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Dan Bickley

Cardinals’ first win of Steve Wilks era comes with whisper of momentum

Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks smiles at a news conference after an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018. The Cardinals won 28-18. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Steve Wilks might’ve set an NFL record. Shortest time between honeymoon and hot seat.

Mercifully, the roller coaster ended on Sunday.

The Cardinals won their first game of the 2018 season, beating the 49ers, 28-18, in Santa Clara. This is more than a single victory. This is a declaration of peace.

Wilks gets a game ball and a precious week of serenity. His football team is unbeaten in October with a whisper of momentum. We all must honor a bedrock principle of professional football.

Winning a road game means never having to say you’re sorry.

There would be plenty of apologizing if the Cardinals were 0-5, maybe even calls for termination. But Sunday’s victory mutes the mob and illuminates the baby steps.

Josh Rosen continues to grow. His throws weren’t nearly as sharp in his second NFL start, but he again avoided interceptions and costly mistakes. He was part of a record performance in Week 5, the first time four rookie quarterbacks went 4-0 in the same week since 2012.

Rosen is displaying a growing kinship with fellow rookie Christian Kirk, who scored on a 75-yard touchdown pass to start the game. David Johnson rushed for only 55 yards, but his workload and touches improved. And for the first time since the preseason, Arizona’s defense preyed on a hapless quarterback, producing the game’s defining moment.

During a winless September, the Cardinals showed little fight, resistance or resemblance to the team that forced 17 takeaways in four exhibition games. Their Week 5 victory featured five takeaways, and if you can get past the red flags, Wilks’ defense has allowed 54 points in the past three games.

They held the Bears to 16 points. They limited Russell Wilson’s Seahawks to 20. The yielded only 12 to San Francisco before a garbage-time touchdown late in the fourth quarter. That’s a sign of progress.

Chandler Jones authored his breakout game of the 2018 season, with a highlight reel befitting one of the best defensive players in football. A former first-round pick, Haason Reddick, bolted out of the doghouse with the play of the game, spawning a defensive touchdown. And maybe this defensive-flavored victory is just what a defensive-minded head coach needed to reassume full command of the 2018 Cardinals.

It wasn’t all good. For a while, this game was stuffed with failure and impending heartbreak. The 49ers ran roughshod over the Cardinals, churning out 447 yards, only to squander numerous opportunities. Arizona’s offense reverted into a predictable second-half shell. Rosen was sabotaged by teammates who still can’t catch the ball. Too many football fans in the Valley wished they were watching the national broadcast (Vikings vs. Eagles) and not force-fed the local product, reflecting the first notes of apathy. And then there’s this exchange reported on social media, between two heavyweight commentators:

Phil Simms: “I’m taking the Arizona Cardinals over the San Francisco 49ers.”

Bill Cowher: “Who cares about that game?”

We do. Because it’s better than not caring at all. Because if the Cardinals can beat the 49ers on the road, they can do it again at State Farm Stadium in a few weeks. In between, maybe they’ll make something of a season that staggered from the gates, jumping the rails in September.

Granted, no parades are forthcoming for a 1-4 team. Their first triumph didn’t always match the mood of Sunday’s game. The 49ers once trailed by eight points and it felt like they led by three touchdowns. But that’s when the defense took a stand, backing up all the celebratory gestures and on-field posing that comes so naturally to the group.

Suddenly, the Cardinals don’t feel so hopeless. The offense is still wobbly but its new franchise quarterback will only get better. There are signs that the defense might be taking over the wheel, finally establishing a real identity and blueprint for victory. At the very least, the Cardinals refused to lose to C.J. Beathard, and that’s a start.

Wilks needed this badly. A rookie head coach can lose the room quickly, especially if the results are all foreboding. Now he can breathe easy, begin coaching out of fight and not fear, maybe even save the season along the way.

The first win is always the deepest in the NFL. This one came with a lot of collateral damage along the way.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier