The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers appeared to be a couple of teams on the rise after strong finishes last season, and earned a prime-time TV matchup this year.
While the Cardinals lead the NFC West, the 49ers haven’t lived up to expectations and interim coach Mike Singletary hasn’t been afraid to say so.
Entering the second half of the season with a chance to win their first division title in 33 years, the Cardinals host a Monday night game against the 49ers and their outspoken new coach.
Arizona (5-3) won its last two games last season to finish 8-8 under first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt, while San Francisco (2-6) went 3-3 down the stretch en route to a 5-11 record. Both teams showed progress, and were expected to improve in 2008.
The Cardinals have stepped up to the challenge, boasting their best record at the halfway mark since going 5-3 in 1984. They have a three-game lead in the NFC West, giving them a good chance to earn their first division title since the St. Louis Cardinals won the NFC East in 1975.
“We’re excited about where we are as a team,” Whisenhunt said. “We realize that we have a chance. But we also understand that last year at this time there were teams that were 6-2 that didn’t even sniff the playoffs. I think taking that approach is going to keep us grounded. … We’ve got only half the season behind us.”
San Francisco, meanwhile, is struggling again, firing Mike Nolan seven games into his fourth season. He’s been replaced by Singletary on an interim basis.
Singletary has quickly put his stamp on the team, benching turnover-prone quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan in the second quarter of a 34-13 loss to Seattle on Oct. 26 and sending volatile tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room with more than 10 minutes remaining.
He then drew attention with a frank postgame press conference.
“I’d rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team,” Singletary said. “It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can’t do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win.”
Singletary will start Shaun Hill at quarterback Monday, while Davis’ status is uncertain.
The 49ers face a tall task against the high-scoring Cardinals, who lead the NFL with 29.3 points per game – 34.0 at home. Arizona has won five straight at home and is 9-2 there since Whisenhunt took over.
Though Arizona has been highly successful offensively overall, it has had difficulty getting its ground game on track. Whisenhunt benched Edgerrin James in the Cardinals’ 34-13 win over St. Louis last Sunday, replacing him with hard-running rookie Tim Hightower.
A fifth-round draft pick in 2008, Hightower rushed for 109 yards in 22 carries, including a 30-yard touchdown run. He’s the first Cardinals rookie to rush for 100 yards in a game since Ronald Moore gained 135 against the New York Giants in 1993.
Kurt Warner had another strong game for Arizona, completing 23 of 34 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Warner has been held under 200 yards passing only twice, one being a 197-yard effort in a 23-13 win over San Francisco on Sept. 7 in the season opener.
O’Sullivan threw one interception and lost two fumbles in that game, and Singletary is hoping Hill can reduce the amount of mistakes on offense.
“I feel like I’m a lot further along than I was in training camp,” Hill said. “Being able to sit back and watch J.T. in the offense helped as well, to kind of see some of those things in action that coach (Mike) Martz was talking about in training camp. These (last) eight weeks, I’ve continued to learn the offense, and I feel far more advanced in it now than I was back in August.”
Hill played the second half of San Francisco’s 34-13 loss to Seattle last weekend, completing 15 of 23 passes for 173 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He may not get to throw to Davis this week, though.
Singletary’s confrontation with Davis started after the former first-round pick drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for slapping the head of a Seahawks defender. Singletary sent him to the bench, and later told him to go to the locker room.
San Francisco signed tight end Sean Ryan on Monday, perhaps signaling that Singletary may want to go in a different direction at the position.