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.