Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt walks the sidelines during Monday night's 24-3 loss to San Francisco.
The meeting Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers was "a big test" for the Cardinals, Ken Whisenhunt said after it was over.
"And everyone saw how it went," the head coach added, and his disappointment was palpable even before he started using the word. The Cardinals had lost, 24-3, and it wasn't just a chance to reclaim the NFC West lead but also a little of the momentum they had during a 4-0 start.
Those days seem further away than just a month.
"I'm embarrassed," linebacker O'Brien Schofield said. "This was on national TV, this was our division rival. You just can't come out like that. I don't know what it is.
"Everyone in here has to take heed. We started 4-0. There is no reason we should be where we are at right now."
The 49ers (6-2) didn't do anything spectacular, unless you want to count what turned out to be a record-setting day by quarterback Alex Smith. Smith completed 18 of 19 passes, a 94.7 completion rate that is tops in NFL history for anyone attempting at least 15 passes in a game. The one incompletion wasn't even his fault, an obvious drop by tight end Delanie Walker.
For a team that runs the ball more often than not, that success was a surprise.
"Yes. Yes," Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Everyone is surprised. My 5-year old son is surprised."
That was the backbone of the night. San Francisco only had 317 total yards and averaged just 3.9 yards a rush. But they built a 17-0 halftime lead because the Cardinals missed or whiffed too many tackles, problems that led directly to a 9-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Michael Crabtree and later to the topper of the evening, a 47-yard catch-and-run TD in the second half by Randy Moss.
"We didn't tackle very well and everybody has to be held accountable for those things," Whisenhunt said.
In a game that was supposed to be a defensive battle, it was a crucial problem that couldn't be overcome. The Cardinals (4-4) tried to run the ball early and it went nowhere. They finished with only seven rushing yards on nine attempts, unable to get any running lanes against the top-ranked defense in the NFL.
That left quarterback John Skelton to throw 52 passes, and while he completed 32 for 290 yards, the Cards couldn't generate many sustained drives. In the first half, the Cards had four first downs, and two came on a last-ditch drive that ended with a Hail Mary interception on the second quarter's final fling. It was the only turnover of the night and meaningless at that, but it didn't matter.
At that point, 17-0 felt more like 37-0.
"It's frustrating because the way their offense is and the way their defense is, we are not going to get very many opportunities," Skelton said. "We didn't take advantage of the ones we did (get)."
It was fitting the Cardinals' final possession ended just short of the goal line, with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald catching a pass on fourth-and-goal at the 3-yard line and fighting hard to get to the chalk – only to have the 49ers stop him short. The night was just not going to include a Cardinals' touchdown.
"I'm pretty dejected," said Fitzgerald, who had five catches for 52 yards. "That's not how we wanted to perform."
The Cardinals have scored just 36 points the last four games, but Fitzgerald said a couple of times it was up to the players in the locker room that have to make the difference. "We know the guys in here are the ones who are going to be here for the long haul," he said. "We are committed to improving."
The game had started so promising, with a 24-yard screen pass to running back LaRod Stephens-Howling.
"To only put up three points, that's embarrassing, as an offense and as a team," Skelton said. "We only put up three points and lost by 21. It's frustrating and it's humiliating, to be honest."
The Cardinals still have half a season to go. A .500 record is much better than where the Cards sat at this point last year, but crushing after the way this season began. Next is a trip to Green Bay, a bye, and then a trip to still-undefeated Atlanta. The schedule only gets more difficult.
"We've lost four in a row," Dockett said. "We're digging ourselves a hole. That's what happens when you have some early success. Teams get more motivated to play against you. You've got to be able to respond.
"You've got to be a professional. You can't point the finger. You have do the job to the best of your ability. Everybody gets paid to do a job. When those guys aren't performing well, it's up to those guys to uplift them and help them, and after that it's accountable to the coaches to figure things out and go with different people."
Dockett said he considers the Cardinals back to having a 0-0 record. That is both a blessing and a curse.
The Cards need to make it about a fresh start.
"I'm really disappointed," Stephens-Howling said, echoing the night's frequent refrain. "We have to fix a lot of things in here."