After the most exciting off-season in recent Cardinals history - one in which they shocked the NFL by acquiring free agent RB Edgerrin James and one that saw Arizona triumph in the draft by picking up arguably the best QB in the class, as well as an able-bodied guard to protect him - fans expected to see them start the 2006 campaign with a thrashing of the lowly 49ers. The Cardinals delivered... And then some.
James immediately paid dividends, proving to be an obstacle to the defense even without the ball. On the first play from scrimmage, QB Warner play-faked to him. Anticipating the hand-off, both 49ers safeties bit on the play, allowing WR Anquan Boldin to break coverage and make a 68-yard TD pass. With the quick lead and momentum on their side, the Cardinal defense was able to create havoc from the start as well.
The Alex Smith-led 49ers offense took over at their own 11 yard-line after having a 45-yard kickoff return negated on a holding call. After two straight hand-offs resulting in RB Frank Gore being stuffed behind the line of scrimmage and facing 3rd and 12, the 49ers went to the air. RB Kevan Barlow slipped on his route coming out of the backfield and QB Smith panicked under intense pressure from ends Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor, throwing an ill-advised pass into the flat. That's where LB Karlos Dansby waited as the ball dropped right into his hands and promptly ran it back for the 12-yard TD. Surprisingly, the 49er offense didn't commit another turnover again until late in the 4th, but by then the game was a done deal.
After an NFL-record 9th first half 49er punt, the Cardinals started a drive at their own 46 and finished the half the way they started it. After having not scored offensively since the opening play, the Arizona squad again picked up a long-range TD. This time, there was no play-fake, as the San Fran defense was set in the prevent, but the results were the same. Edgerrin James slipped underneath the loose coverage, picked up the reception at the 49er 45, and scampered all the way into the end zone to end the half with the score 21-0.
The second half wasn't any kinder to the 49ers, as Coach Green called for a steady diet of James, with RB Marcel Shipp spelling him. The plan worked to perfection as not only did James succeed in eating up clock, but he gained productive yardage running behind an inspired offensive line finishing with 111 yards on 27 carries. By the end of the 3rd quarter, Arizona had a 31-3 lead and mercifully, the starters were taken out, allowing the subs to gain some game-experience. Many fans stayed until late in the blowout, hoping to catch a glimpse of QB Matt Leinart, but there was no such luck as the coaching staff has made it clear that they won't rush his development. Instead, fans had to settle for witnessing a fine performance put on by QB John Navarre who went 6-7 for 96 yards, solidifying his spot as backup quarterback.
Cardinals win, 37-3
On tap: Next week the Cardinals travel to Seattle to take on the defending NFC champs in a battle that will determine the early season NFC West "pecking" order. Arizona will have their work cut out for them. QB Matt Hasselbeck went down with what appeared to be hand injury early in the 4th quarter in the Seahawks opener at Detroit. The Seattle organization has been very tight-lipped about the injury, but it didn't appear to be too serious. However, with Seattle winning decisively, there's no way of knowing whether Hasselbeck's complete departure from the game was injury-induced or not. Regardless of the Seahawk QB situation, the Cardinals need to use this game as a springboard and carry the momentum they've built into Qwest Field if they have any shot at taking control of the division.