As I was browsing around the internet today, I discovered a rather startling statistic: Arizona's quarterbacks were sacked an alarming 54 times this in the 2011-2012 season. Though this statistic doesn't tell the full story of a quarterback's endurance through being tackled, I'm using it here to illustrate how Arizona shouldn't expect their quarterbacks to stay healthy throughout an entire season unless something is done to change the way the offensive line plays.
Let's begin with the offensive line coach, Russ Grimm. He played for eleven years an offensive lineman in the NFL and in 2012 will have fifteen years of experience coaching offensive linemen, dating back to the 1997 season with the Washington Redskins, the team for which he played his entire NFL career. He has four super bowl rings- three as a player, one as a coach. The Steelers in 2005 won the Super Bowl in which they called 379 passes split between five people (three quarterbacks, a punter and a wide receiver). 31 sacks were recorded in that year, which means that Steelers quarterbacks were sacked about 7.5% of the time. This statistic is generated by adding the total sacks to the number of passing attempts and dividing the sacks by total passing plays (sacks+attempts). In Arizona's 2011 season, this statistic rose to 8.9%.
I only mention these statistics to give you a general idea that there is more to it than the coach himself instructing his players how best to pass protect- there is also the Steelers running the ball a lot behind a rookie quarterback, Arizona calling 40 or more passing plays in a game, as well as Pittsburgh sending two offensive linemen to the 2006 Pro Bowl- Alan Faneca and Jeff Hartings. Even in 2008, the year in which the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl and sent three starters on the Pro Bowl team's offense for the NFC, no one from the offensive line went there. The 2008 draft was the last time that a player selected ended up starting a game at offensive line for Arizona- his name is Brandon Keith. Some of the draft picks Arizona made have turned out to be starters, some have not. However, the theme throughout has been a lack of selecting offensive line players. With most teams unwilling to part with their version of Joe Thomas, the free agent market hasn't proved conducive to improving the line greatly in terms of pass protection. Thus, when an offensive line performs badly, more factors than the coaching performance have to be examined. The truth is we don't really know how good or bad of a coach Russ Grimm is with Arizona because he hasn't had a lot of young talent to work with whom he can shape into future hall of famers.
So what effect does all this have on Arizona's quarterback play? With Kurt Warner, the sacks didn't pile up because he released the ball quickly. Warner was essentially an open target in the backfield, capable of being hit at any time. When Warner retired, the team didn't have a plan for the next quarterback to play. 2010 was a year filled with mediocre play from the quarterback position, but it was also filled with sacks- and injuries. The team's chosen starter, Derek Anderson, suffered a concussion in week 14. This was the same game where Max Hall's season was ended with a separated shoulder. In previous years, the Cardinals didn't fare much better: Kurt Warner suffered an injury to his arm in the 2007 which required quarterback Tim Rattay to take the snaps in the goal line formations so Warner's injury wouldn't be aggravated. Matt Leinart suffered two njuries while with the Arizona: a sprained shoulder and a fractured left collarbone. In 2011, Kevin Kolb suffered a variety of injuries to his foot/ankle area, turf toe being the most reported injury. In week 14- perhaps an unlucky week for Arizona- he suffered what proved to be a season-ending concussion against the 49ers. Needless to say, the phrase "protecting the quarterback" not only means protecting the quarterback from sacks, but from potential season-ending injuries as well.
With that in mind, I'd like to look at how some other teams performed in 2011 protecting their signal-caller. I am specifically looking at non-mobile quarterbacks in a system that prefers to call a lot of passing plays. These teams are the Lions, Saints, Patriots and Giants. All these teams made the playoffs in 2011, and all these teams saw their quarterback take the majority of the in-game snaps during the season. Some of the starting quarterbacks may have been injured at various times for these teams, but they didn't experience anything like the chaos that has been Arizona's quarterback situation during Ken Whisenhunt's tenure as head coach.
Here are some basic stats:
Eli Manning: 28 sacks, 589 attempts, 4.5% sack rate.
Drew Brees: 24 sacks, 657 attempts, 3.7% sack rate.
Tom Brady: 32 sacks, 611 attempts, 5.0% sack rate.
Matthew Stafford: 36 sacks, 663 attempts, 5.2% sack rate.
All of these quarterbacks have several things in common, other than not being known for their rushing ability: the offenses they worked in used a timeshare system at the running back position and did not attempt to show defenses anything other than what they'd always shown- that is, a willingness to pass whenever it pleased them. While Arizona's 550 passes (as a team) isn't record-breaking, it still shows an unbalanced offensive plan that favors the pass. Part of this plan had to do with Beanie Wells struggling through a knee injury through the 2011 season and part of it had to do with Mike Miller's unwillingness to commit to the run, often giving up on it early if it didn't produce immediate results. Viewed in this light, Arizona as a team appeared entirely unprepared to throw their quarterback into harm's way.
Although I personally prefer the run, I'm not advocating the offensive gameplan to move in one direction or the other. It is simply very clear that if Arizona wants to have another playoff run, they need to either find a quarterback who can get rid of the ball in a three-step drop with high accuracy, or they need to shore up what has often been a porous offensive line. If neither of these things happen, Arizona quarterbacks will continue being hit and injured, during which the team will turn to unlikely heroes such as Richard Bartel. Perhaps the team might find its own version of Tom Brady this way, but I personally believe the team is more likely to find its own version of T.J. Yates, a situation which does nothing to add towards future positional stability.