By Rob Kleifield
Phoenix – Thursday night’s NFL opener in Kansas City marked the resumption of professional football games in America. It also marked the start of a regular season that is bound to be unlike any other in the history of the sport.
Pregame narratives for the clash between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans focused heavily on social injustices happening throughout the country.
Commercials emphasized the ongoing fight against excessive police force, and systemic racism.
Banners streamed powerful messages to an announced crowd of 15,895 fans, most wearing customized masks and team-inspired bandanas across their faces.
Both teams gathered at midfield just moments before kickoff for a preplanned moment of unity in which game-time enemies locked arms to embrace struggles that have become far too common for social acceptability.
And, to the bewilderment of many, boos echoed throughout Arrowhead Stadium as players and coaches stood silently, reinforcing an indiscernible belief that some faction of football fans care simply about the ensuing performance on the field, not the people risking their health and safety for the entertainment of millions.
In other words, it was a heckuva scene laid out for the defending Super Bowl champions to initiate their 2020 campaign — a heckuva introduction to what’s on tap for the NFL’s faithful this fall.
It serves as an interesting segue into the Arizona Cardinals’ litmus test versus the San Francisco 49ers, defending NFC crown bearers, on Sunday. Interesting, primarily, in the sense that there’s a load of unknowns, less than 48 hours away, surrounding the divisional showdown.
What type of demonstration will players concoct? Will an empty stadium overshadow a display of unity?
Most importantly, perhaps, will the air quality in Santa Clara threaten the contest in its entirety? Sunday’s air quality index is forecasted to be 17 over the 200 threshold that permits games to be played because of wildfires in the area.
These are questions that both teams must still address.
As of Thursday afternoon, cornerback Patrick Peterson said the team had not yet come to a consensus about what will be done during the National Anthem and moments leading up to Sunday’s 1:25 p.m. kickoff. Peterson’s comments reiterated what quarterback Kyler Murray said earlier in the week — the team still must meet in order to determine the most effective method of demonstration.
“Mr. Bidwill did give us the green light, whatever decision we do make,” said Peterson, clearly appreciative of the owner’s willingness to support Cardinals players. “He’s behind us 100 percent. We haven’t had any discussions, thus far…but I’m sure they’ll come up here pretty soon.”
On Friday morning, D.J. Humphries relayed the same message and shared some sentiments about the league as a whole during these turbulent times.
“We haven’t hashed things out, yet,” Humphries said, “but I’m really proud of the rest of the NFL, the way they’ve been responding to what’s going on, and the way everybody is taking a stand and making sure they get their message across.”
Humphries also touched on Bidwill’s involvement with the team, and said it’s refreshing to play for an organization that is committed to help its players, from the top to the bottom.
The overarching discussions that have occurred, captivating players’ and coaches’ minds since Monday, have dealt almost exclusively with Arizona’s week one opponent, and rightfully so.
Second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury said he knows his team will have its hands full, on both sides of the football.
“They’re just a very good defensive unit,” Kingsbury said. “They come at you for 60 minutes, and they have a lot of juice and energy.”
San Francisco’s defense is led by Nick Bosa, a trio of elite linebackers, and three-time first-team All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. Kingsbury called Sherman a “coach-killer” because he’s so good at baiting quarterbacks to make throws that in theory look smart, but wind up being catastrophic decisions.
And, the 49ers offense is no slouch, either.
“It’s very exciting to go up against them first, just to see what we have,” said Cardinals defensive back Budda Baker, who recently became the highest-paid safety in NFL history, courtesy of a four-year contract extension with more than $33 million in guarantees.
Peterson said halting San Francisco’s run-first, play-action-second attack starts with keying in on the offense’s hierarchy — stop the run, take away tight end George Kittle’s best looks and limit the “leftovers” distributed to the rest of the offense.
Arizona’s valiant attempts to down the NFC West champs last season — the Cardinals lost two games by a combined 13 points — will serve as a source of inspiration on Sunday, Kingsbury said, but it won’t be the familiarity that drives this team to reach its goals. The Cardinals just feel blessed to be on the verge of playing meaningful football again.
“It’s definitely fun to look back and then try to build up a new game plan based upon that,” Kingsbury said, “(but) everybody evolves. They’ll have new looks and new things that they’ve come up with…There’s a different look in their eye (and) a different buzz in the air.”
Kingsbury said he’s optimistic by nature, so naturally he shares some sliver of the media’s belief that the Cardinals offense is locked and loaded, and ready to explode this season.
“Just watching the development of the guys who were here last year,” Kingsbury said, “their understanding of the system, the nuances now are coming into play, and not just knowing where to be but actually how to do things at a high level…It’s definitely given me hope.”
That hope is fueled in part by reigning offensive rookie of the year, quarterback Kyler Murray, the inconceivable offseason acquisition of All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and, not to mention, a trifecta of future Hall of Fame candidates in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, outside linebacker Chandler Jones and cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Kingsbury’s hope can also be attributed to the emergence of running back Kenyan Drake, a 2016 third-round draft pick, who is ready to begin his first full NFL season as a team’s featured ball carrier. The Alabama product averaged 102 yards from scrimmage in eight appearances for Arizona in 2019 after he was acquired from the Dolphins in October.
“When he got here last year, I think he knew this was kind of his chance,” Kingsbury said. “Either he’s going to play at a high level, or probably not have a ton more opportunities.”
Drake never took his change of scenery for granted, seizing his new role with a reckless abandonment for potential tacklers and opposing defenses. In the final three contests of the 2019 campaign, he rushed for 363 yards on 58 carries, tallying seven of his eight touchdowns during that span.
Now, with nearly an entire year under his belt, studying the same concepts and honing his skills, Drake said his knowledge of the offense and comfort level is a night-and-day difference compared to his first week with the Cardinals last season.
“I’m excited to see what he can do,” Kingsbury said. “He has the mindset of one of the top guys – he thinks he can be that – and we’re very high on what he can do in this system.”
Drake confirmed he’s healthy, dispelling injury concerns that surfaced during the team’s final week of training camp when he wore a walking boot for several days as a precautionary measure.
The Cardinals’ offensive success in 2020 won’t solely be determined by Drake, or anyone in Arizona’s backfield. Murray’s maturation and an assortment of pass-catching weapons’ effectiveness will be key to the team’s development, but at the end of the day, Arizona’s offensive line will control the team’s fate.
“Without those guys, it would be very difficult for me to do my job,” Drake said, “Anybody in our (offensive) room could speak to that.”
Most Valuable Protection
Kelvin Beachum, a ninth-year veteran tackle who signed with the Cardinals in mid-July, is one of the team’s five starting offensive linemen tasked with protecting Murray and carving space for Drake and Company on the ground.
Beachum will line up opposite of freshly named captain D.J. Humphries, a four-year veteran who started all 16 games at left tackle in 2019.
Despite an unusual offseason marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Beachum said he feels comfortable with where the unit is at, heading into Sunday’s game. He said Arizona’s success versus a daunting 49ers front-seven will boil down to two factors: physicality and execution.
“If we can go out and execute, week in and week out, we can be special,” said Beachum, reflecting on what it’s like blocking for an über-talented, escape-artist like Murray. “Kyler’s one of those quarterbacks, if you just do your job, he’ll make some special things happen.”
Beachum and the rest of Arizona’s offensive line must drastically improve upon the group’s 2019 performance in order to meet Kingsbury’s expectations. It helps that the unit returns three full-time starters – left guard Justin Pugh, right guard J.R. Sweezy and Humphries – in addition to Beachum and center Mason Cole, who steps back into the void left by A.Q. Shipley after filling in for Shipley all 16 games as a rookie.
Last season, Murray was sacked on 48 dropbacks, tied for the third-worst mark in the NFL. A number that high won’t cut it for the Cardinals this season, nor would it allow Kingsbury to run the type of offense he envisions. That’s where the continuity, veteran leadership and extensive NFL experience play a critical role.
“That’s been one of our big points of improvement that we’ve harped upon,” Kingsbury said. “It will allow us to play with a better tempo if we’re not moving backwards that many times a game.”
Obviously, better protection starts with better effort. Beachum said it will be a point of emphasis to finish his pass-sets at the top of a defender’s pass-rush. That way Murray can calmly navigate the pocket and extend plays with his legs if need be.
Improved protection is also dependent, in part, on the speed of Murray’s progressions, and decision-making on early downs. Kingsbury expects sack numbers to decline once timing becomes second nature, and impromptu movements are reserved for dire situations.
“I think we can cut that number down in half,” Murray said. “That’s the goal, obviously, to limit the sacks and move around when I have to.”
Ultimately, if Murray is kept upright, he’ll have the chance to garner league-wide praise and potentially submit his name into the Most Valuable Player conversation.
Don’t read too much into rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons’ second-string status on Arizona’s first official depth-chart. The fact he’s slotted behind former Atlanta Falcon De’Vondre Campbell isn’t a knock on the Cardinals’ eighth overall pick. If anything, it’s a testament to his hard work and versatility.
Keep in mind, Simmons has his hands full, learning the ins and outs of the inside linebacker position, which may be more exhausting, physically, and challenging, mentally, than any other defensive role on the field.
Take for example, sixth-round selection Evan Weaver, who failed to survive the final day of roster trimming, and has since been signed to the Cardinals’ 12-man practice squad. Weaver was a ball-magnet, tackling-machine at the University of California-Berkeley. And, his attacking style of play could aid a defensive unit that has struggled to consistently — outside, of course, of Jordan Hicks and Jones — produce in the opposition’s backfield.
Again, Weaver’s status should not be a knock on his potential or diminish any future contributions he may make, whether it be on defense or special teams. His likely temporary absence from the Cardinals’ 53-man roster is more so a reflection of the intricacies and trials of a rookie linebacker trying to adjust to the speed and complexities of the NFL, all the while combating the far from normal circumstances thrust upon players and coaches as a result of the coronavirus.
Kingsbury praised Weaver’s work ethic at the start of the week, acknowledging the less than ideal conditions that rookies — especially, one at his position — faced without preseason action or full-tilt offseason activities.
“He knows what he has to work on to crack this lineup,” said Kingsbury, noting Weaver’s just not quite ready to make his NFL debut.
Simmons, on the other hand, possesses rare athleticism and boasts intangibles that could eventually press defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to put the best 11 players on the field, regardless of assigned position or rank on the team’s depth chart.
Baker joked, earlier in the week that everybody on defense could have their turn at covering Kittle. Simmons, however, projects as one of the Cardinals surest-bets to stay in phase with the do-it-all tight end. His flexibility was nightmarish for opposing offenses at Clemson. And, he was lauded post-draft for possessing the ideal blend of size and speed needed to cover tight ends like Kittle.
No fans in most NFL stadiums this season will be a strange sight.
Chandler Jones is bummed that he won’t be able to sign autographs, wave to the Cardinals’ Red Sea or watch fans attempt to imitate his sack dances.
But, as different as Sunday’s affair may look and sound for fans, it will feel mostly the same for players and coaches.
“Whenever we step in between those lines, it’s real, no matter the situation. So without the fans being there, the environment will be weird,” Drake said, “but we’ve got to go out there and play ball regardless.”
Kingsbury said having no fans in attendance should not be looked at as a negative, and put the reality of the situation into perspective: “You’re on national TV, you’re still playing in these epic stadiums. I mean, if you can’t get fired up to do that then you’re probably in the wrong business.”
No matter, it’s still something new that players and coaches must deal with, another obstacle thrown their way amid a months-long period that has been chock-full of uncertainties.
“It’s definitely been talked about, but at the end of the day…every single team in the league, every player in the league is going to have to navigate that,” said linebacker Jordan Hicks, one of the team’s eight elected captains. “I know we need football and I know the country needs football, so hopefully this can calm some nerves…and bring people together.”
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