Despite multiple Covid issues, undefeated Arizona rolls to 37-14 win Darren Urban
CLEVELAND - Owner Michael Bidwill dialed up the FaceTime call for the whole team to see, and Markus Golden just remembered seeing Kliff Kingsbury's "real big smile."
The head coach wasn't at FirstEnergy Stadium Sunday, stuck at home in Arizona after testing positive for Covid Friday. So after his Cardinals throttled the Browns, 37-14, his team made sure to bring him into the locker room - virtual as it was.
"It was a tough week," said defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who co-coached with assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers. "Kliff's entire life, his entire lifestyle, is this team."
His team is still undefeated, now 6-0 after a game in which they not only didn't have their head coach and playcaller, but were also missing their quarterbacks coach and three key defensive players, all because of Covid. They already were without their starting center because of injuries.
"I said after Friday's practice, when we had the test, I said something to the quarterbacks and Cam (Turner), 'It's going to suck if somebody gets it,' " quarterback Kyler Murray said. "(And) Kliff and Cam got it.
"Once we got the news, it was more opportunity. It was kind of exciting, to go prove ourselves on the road against a great team. I think you could feel the energy before the game."
The Browns knew it was possible. They just won a playoff game last year against the Steelers when their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, had to miss out because of Covid.
The outcome didn't look much different than that of the Cards' previous five wins. Murray threw four touchdown passes. The defense sacked Baker Mayfield five times and created three turnovers. The Cardinals surpassed 30 points for the fifth time in six games.
If it wasn't for a Hail Mary touchdown for the Browns (3-3) at the end of the first half, the game wouldn't have been close.
"Every day was bad news (last week)," Joseph said. "And no one blinked."
Linebacker Chandler Jones went on the Covid list last Tuesday, but fellow linebackers Jordan Hicks and Golden each had two sacks. Defensive lineman Zach Allen went on the Covid list Friday and fellow defensive lineman Corey Peters went on Sunday morning - and J.J. Watt had another excellent game with his first sack, and veteran Jordan Phillips finally got back in the lineup.
"You think about those guys (missing)," Golden said, "But this is the NFL. This is football."
Perhaps then those questions about the offense, with Kingsbury and Turner both absent, never materialized.
Assistant wide receivers coach Spencer Whipple called the plays while consulting with run game coordinator/offensive line coach Sean Kugler, and the Cardinals drove for touchdown on each of their first two possessions.
"When you look to the sideline and didn't see Kliff, it was definitely odd," said wide receiver Christian Kirk, who had one of the touchdown catches. "But the game plan is the game plan."
Joseph called the offensive operation seamless.
"(Whipple) was calm, cool, the whole game. Didn't panic," Murray said. "We made him right."
The Cardinals scored on all five first-half possessions - the other ones ended with field goals - and got in control again late, including turning a fourth-down defensive stop inside their own 10 to a 93-yard, clock-eating touchdown drive that ended with a TD pass to A.J. Green.
The Browns were without running back Nick Chubb and both their starting offensive tackles. Fellow running back Kareem Hunt also left the game in the second half when he got hurt, but by then, the outcome was all but certain.
The Browns did get a brief spark when Mayfield launched a 57-yard Hail Mary on the final play of the first half, and the Cardinals -- who didn't have enough defenders in the end zone -- couldn't stop Donovan Peoples-Jones from making the catch and cutting the lead to nine points at the half. But they never got any closer.
Joseph took the blame - "I have to coach that better," he said, adding that he didn't think Mayfield could reach the end zone that far out and was disappointed the pass rush let Mayfield "pop the pocket" - but Hicks said the Cardinals did a good job after they went to the locker room.
"It's one play," Hicks said. "You move on."
They moved on to a 6-0 start, with two home games upcoming.
"There were a lot of variables coming into this week and it could've given us excuses," Kirk said. "But we banded together.
"We showed the resiliency of this team."