SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As Kyler Murray flipped a short pass in the left flat to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the Arizona Cardinals’ prized offseason acquisition was quickly smothered by San Francisco 49ers defenders Kwon Alexander and Jimmie Ward, seemingly putting the first half of Sunday’s surreal season opener to bed.
With the final seconds of the second quarter ticking down, the Cardinals out of timeouts and Hopkins’ upward mobility being restricted by Ward as he lay prone on the Niners’ 38-yard-line, virtually everyone at Levi’s Stadium — a diminished group basically consisting of both teams, some stadium and game-operations workers, a thinned-out press box of media members and a FOX television crew — mentally shifted into intermission mode. Arizona, after beating back an early Niners onslaught, would head to the locker room trailing by three and live to fight another half.
And then, in a flash, magic unfolded in warp speed: 37-year-old wideout Larry Fitzgerald, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer beginning his 17th season, shot toward Hopkins from the left sideline, received a shovel pass in stride from Hopkins while calling for the ball and darted between the hashmarks, executing a perfect handoff to center Mason Cole. As Cole handed the ball to onrushing umpire Rich Hall, Fitzgerald lined up in the backfield and got set in time for Murray to receive Hall’s snap and somehow spike the ball with two seconds to go.
Fitzgerald has 1,382 career regular-season receptions, second only to 49ers icon Jerry Rice, but this unofficial catch (and save) might have ranked with his most outrageous, and his teammates made sure it counted.
Given a stunning shot at knotting the game at 13 with a 56-yard field goal, Cards kicker Zane Gonzalez pushed it through the uprights, and he and his teammates jogged off the field with a bounce in their steps — and an even greater collective reverence for the most beloved player in franchise history.
“It was a pivotal moment,” Arizona running back Kenyan Drake said afterward. “He definitely put the pedal to the metal to preserve that time, and it was amazing to watch.
“That is what makes him ‘Larry Legend.'”
Hours later, after the Cardinals had pulled off a dramatic, 24-20 upset of the defending NFC champions, Fitzgerald did his best to downplay the Spot Heard Round The World (But Witnessed In Person By Barely Anyone). “Great coaching paid off for us in that situation,” Fitzgerald insisted via text message as he and his teammates headed to the airport, having served notice that in the NFC West — pro football’s strongest division, at least on paper — they are no longer anybody’s doormat.
In normal times, the Cardinals’ signature moments down the stretch — Murray’s go-ahead, 22-yard touchdown scamper with 10:26 remaining; Hopkins’ 33-yard catch-and-run to the half-yard line that set up Drake’s winning score with 5:03 left; cornerback Byron Murphy’s emphatic breakup of a Jimmy Garoppolo fourth-down pass to slot receiver Trent Taylor at the Arizona 10 with 33 seconds remaining — would have been accompanied by the collective groans of tens of thousands of red-and-gold clad loyalists.
On Sunday, on a smoky late-summer afternoon in a time of mandated social distancing, the triumphant screams of Arizona players and coaches rang out loud and clear, and millions of television viewers were compelled to give the visitors their due.
Their eyes did not deceive them, as smoggy and unhealthy as the air might have been. Thanks to numerous wildfires ravaging Northern California (and, indeed, much of the West Coast), Sunday’s game was in danger of being postponed or moved until it became apparent that the Air Quality Index would likely remain just under the critical 200 threshold.
Welcome to Levi’s Stadium, in all its dystopian splendor.
And, of course, until pretty recently, there was no guarantee that this contest — or any other NFL game — would be played at all, as league and NFL Players Association officials struggled to devise a strategy for staging stadium events during a global pandemic.
Throw in the growing conviction among African-American players, and many of their white counterparts, that after a spate of high-profile instances of police brutality — and centuries of institutionalized racism — collectively choosing not to play is a viable point of discussion, and nothing about this moment should have been taken for granted.
That applied to the outcome, too: If you were expecting an easy victory for the 49ers, who last year roared to an 8-0 start and held a 10-point lead over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV before collapsing in the final seven-plus minutes — well, you shouldn’t have.
After falling short against Arizona, and ending the day as the only NFC West team not to have been victorious in Week 1, the Niners understandably believe they can shake off a sloppy season opener, beginning with back-to-back road games against the New York Jets and Giants.
“It was super damn frustrating,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, whose 41-yard catch-and-run was the team’s second-longest play from scrimmage, behind only halfback Raheem Mostert’s 76-yard touchdown reception that gave the Niners a 10-0 lead with 9:53 left in the first quarter. “We literally did everything that has to be done to lose: Blocked punt, bad on third downs on offense and defense, (didn’t) convert on fourth-and-goal. I know we’ll bounce back next week, though.”
As for the Cardinals? Well, after an offseason of hype about the team’s perceived improvement, much of that centered around the blockbuster trade last March that landed Hopkins from the Houston Texans and Murray’s expected jump from Year 1 to Year 2, it’s starting to look like that wasn’t just artificial noise — as opposed to the constantly ringing din that was piped through Levi’s loudspeakers on Sunday.
In other words, those draft-night scenes of second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury lounging on his couch that seemed pulled out of the futuristic television series Westworld just may have been a foreshadowing.
Certainly, Sunday’s setting had fantastic overtones of its own. It was the most surreal 49ers home game since an Oct. 20, 1991 blowout of the Detroit Lions, when a torrent of oversized ashes from the deadly Oakland Hills fire — including partial pages of books and magazines — rained down upon the Candlestick Park crowd, and several journalists bolted at halftime to drive across the Bay and evacuate their homes.
Indeed, in terms of emotional displacement, the 2020 home opener ranked with the Niners’ Oct. 22, 1989 triumph over the New England Patriots at Stanford Stadium, with Candlestick still unusable in the wake of the massive Loma Prieta Earthquake that had interrupted the Bay Bridge (World) Series five days earlier. Early in that game, safety Jeff Fuller, an emerging star, suffered a brutal spinal injury while tackling Patriots running back John Stephens that would cost him the use of his right arm. The hit was so emphatic that it could be heard throughout the stadium, along with the gasps of 70,000 fans.
Fortunately, nothing close to that scary occurred in Sunday’s clash, though there were some nervous (in a relative sense) moments for Niners fans — and, really, all, football fans — watching from home. Late in the first half, star tight end George Kittle, who last month signed a five-year, $75-million contract extension, injured his left knee while absorbing a hard shot from Cardinals safety Budda Baker on a red-zone incompletion.
As a team official walked with Kittle down the sideline and into the locker room with 30 seconds remaining in the half, bad thoughts crept into many a mind. Not Kittle’s, though; he’s among the sport’s most eternally optimistic humans. “Good to go,” he texted later. “On to New York!”
In a pre-COVID world, there would have been roars when Kittle charged out of the locker room with his teammates after intermission and took the field for the Niners’ first offensive possession of the third quarter. Instead, Levi’s offered a Simon and Garfunkel tribute: The Sound of Silence.
“It’s so weird,” Kittle said of the empty stadium. “Wish we could have like five people per section or something.”
Had actual people attended, and not just the cardboard cutouts who inhabited seats behind each end zone (above banners reading “It Takes All Of Us” and “End Racism”), they’d have been treated to the Murray and Hopkins show.
Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft who went on to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, had perhaps his best game as a pro, completing 26-of-40 passes for 230 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran for another TD and had a 100-yard rushing day until two game-closing shotgun kneel-downs dropped his total to 91.
“Kyler is the truth and has no weaknesses,” declared Fitzgerald, who caught four passes for 34 yards. “He has supreme understanding of the system, along with great arm strength, acute accuracy and nimble agility. The dude is a real problem.”
Speaking of problems, Hopkins, in his first game with his new team, caught 14 passes for 151 yards and saved his best for last: With the Cardinals trailing by three and facing a third-and-6 from the Niners’ 34 with 5:27 to go, Hopkins drifted behind the defensive line, crossing from left to right, caught a touch pass from Murray and turned upfield like a man possessed, heading for the right pylon.
Hello darkness my old friend…
Hopkins’ apparent touchdown was overturned by replay, setting up the one-yard touchdown by Drake (16 carries, 60 yards) on the next play that would finish out the game’s scoring. Instead, the man known as ‘Nuk’ settled for a career-high in receptions — and an emphatic message to the rest of the league.
“He just makes it look easy,” Drake said. “After the game, the stat guy came in (to the locker room) and told us his numbers, and I turned to (Hopkins) and said, ‘Yo, I always knew you were The Man. But let me tell you: You’re The Man.'”
Hopkins’ humble reply: “Moving the chains is the name of the game. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big play every time.”
Suffice it to say that the man who has been The Man in Arizona for more than a decade and a half doesn’t mind having company.
“You bring ‘Nuk’ to the party with his hands, routes and playmaking ability…” Fitzgerald mused. “Those two (Murray and Hopkins) will have a dynamic relationship for years to come. The future is certainly bright.”
As they headed out of Levi’s on Sunday, the Cardinals’ bright future was at least a little obscured by the smoky haze of a strange and foreboding Northern California horizon.
“Larry Legend,” by contrast, was as vivid and vibrant as ever.
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