Arizona Cardinals seizing respect with each adversity-riddled win

Nov 7, 2021, 6:46 PM | Updated: 6:48 pm
Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, second from left, and defensive coordinator Vance Jos...

Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury, second from left, and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, foreground right, gesture from the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Respect never comes easy for the Cardinals. But our NFL franchise just made a powerful statement with their weakest roster of the season:

If respect isn’t given, it will be taken.

The Cardinals thrashed the 49ers 31-17 Sunday in Santa Clara. They did so without Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt and A.J. Green. They lost Chase Edmonds on the first play of Sunday’s game, which only set the stage for the greatest afternoon in James Conner’s career.

Meanwhile, backup quarterback Colt McCoy looked surprisingly poised, potent and prepared for the moment, engineering 437 yards of total offense.

The ramifications are huge. The Cardinals are clearly the NFL’s best road team. They are back atop the NFC standings. They effectively flushed any ill effects from their loss to the Packers on Thursday Night Football. And the 49ers will have a hard time recovering from this improbable outcome.

The Cardinals have now won a game without their head coach, who was watching from home with COVID-19. They have prevailed with Murray suffering from what is now being reported as a high ankle sprain, missing his first game after 40 consecutive starts. They are mocking adversity and the national pundits who refuse to see what is really happening in Arizona.

In the NFL, too much credit goes to those who do not play the game. But General Manager Steve Keim glows in the outcome of Sunday’s performance for the upgrades in leadership, talent, physicality and backup quarterback. He’s keeping all of his promises.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is now firmly in the running for Coach of the Year, snapping Sean McVay’s winning streak against Arizona and beating Kyle Shanahan with two different quarterbacks. He called a masterful game on Sunday, helping the Cardinals dominate time of possessions (36:47 compared to 23:13 for the 49ers).

Both Keim and Kingsbury deserve a slice of this pie. So does a defense that has incorporated a new practice regimen called “Club, Punch and Rip.” It’s designed to force turnovers by hitting the football as if it were a punching bag, by showing the football the kind of violence you can no longer inflict on an opposing quarterback. The methodology is definitely working, with Byron Murphy Jr. and Isaiah Simmons both using the “CPR” method to force key fumbles against the 49ers.

But this game is about players, and on Sunday, the Cardinals would not surrender to the narrative. Conner scored three touchdowns. He shouldered the majority of the load after Edmonds’ injury. He proved he was more than just a power run capable of creating clouds of dust and bullying his way into the end zone. Conner also showed off his speed and athleticism on Sunday, the kind that will make Steelers fans wonder how they let him get away.

Markus Golden had three sacks. Jordan Hicks recovered a pair of fumbles. The collective vibe of this football team continues to shine, no matter how many individual pieces are missing. And the performance of McCoy cannot be overstated.

Starting only his 10th game since 2012, McCoy did everything you hoped and more. He played tough, absorbing plenty of hits along the way. He played smart, getting the ball to his best playmakers. He was dripping with professionalism and courage, and he never once looked rattled. He completed 22-of-26 for 249 yards.

Those numbers are stunning, and it’s beyond reassuring to see the Cardinals play at a high level without their MVP candidate and one of the most dynamic players in the game. That feeling reverberates even stronger inside the locker room, adding to the team’s sense of destiny and invulnerability.

McCoy did more than play well enough to beat the 49ers. He looked like he could win a playoff game, if necessary. And that’s good to know.

Just in case.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta Mornings from 6–10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Arizona Cardinals seizing respect with each adversity-riddled win