MEXICO CITY – In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals played the 49ers at Estadio Azteca in the NFL’s first regular-season game outside the United States. Monday night, 17 years later, the Cardinals became the first team to see its regular season end outside the United States.
Not officially, of course. There are six more games to play, but Monday night’s 38-10 loss to the 49ers landed hard on hopes and prayers the Cardinals could make a run in the final two months of the season.
Those are squashed now. There’s too much ground to make up, and not enough football to do it.
The final seven weeks, including a weekend off soon, will be a salvage job. What parts of this team, including players, coaches and management, should return in 2023?
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The Cardinals entered Monday’s game an underdog by double digits, and they proved to be every bit of that. Owner Michael Bidwill gave up a home game to try and make inroads in the Mexico market. Instead, he and his business were shown the door in a brusque manner.
It was about as unfriendly as a home game could be. That was foreshadowed by all the 49ers fans seen around town the previous days. It started raining at kickoff. And everything Cardinal was booed by a large number of the 78,427 in attendance, including players, cheerleaders and even the mascot, Big Red, when he made an appearance on the videoboards.
The Cardinals could have overcome all this by playing better football, by being a good football team. They are not, as they proved by losing a fourth NFC West game in five tries. Only one more awaits: the 49ers in the final game of the season.
The first half was entertaining, and it ended 17-10, 49ers. For the Cardinals, it could have been better, and it could have been worse.
A questionable facemask call aided one 49ers touchdown drive. A taunting penalty on receiver DeAndre Hopkins ruined a promising possession. But at one point, the Cardinals trailed 14-3 after the 49ers converted a tipped pass turned an interception into a touchdown.
If the Cardinals hadn’t responded then, their chance of winning would have ended then. But they did. A nifty 47-yard catch and run by Greg Dortch highlighted a 75-yard-touchdown drive that made the score 14-10.
It was their last highlight of the game. The 49ers scored the next 24 points, 21 of them in the second half.
“That’s a really good team,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “We knew we’d have to play as good as we had all year.”
They didn’t, not that it was a high bar that was set.
For a short time Monday night, the Cardinals’ offense looked like it did last week in a victory over the Rams. For a short time Monday night, it looked like McCoy might be justified in adding a little addendum whenever he tosses the keys to the offense back to Kyler Murray when he’s healthy. “I don’t know, it ran fine for me.”
That is not in McCoy’s personality, of course. If there is an obnoxious bone in his body, it’s a tiny one in the foot area.
Asked how he felt after taking a beating from the 49ers’ defense, McCoy said he will be fine, and then pivoted into complimenting the 49ers. “When you play a team like the 49ers, you have just a little room for error,” said McCoy. “We had some penalties in key spots. Turned the ball over. And when you do that against a good football team that moves the ball well, it hurts you.”
McCoy is an ideal backup, but after Monday night it’s clear he’s no threat to Murray. There is no quarterback controversy, or controversia del mariscal de campo, as they probably don’t say in Spanish.
Monday, the Cardinals needed Murray’s creativity and crazy athletic skills, which can be both exhilarating and frustrating to watch. They wouldn’t have won with him, but they might not have been outscored 24-0 in one stretch.
Afterward, Cardinals players who were asked about what hope remained mentioned a handful of injured players who are close to returning.
Murray is among them, as is receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Brown and receiver DeAndre Hopkins have yet to play together, and the Cardinals were looking forward to seeing what that looked like, especially if paired with receiver Rondale Moore.
But Moore suffered a groin injury on the game’s first play, so that combination’s debut is paused.
Expecting an offensive explosion is a thin thread of hope because the Cardinals have deficiencies everywhere. The defense played well early, but beginning in the second quarter, the 49ers scored on six of seven possessions.
The most important was a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the second half. That seemed to demoralize the Cardinals, and as the 49ers increasingly turned to the run, the Cardinals’ resistance to it withered.
Help might be on the way for the Cardinals, but it won’t be enough for them to avoid producing their most embarrassing season since going 3-13 in 2018. That prompted a coaching change, from Steve Wilks to Kingsbury.
Is Bidwill considering another? We don’t know. Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim have fresh contract extensions, but they won’t survive two more months of games like Monday night’s. Or at least they shouldn’t.
To keep Bidwill’s faith, and a fan base from continuing to pivot away from them, the Cardinals need to provide evidence this can be fixed.
Murray will play soon. So will Brown and maybe an offensive lineman. We will finally get to see Hopkins, Brown and Murray play together. Maybe that will make the final six games interesting, but interesting isn’t the standard that should be in place. Winning playoff games is, and the Cardinals haven’t done that since the 2015 season.
Now that they’ve failed miserably to convert fans in a foreign country, the Cardinals better worry about keeping the declining number they have back home.
Story Credit: usatoday.com