How is the Cardinals quarterback conundrum going to shake out?
Coming into the 2011 regular season, the Cardinals felt confident. For the first time since the retirement of their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Kurt Warner, the team had some much needed security at this key position. In what was widely acknowledged at the time as one of the blockbuster trades of the season, the Cardinals finally snagged the man tipped to be their franchise QB, Kevin Kolb.
Though Kolb had not started many games, he had impressed in Philadelphia as a backup, was well liked by his peers and coaches, and appeared to fit the Cardinals mould well. They were convinced he was their guy for the foreseeable future, and wagered $68 million on that fact.
Less than four games into the regular season, however, that clarity, that certainty began to crumble.
Kolb began to falter, and fans and pundits alike began to wonder out loud if he was really the guy after all. A turf toe injury finally gave fan favorite John Skelton his chance to shine. And though most of Skelton's stats were in fact less impressive than Kolb's, one number—his win percentage—ensured that the Arizona desert would play host to its own Tebow-esque QB controversy in 2012.
Kolb, in no small part due to his multi-million dollar contract, got the nod for the start of the Hall of Fame game, but unlike his opposite number, Drew Brees—who quickly set out to prove that he was worth every penny of his own huge contract—Kolb struggled to make any real of case for his continued employment.
The biggest questions marks surrounding Kolb relate to his decision making, arm strength, and durability, and two of these failings were on full display during his first passing attempt.
Kolb first misread the coverage, and then under threw his pass, resulting in the games first turnover, a simple pick for Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Fans wouldn't have to wait long to find out whether Kolb's durability was also still an issue. After some misplaced passes on his second drive, Kolb took the field for his third and final bite at the cherry.
Starting near his own end zone, Kolb was quickly flushed out of the pocket. Scrambling to avoid giving up a safety, he managed to complete his first and only pass, a four yard check down to full back Anthony Sherman.
The pass itself was quite impressive, but came at a devastating price. Following the completion, Kolb was driven to the turf, and did not get back up, hunched over in obvious pain. Replays showed no clear signs of what the injury was. There were hints of a possible arm, wrist or ankle sprain, but the tackle looked to be a relatively inconsequential. The injury was later revealed to be a bruised rib.
Though he returned to the field in the second half, he would not return to the game, and in a sight all too familiar to Cardinals fans, paced the sideline in warm up gear after his return, not his game day uniform.
John Skelton came into the game, and looked lost on his first drive, undoubtedly due to being thrown into the game earlier than expected, but on his second possession managed to orchestrate a solid 90 yard scoring drive, to set up the Cardinals only touchdown of the game.
On subsequent drives Skelton then gave way to the Cardinals third stringers, ending his game with four completions for 32 yards on six attempts, including a 10 yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald, his only catch of the game.
Many would suggest that this may spell game-over for Kolb, and that job is now Skelton's to lose, though this is probably still a little hasty.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves are likely to find themselves in the hot seat if the Cardinals once again fail to find success in 2012. After pinning so much, both financially and emotionally, on Kevin Kolb's success, they undoubtedly still have a vested interest in giving him further chances to prove himself.
Kolb was certainly shaky during his brief time in the game, but it's important to remember he faced a fired up first-team Saint's defence with a lot to prove in the wake of the bounty-gate scandal, and its subsequent fallout.
The same cannot be said of the Cardinals offense, which was missing several key players, including running backs Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells, both of whom are expected to take a lot of pressure of the quarterback in 2012, regardless of who gets the nod.
The Cardinals O-Line too struggled to find a groove during early series of the game, only finally settling into a rhythm when Skelton took the field.
And though his interception was in many ways inexcusable, the Saints defense has a very different feel under Steve Spagunolo, compared to the film available from the Gregg Williams era, and preparing to beat their new zone coverage scenes would undoubtedly have been tougher than usual in the absence of any clues about their scheme.
Similarly although another injury must be a very real concern for the Cardinals, the organization seem confident that he will not be unduly set back by it, and expect him to return to training later this week.
The truth is, pulling Kolb was likely a precautionary measure, in a game which had no real consequences. We will never know how serious the injury was, or if he would have played through the pain had the game had any meaning, but in watching Kolb on the sidelines, my feeling is that it wouldn't have limited him for more than a series or two in a real game.
Kolb, therefore, will get another chance. Perhaps Skelton will get the nod as starter in the next game, maybe Kolb, certainly, both men will continue to spit first team reps as training continues and will see equal playing time during games, regardless of who is officially named starter. As much as the Cardinals would love to have this sewn up with one or two preseason games to go, I for one, just can't see it happening.
I still feel that Kolb has the inside track, by virtue of the fact that the coaches and management have much more to lose if Kolb flops. Barring a major injury setback, Kolb's salary means taht the job remains his to lose.
However, don't assume that this means that the job is his regardless. Lose it, he most certainly can, either if his bruised ribs limit him more than expected, or if he fails to put together any significant scoring drives during the Cardinals remaining preseason games.
What's more, even if he does win the starting job for Week One—as I expect he will—Kolb will be on a very short leash. If he fails to repay the trust of the management with winning, or at least competitive, performances over the opening games of the season, Kolb is likely to be out of a job, whether at the hands of the the coaches themselves, or via the court of public opinion.
And let's not forget, this isn't even the only QB battle in Arizona right now. Backups Ryan Lindley and Richard Bartel took part in perhaps the more interesting to watch quarterback showdown in Canton, with both players fighting for the coveted third string job in Arizona.
Now, it's not often that a third string QB position is considered coveted, but both men are acutely aware that, with only an injury prone Kolb, and John Skelton, who has struggled with accuracy and consistancy ahead of them, they are just a few missteps away from a starting job in the NFL.
In 2010, Max Hall leapfrogged Skelton to win backup duties when Derek Anderson went down to injury. In 2011, Bartel got his first real taste of NFL glory, stepping in for a struggling John Skelton to lead the Cardinals on an admittedly futile late game drive, where he threw his first, and so far only career NFL touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers.
These men have to feel that if recent history is anything to go by, the Arizona third string QB job is a position real potential to see playing time.
Though neither men managed to lead the Cardinals to a touchdown against the Saints, both players showed flashes of brilliance. Richard Bartel completed three long passes for 61 yards, including two connections with Robert Housler, arguably the Cardinals offensive MVP, and a perfectly placed 15 yard pass to Michael Floyd for his first NFL reception.
Lindley closed out the game, completing 10 passes for 118 yards and an INT. His rapport with LaRon Bryd at times had echoes of that between Warner and Fitzgerald at their best, and one has to wonder what he would be able to develop with first team starters like Fitzgerald, Floyd, Early Doucet or Andre Roberts if given time.
I'm not sure who wins out in this circumstance, though I don't expect the Cardinals to carry four QBs into the regular season, unless Kolb's injury causes him to miss any more games. I suspect that the more experienced Bartel will probably remain on the roster, with the younger Lindley relegated to the practice squad, but on the evidence of his first NFL outing, with the right training and a little bit of luck, Lindley could turn out to be a legitimate NFL starter down the line, and dont rule out his winning the number three job yet. The Cardinals are really hot on this guy.
My suggestion then, is not to rule out Kolb yet. I am certain we will see more of Kolb in the remaining sessions, and I consider him the favorite to win the starters job by Week One. Whether he can hold onto it past week four remains to be seen, but, however much I may like John Skelton, and the way he plays football, my gut tells me that once again, his success will only come on the heels of someone else's failure.
And that's a shame, because I honestly believe if given the starters job, given the lions share of the first team reps and given a play book designed for him, John Skelton could have already developed into a dependable, if not elite, NFL quarterback. And with the offensive talent which surrounds him, dependable is all they would need.
And with that in mind, join me in part two when we will take a look at the Cardinals Running Backs.