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Cardinals Close To Feeling Grand In Tough Loss To Seahawks

James Conner reaches 1,000 yards rushing in 21-20 defeat

Cardinals running back James Conner finishes off a 26-yard run by straight-arming Seahawks safety Julian Love on the play in which he reached 1,000 yards rushing on the season Sunday.
Cardinals running back James Conner finishes off a 26-yard run by straight-arming Seahawks safety Julian Love on the play in which he reached 1,000 yards rushing on the season Sunday.

As the Cardinals closed out the 2023 season Sunday at State Farm Stadium – it ended up a loss, yes, a heartbreaking 21-20 decision to the Seahawks – they still celebrated the game and the season of James Conner, who broke 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career.

The milestone wasn't just about the statistics, a career-best 150 yards for Conner, all of them necessary as the Cardinals were in position to win on the game's final play, until Matt Prater's 51-yard field goal drifted wide right.

It was what they symbolized, from the player that coach Jonathan Gannon had called the "blueprint" of what a pro should be, and the belief in what the Cardinals – who finished 4-13 this season but a vastly different 4-13 than the 2022 team with the same record – can be.

"You have hope," said Conner, who finished with 1,040 yards in 13 games. "You have faith."

The loss stung. There was no getting around that. Prater pushed right a 43-yard field goal with three minutes left and the Cardinals leading, 20-13, and had that been good, the last Tyler Lockett TD-catch-two-point-catch combo for the Seahawks (9-8) wouldn't have mattered.

Quarterback Kyler Murray, with a season-best 262 yards passing, led the Cardinals into field goal range again, but Prater couldn't connect.

"I should've made both of them," Prater said. "It was 100 percent on me.

"I understand it's a team game but at the end of the day I have a job to do and my job is to make field goals. When I have two opportunities at the end of the game I have to come through for the team."

Gannon and Prater's teammates were quick to say there were many other reasons that went into the loss. Besides, other than feels, the result ultimately didn't matter – it didn't change the optimism of what the Cardinals are becoming.

"Good things are on the horizon," Gannon said. "I told them I've never been more enthused going into an offseason in my life. They are ready to come with me."

The loss did cement the No. 4 overall draft pick, which would have been No. 5 had Prater been true. That figures to feel good in April. Sunday, not so much.

Yet there was a defense, starting a line of three guys none of whom were with the team when the season began, making the Seahawks struggle much of the game. Murray looked good again and found a groove with Michael Wilson. The Cardinals rushed for more than 200 yards for the third time in four games.

Conner, though, is the prism through which the Cardinals' season – and what Gannon is trying to accomplish – can be viewed.

"You know how I feel about the guy," Gannon said. "He and (Murray) put the team on their back."

Conner was one of the first players make it known he was all-in on Gannon's vision. "He's our coach," Conner said. "You see the good in the situation."

But the Cardinals were surprising early in the season, even with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback, when Conner played. When he got hurt, the season went sideways. When he returned from IR after four games away – the same game Murray made his triumphant return – the Cardinals progressed to a team that was dangerous to play.

The Cardinals have done "a complete 180" from last year, Murray said.

"This is one of my favorite teams to be a part of," Murray said.

The roster needs upgrades, and players need to get healthy, but a win in Philadelphia and near-win in the finale meant something when it might not have.

"When things start to go rough fingers (usually) start to get pointed and it turns into a 'me' fest … but no one ever gave up, no one ever quit," linebacker Zaven Collins said. "You still have guys giving their all."

That's how Conner – who had 55 yards at halftime – cruised past 1,000, a mark center Hjalte Froholdt said he was "ecstatic" Conner could reach.  

"It's tough right now with the loss so fresh, but I am happy with the direction we are headed," Froholdt added. "It's good to go into the offseason with this kind of momentum, especially for the offense. We still have our fair share of things we need to improve upon."

They'll do it with Conner in the backfield, "one of the best players I've ever played with," Murray said.

Conner, who also had four catches for 54 yards, said he fits what Gannon seeks because the two are similar in their outlook on the game.

And if Conner is the guy who is held as the Cardinals' standard, the team does have a foundational piece as they enter a crucial offseason.

"It's something that comes with it, when you handle your business day in and day out," Conner said. "In my seventh year, accepting every challenge that comes with it, be a leader. You do this thing long enough, that role just comes to you."