold and rainy in Chicago, like it’s going to be, the wind doesn’t matter because he’s got a huge arm. He’s extremely mobile, he’s hard to tackle, and his extension of plays is very productive, so when you have to design a plan for that type of skill set at quarterback, it makes it very challenging. We’ve got to do a good job in the run and pass game; the run game where he’s involved and the run game where he is not.
“Then in the pass game, you’ve got to mix your rush and coverage the right way to affect him because he can beat you when the ball comes out on time, and he can beat you when the ball doesn’t come out on time. There are some guys that can do that, but there’s not a ton of them. He’s one of those guys, and he’s hard to tackle. I’ve been a part of games where he’s broken six tackles on one play, literally. He’s a productive player that’s a weapon and he is hard to defend.”
It’s no surprise that wide receiver Hollywood Brown was declared out Friday as he missed practice all week because of a heel injury. Including when he was listed as limited on the Wednesday of Week 12 against the Rams, there have been 12 practices and Brown has not practiced at all in nine.
The last two games, he has been targeted a total of three times with no receptions while playing 36 snaps (53 percent) against the Steelers and only 24 (32 percent) against the 49ers.
Passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Drew Terrell has been impressed by Brown’s tenacity as he tries to play in the late stages of the final season of his rookie contract.
Terrell said, “It is tough. It’s no secret that he’s in a contract year and has a nagging injury that he has been dealing with. Anytime someone is in a contract year, they want to have the best season of their career. It is what it is. It’s the truth of the business we are in. But he has been good. His mentality every day has been extremely positive in meetings, in the building, the way he’s worked.
“He’s put himself in position to try to play every week. We’ll see how that looks moving forward, but I’ve got nothing negative to say about Hollywood. He’s been awesome and done everything we’ve asked.”
As for how difficult it is for Brown to battle through the injury with hardly any practice and wondering if he’ll play and then how he would hold up during the game, Terrell said, “It’s tough any time you’re not getting all the reps during the week that are potentially going to show up on Sunday.
“It’s tough to get to Sunday and then try to replicate that in the game and then have the mental block of, ‘Am I going to be able to push through the game? Is this pain gonna nag me, thinking about it on this route and that route?’
“It’s definitely tough, but he’s been doing a great job of managing it the right way.”
Meanwhile, wide receiver Greg Dortch, who didn’t practice on Wednesday and Thursday because of a shoulder injury, was limited on Friday and is listed as questionable although he is expected to play Sunday. The question is whether he will also return kicks.
To have more depth at the position, the Cardinals elevated Dan Chisena and Kaden Davis from the practice squad Saturday.
Gannon was asked for the formula that needs to happen to get the wideouts more involved and he said, “Get open and catch the ball. I’m not knocking our receivers, but when your number’s called or when the concept’s called and you’re the open guy, make sure you’re at where you need to be on time and when Kyler throws it to you, catch it.”
The Cardinals’ inside linebacker group was depleted even more when Josh Woods suffered a core muscle injury against the 49ers and was placed on reserve/injured. He joins Kyzir White on IR.
Woods had the green dot on his helmet as the player who relays the defensive calls since White was injured against the Texans in Week 11. That role will now go to Krys Barnes, who had experience doing it at the beginning of his career in Green Bay.
Safety Budda Baker said, “We’re rolling with what we have and Krys Barnes has been doing a great job continuing to talk to us, continuing to get the calls out. It’s next-man mentality and we’re just focused on playing good football this week.”
However, there isn’t a lot of depth behind Barnes. The others are Ezekiel Turner, rookie Owen Pappoe and Tyreek Maddox-Williams, who was signed from the practice squad this week.
Turner, whose main role is on special teams, started in Week 4 against the 49ers when Woods was out with an ankle injury and Barnes had a finger injury that limited him to only special teams.
Pappoe, who also has a prominent role on special teams, has played a total of 13 defensive snaps this season, all in the last three games: 4/6 percent against the Rams, 6/10 percent against the Steelers and 3/5 percent against the 49ers. He could be in line for more snaps against the Bears.
When Gannon was asked if Pappoe could play more, he said, “Everyone that has a jersey’s gonna pick up the slack. Those guys are excited about their opportunity and their role changing a little bit now because of injury and they’re ready to go.”
That includes Maddox-Williams, who was signed to the practice squad on Sept. 13.
Gannon said, “Tyreek has done a great job since he’s been here and excited to see him go if he gets a chance to play.”
However, might there be a plan to slide Zaven Collins inside on early downs and then have him move outside in passing situations? It would make sense. Collins has had nine games where he’s played snaps in the 50s-percent range at outside linebacker, including the last five games. Prior to that, he played in the 60s in four consecutive games.
The only game he was under 50 (30) was in Week 3 when he was poked in the eye. With 3.5 sacks, Collins is fourth on the team behind Dennis Gardeck (5.0) and Victor Dimukeje and BJ Ojulari (4.0).
Last season, albeit in a different defensive scheme, Collins played some on the outside, but mostly inside when he was on the field for 1,024 snaps (98 percent).
Another “inside” story
This one is about the insides of safety Budda Baker, who raised some alarms Sunday morning when the team sent an advisory noting that he had been added to the injury report with an illness.
Baker ended up playing all but one defensive snap and tied for second on the team with four other players with five tackles (three unassisted).
Asked if there was any question in my mind whether he would play, Baker detailed what the 12-plus hours were like before the 2:05 p.m. kickoff against the 49ers.
He said, “Not didn’t think I was gonna be able to play, but there was a point where I was like . . . I might defecate on myself.” There was laughter from the assembled media when he then added, “And we were wearing all white.”
Baker then explained, “For me, personally, it was a matter of understanding that first, try to stop . . . help my body. I knew I was going to play, I knew I was going to give it all I had. I know there wasn’t much sleep out of it, but at the end of the day, I just tried to give it all I had and luckily those things did not happen.”
Asked when he began feeling sick, Baker said, “Went to bed Saturday night feeling great. Body felt great. Woke up probably about 1:30 in the morning. I was up until game day. Didn’t get any sleep, but tried just to get as much water as I could in my system because drinking the water wasn’t really helping.
“So just getting IVs, getting to the stadium early, taking Immodium, some other things that helped me out a little bit. I knew there wasn’t any food in my system so just drinking chicken broth and stuff like that right before the game just so I could somewhat have some type of energy for the game.”
The back story is crucial. He was a 6-foot-3, 234-pound wide receiver at Stanford and a teammate of another Cardinals rookie, wideout Michael Wilson.
Higgins began his career as a sixth-round pick of the Dolphins, but was waived in the cutdown to 53 players and claimed by the Cardinals, who could afford to be patient with a player making a position switch.
He was inactive for the first six games of the season, but since then his snaps have grown, partially because of an injury to Zach Ertz that landed him on reserve/injured Oct. 24.
In his first NFL game against the Seahawks, he played six offensive snaps (9 percent). Since then, it’s been 12/16 against the Ravens, 15/29 against the Browns, 12/18 against the Falcons, 9/15 against the Texans, 19/27 against the Rams, 22/32 against the Steelers and 25/34 against the 49ers.
He has a modest eight receptions for 93 yards, but had four for 44 and a touchdown last Sunday against the 49ers. Now, with tight end Geoff Swaim on reserve/injured with a calf injury, there might be more opportunities although Higgins is still working on becoming a better blocker.
Asked about switching from wide receiver to tight end, offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said, “It’s a big transition. I think he’s done a really nice job of leaning on the guys in that room. (Tight ends coach) Ben Steele’s done a great job of preparing him and teaching him the technique and helping him make that transition. He shows up in the passing game. You see those receiver skills, the ball skills, the run-after-the-catch; just the feel he has in the passing game.
“But I think his effort and his fundamentals in the run game have really made strides over the course of the year. Certainly, he’s always going to look to continue to improve in that area, but he’s done a nice job making that transition.”
Passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Drew Terrell was asked if he ever provides pointers to Higgins. Terrell said, “Elijah caught a couple passes and just bought a new car, so I gave him some stuff about . . . He was driving a Mazda a couple weeks ago and I was like. ‘You catch a couple first downs and now you got a big ol’ (Ford) Raptor truck.
“But yeah, he’s a Stanford guy, he’s a former receiver, he’s also another guy that’s very coachable so if I see things in the passing game that I think are going to help his game I’m not afraid at all to go out, coach him up and talk to him. He’s been awesome.”
Now, for the nickname.
Talking about Higgins Friday, Gannon said, “He’s different than Trey (McBride), different than Geoff. Yes, you gotta be able to at times, I would say, you’re going to have a hard down here. But, as many times as we can keep those guys doing something that they’re really comfortable that fits their skillset, that’s good coaching to me.
“Higgy-bear has done a great job with — that’s what I call him, I don’t know why. I think he’s probably mad at me — I think he’s done a really good job since he’s gotten here. He was down the first (six) weeks learning the language. It was a new scheme for him, new position, but he does some interesting things in the run and pass game. That was a great acquisition by (general manager) Monti (Ossenfort). You see we have confidence in him and he can play.”
During the first part of practice that day, Higgins caught a pass and Gannon yelled, “C’mon, Higgy-bear.”
Higgins laughed when he was told that Gannon repeated the nickname to the media, saying, “I have no idea where that’s coming from.” Swaim and McBride also laughed when they learned Gannon said it to the media, but added that the coach uses it frequently in meetings.
Finally, when told that Terrell threw him under the bus about the new truck that he got last Saturday, Higgins laughed again and said, “I was pumped driving up in it, and then he immediately was riding me when he saw it. But it’s all good.”
The Cardinals did add a new tight end to the roster, signing 6-foot-6, 260-pound Travis Vokolek off the Ravens’ practice squad. From Nebraska, Vokolek signed as an undrafted free with Baltimore in May.
Gannon said, “We did a lot of work on him in the draft process. Felt really good about trying to get him here. Excited about his role as he gets going with how we do things and what we’re going to ask him to do.”
Kicker Matt Prater has continued his excellence this season, making 23 of his 26 field-goal attempts, including 8-for-10 from 50 yards or more. Those eight are the most ever for a Cardinals kicker in one season.
Most impressive is that five have come from 55 yards or more. Prater’s successes have been from 51 (2), 54, 55, 56, 57, 58 and 62. The 58-yarder was last Sunday against the 49ers.
When asked this week how much Prater’s long-distance range affects play-calling, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “A lot. When you know that you’re banking on where he’s good from and where I feel really comfortable putting points on the board, that definitely goes into it.”
Gannon referenced the 58-yarder Sunday that came after the Cardinals faced third-and-22 from their own 48-yard line in the second quarter.
“You throw a check down; that was a really good play to me,” Gannon said. “Trey (McBride) breaks the tackle and gets to the 40. That was the line in that particular spot for us, and he bangs it through. That cut the lead to 14-10. That’s huge.
“Not a lot of people have that type of a guy where you feel really good about. There’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, let’s try a long field goal.’ There’s another thing to put the field-goal team out there and know that you’re going to come away with three points. It’s a completely different thing so man, I’m glad we have him.”
Quarterback Kyler Murray concurred, saying, “Having Matt, man, that’s a game changer. A guy that if you can get it to the 40 or 45, he’ll have a chance to knock those in. You see it across the league with some of these games that these guys are making incredible field goals. It’s huge.
“He’s an X-factor for sure. Obviously, we don’t want him out there kicking 50- and 60-yarders; we want to put the ball in the end zone, but knowing that he’s out there, he’s got our back, and we rely on him is a big deal.”
Prater’s 79 career field goals of 50 yards or more are the most in NFL history and he is closing in on 400 total field goals. He has 396, which is 13th-most in history, and Matt Bryant is next at 397. Prater passed Mason Crosby, who has 395, with three last Sunday. However, Crosby, who hasn’t kicked this season, was signed to the Giants’ practice squad this week and is expected to be their kicker for the remainder of the season.
On the opposing sideline Sunday will be Bears coach Matt Eberflus, who was the Colts defensive coordinator from 2081-2021. His defensive backs/cornerback from 2018-2020 was Gannon.
Asked about Eberflus this week, Gannon said, “Somebody asked about him the other day. Obviously, he’s one of my biggest mentors. People say, ‘Describe Flu for us.’ And I would say the first thing that comes to my mind that I saw for three years working for him was elite leadership skills. I learned so much about how to practice, player management, what’s important and how to get guys to hit their ceiling.
“Schematics were completely different for me, which we use a lot of those things now. The way you play the game, how you measure that and how you hold guys accountable.
“That’s what I told our guys in there today that it’s not surprising at all that team has done this because when I was with him for three years, our defense always just went like that (moves his hand up) for three years. It started kind of somewhere, and then as the year went on, we got better and better and better. I think that’s honestly a product of him and how he has people operate in his building.
“Obviously, I can’t say enough good things about him. It’ll be good to see him. He is a great man. His family’s fantastic. They’ve helped me a ton, so it’ll be good to see him, but he’s a head coach for a reason. He’s one of those guys.”
Any extra incentive?
“No,” Gannon said. “It’s the Chicago Bears versus the Arizona Cardinals. We’ll say our pleasantries and it’ll be good to see him. I’ll give him a hug, catch up really quick, but then it’s compete, compete, compete and that’s how he is too.”
Gannon is also familiar with linebacker T.J. Edwards, who signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and then moved to the Bears as an unrestricted free agent this year. Edwards grew up in Lake Villa, Ill., about 50 miles north of Chicago.
Gannon said, “T.J.’s playing good for him right now. He impacts the game. Everything that T.J. stands for as a player and a person, that’s exactly what Flu wants in his building, so that’s why they acquired him. He fits perfectly in what they do and how he wants to operate. I know T.J.’s close to home too. T.J. is fantastic. Being around him for the two years that I was around him; when you say football character, that guy comes to mind.”
The impact Edwards has had on the defense is significant. He leads the team in total tackles by 42 with 135 (76 unassisted). Seven are for loss and he also has 2.5 sacks, seven pressures, two interceptions, six passes defensed and one forced fumble with two recoveries.
Gannon, when asked whether he has any tendencies that other teams can take advantage of: “There’s no tendencies by me. I’m not on the job long enough for any tendencies to happen except that in the production meeting, they said you’re the only head coach that hasn’t thrown the red flag (for a replay challenge). And I said, ‘Yeah I know. It’s burning a hole in my pocket, but I don’ t think I would have won any, so I’m not throwing it.’”
Gannon on the addition during the season of Bears defensive end Montez Sweat in a trade from Washington: “I think what trickles down to a defense is adding a really good premium player to your defense. Not just that spot, any spot truthfully. This guy can really impact the game in the run and pass game. Obviously, they acquired him for a reason and paid him what they paid him. That’s the going rate for those guys and he’s producing for them.”
Sweat signed a four-year, $98 million contract after the trade and in six games has 6.0 sacks to go with 13 pressures, two passes defensed and three tackles for loss.
Murray on Chicago’s defense: “They’re playing really good football right now. Statistically, they’re up there as one of the best defenses in the league. They’ve got a lot of great players over there that play hard, play fast, play physical and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
Baker, while talking about the Bears offense: “Shout out to (blocking tight end) Marcedes Lewis. He’s still playing. I think he might be 40-years-old. I don’t think I’ll be playing at 40, but it’s definitely cool to see that guy still in there doing his job and playing good.”
Lewis is in his 18th season and turned 39 in May. Signed by the Bears on Aug. 5, he has played all 14 games and started three.
Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD
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