The 49ers need all the breaks they can get as they try to climb back into the NFC playoff chase. Under normal circumstances, having to face a first-place team still smarting from its first loss wouldn’t qualify as good fortune.
But when the Arizona Cardinals visit Sunday, there’s a chance Kyler Murray, arguably the NFL’s most dangerous quarterback over the last three years, will be replaced by Colt McCoy, a 35-year-old career backup who is on his third team in the last three years.
The Cardinals’ troubles this week don’t stop at quarterback. They could be without both of their high-profile All-Pro wide receivers, DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) and A.J. Green (COVID-19 list). In addition, starting running back Chase Edmonds (shoulder) is listed as questionable.
All this from a franchise still absorbing last week’s sobering news that All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt needs season-ending shoulder surgery.
Murray missed practice again Wednesday while dealing with a left ankle injury suffered during Arizona’s bitter loss against Green Bay last Thursday. After beginning his career with 40 consecutive starts, Murray is now in some danger of missing a game for the first time since leaving Oklahoma with a Heisman Trophy in 2018.
McCoy, the 49ers’ backup to Colin Kaepernick in 2013, has started just nine games in the last nine years of his 12-year career. He won’t be the one taking snaps at Levi’s Stadium if Murray has anything to say about it, which he will.
Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said Murray remains day-to-day and told reporters Wednesday the decision whether to play him or not won’t be made until the day of the game. Kingsbury admitted Murray’s wishes will weigh heavily into the decision.
Kingsbury said the Cardinals won’t hold Murray out simply for precautionary reasons.
“You want to have that conversation with him?” Kingsbury said with a smile. “I get what you’re getting at. There’s a fine line you walk there. It’s a 17-game season, you’ve got to be smart, we’ve got some big games coming up. We’ll do what’s best for the organization and for what’s best for him.”
The coach cautioned not to assume if Murray can’t practice then he can’t play against the 49ers.
“He has got that type of ability,” Kingsbury said, when asked if Murray could still start without practicing all week. “If it was earlier in his career, probably not. His understanding of the system now and some of the pieces that we have around him, I feel good about that.”
Similarly, Hopkins will try to do what it takes to play Sunday, despite still nursing a sore hamstring that limited him to just 15 plays last Thursday. It might not matter that Hopkins has yet to practice this week, either. He figures to find his way to the field somehow – he was supposed to be out last week but he surprised coaches by checking himself into the game. Hopkins looked good enough for the Cardinals staff to allow him to play a few more snaps.
Green, meanwhile, went on the COVID list on Wednesday and his status for the game has yet to be determined. Green’s placement on the list is a continuance of a team-wide COVID issue. SiriusXM’s Howard Balzer pointed out that in the 104 days since Cardinals training camp for rookies opened on July 23, there have been only 23 days when there was no player on the list.
Conversely, the 49ers have yet to have a player go on the COVID list since three players were on it at the start of training camp three months ago.
While the Cardinals’ health has clouded their preparations for this week’s NFC West battle, the outlook is much brighter for the 49ers, who will be armed with reinforcements when they try to even their record at 4-4.
Tight end George Kittle, defensive end Dee Ford and running back Jeff Wilson Jr. all returned to practice Wednesday. The 49ers will also have kicker Robbie Gould back, and defensive end Charles Omenihu, a trade deadline acquisition from Houston, will make his debut.