Kevin Kolb? John Skelton? ....Ryan Lindley? The quarterback controversy in Arizona has focused the attention of the national media, good or bad, upon the Arizona Cardinals. Neither Skelton nor Kolb did particularly well. But, in spite of that, there's plenty of reason to think that Arizona might have a good season in 2012 and, as is usually the case with this franchise, surprise people who counted them out.
Let's begin with the obvious question: who will win the quarterback job this year? My money is on John Skelton. Statistically, he doesn't separate himself from Kolb. He makes a lot of bonehead decisions. He tends to struggle in the first quarter of games. Even so, despite all this, there's one area of play that the 24-year-old from Fordham separates himself: the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter of 2011, John Skelton had a 89.3 quarterback rating. He threw six touchdowns, three interceptions and fourteen passes for over twenty yards in the last quarter of the game. Skelton's mentality is such that he doesn't feel pressure at all. He doesn't let his mistakes get to him. He's the sort of quarterback who can begin the game by throwing two picks and then throw three touchdowns. As such, if the Cardinals defense plays as well as it showed it can by keeping the games close, there's plenty of reason to think that Skelton in the fourth quarter will lead the Cardinals to a lot of wins.
Kevin Kolb, on the other hand, was consistently inconsistent. He did his best work in the third quarter where he posted an 85.2 rating. However, his completion percentage plummets to 50.7% in the fourth quarter for the 2011 season. It's not entirely his fault: 143 of his passes were thrown when the team was behind (as opposed to 110 passes when the team is not behind), suggesting that the defense did not keep the team in games. Or, perhaps more concerning, that the offensive did not score as often as it could have.
Kevin Kolb's preseason was marred by poor play by the offensive line which forced him to scramble, something he isn't good at. Skelton has far more mobility. One point in Kolb's favor: he had a 98.2 quarterback rating in the red zone last year. However, even here Skelton beats out Kolb. Kolb threw three touchdowns in 19 red zone attempts while Skelton threw eight touchdowns in 28 red zone attempts. Both quarterbacks can be inaccurate, but when it comes time to punch it into the end zone, Skelton proved in 2011 that he is a bit more effective.
Ryan Lindley and Richard Bartel both remind me of Chad Pennington: fairly accurate, nothing flashy, just getting the job done. Of the two, the team appears more committed to Lindley, who was a surprise draft pick this year when the Cardinals already had depth at the quarterback position. Perhaps Bartel, at 29 years old, is on his way out.
The running game should prove a highlight of the 2012 season for the Cardinals. Ryan Williams, Beanie Wells and LaRod Stevens Howling have solidified their roster spots. All three provide a versatile mix of styles similar to the New Orleans Saints backfield of Christopher Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Alfonso Smith, Javarris James and William Powell competed for the fourth RB spot on the team. Of the four, William Powell impressed the most in the preseason. This year, unlike last year, there's a lot of depth in the running back position to keep things fresh when the inevitable injury bug hits these talented players.
The offensive line is a bit of a mess. Deuce Lutui spent the preseason with the Seattle Seahawks before being cut. If necessary, the Cardinals can bring him back to help out if the starters should get injured. Lutui understands Whisenhunt's system and has played with the Cardinals before, so he will probably be the best free agent option provided that he remains a free agent.
After sub-par performances from the offensive line, Ken Whisenhunt has some new people to work with. D'Anthony Batiste is scheduled to start at left tackle despite being a backup journeyman for most of his career. Behind him are rookies DJ Young and Nate Potter. At left guard, Daryn Colledge was fortunate enough to start all sixteen games last year. Behind him is rookie Senio Kelemente. At center, Lyle Sendlein returns for his sixth season of NFL Football. He has started every game at center for the last four years. Behind him is veteran Russ Hochstein, who started 15 games for the Denver Broncos in 2011. Rookie Bobby Massie is thrust into the spotlight at right tackle with veteran Jeremy Bridges behind him. At right guard is Adam Snyder, who started thirteen games for the 49ers in 2011. Rich Ohrnberger is listed as his backup. Ohrnberger did not play in 2011.
At wide receiver, things are heating up just a bit. Larry Fitzgerald is the all-pro receiver who will likely reel in another 1000-yard season no matter which quarterback is throwing to him. Early Doucet and Andre Roberts both have the physical tools to be good receivers, but their inconsistency last year forced the Cardinals to draft Michael Floyd. Ken Whisenhunt's style of offense calls for two number one receivers at each end of the field with a timeshare at running back. When this offense was in place in 2008 with Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James on the team, the Cardinals kept upsetting teams on their way to the Super Bowl. This is the direction the team is moving in once again.
DeMarco Sampson, Steven Williams and Isaiah Williams are all young players with a lot of upside. At present, though, they need to show that they belong on the team by outperforming the players who are already starting. In the NFL, no one is looking for a number four receiver- everyone is looking for a number one.
At tight end, Todd Heap is the best option when healthy. The injury bug has been a problem for him in recent years. Rob Housler shows a lot of potential, but doesn't seem to be able to put it all together just yet. 2012 is a make or break season for him. If he puts up 12 receptions- for the year- once again, not too many teams are going to pencil him in at the number one tight end spot. Jeff King remains the most reliable tight end on the team, and as such has earned the starting job on the roster. King led Cardinals tight ends in receptions last year, including a 48-yard touchdown that happened when the Panthers forgot to cover him. Jim Dray and Steve Skelton round out the tight end group, but neither of them have outplayed their competition.
The fullback is set with Anthony Sherman. Lately, Sherman has displayed some receiving ability in addition to his fantastic blocking ability. This guy could be bound for the pro bowl. He needs to see more playing time on the field. Good things happen when he's in there.
At defensive end, Calais Campbell returns from a fantastic 2011 campaign. Veteran Vonnie Holliday will compete with second year man Ronald Talley for the other defensive end spot. Holliday, at 36, is no longer the sack machine he was in his days with the Green Bay Packers, but there's no discounting his veteran presence.
Darnell Dockett, who remains one of the league's best defensive tackles, returns to that position with Dan Williams next to him. Williams played the first ten games last year before bowing out with an injury. Second year man David Carter looks to push Williams out. Also on the radar is former Pittsburgh Steeler Nick Eason whose biggest moment of glory came against the San Francisco 49ers when he sacked quarterback Alex Smith.
At outside linebacker, Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield are expected to start. Veteran Clark Haggans, who started 16 games last year, is slated to be a backup to Schofield. Acho's spot on the roster is secure with Brandon Williams and Antonio Coleman both playing minimal roles in 2011 for their respective teams.
Things a little murky at inside linebacker. Stewart Bradley has played exceptionally well in the preseason, recalling his 108 total tackles season in 2008 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Veteran Paris Lenon showed no signs of slowing down last year, though he will be hard pressed to stay on the field if Bradley continues his outstanding play. Daryl Washington is the league's best kept secret on defense. It won't be long before people are talking about him as one of the league's elite players. Fourth-year player Reggie Walker rounds out this group, having played in sixteen games last year.
At cornerback, William Gay looks to fill Richard Marshall's shoes. Greg Toler and AJ Jefferson are right behind him, giving this group a lot of depth if they go into the nickel or dime package, something that will likely be called upon often as teams continue to test a historically vulnerable Arizona secondary. Patrick Peterson is, of course, Patrick Peterson. The team is likely to keep him in there due to his open-field running ability. If he gets an interception, there's a good chance he'll get some yards out of it. Behind him is Michael Adams, a player who is better than his statistics would seem to suggest. Rookie Jamell Fleming stands out among the other backups at cornerback as being the one guy to keep an eye on. With eight tackles in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, Fleming showed enough talent to stay on the team. Whether he will find his way onto the field during the regular season is another question.
Veterans Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson take on the safety duties this season. Both players are all-pro caliber athletes who make a positive impact on defense. Veteran James Sanders, who played 15 games with the Atlanta Falcons and Rashad Johnson, entering his fourth season with Arizona, round out this group.
Jay Feely returns to the team after struggling in the first half of last season. The Cardinals lost at least one game because of a kick Feely missed. On the positive side, he was able to turn things around in the second half, connecting on twelve straight field goal attempts. He hit a 49-yard attempt in the preseason against the Tennessee Titans, proving he still has the leg strength to make some of the longer kicks. Feely has not missed a field goal from between 20 to 29 yards since 2005.
Punter Dave Zastudil returns to Arizona for another season after kicking away the ball a whopping 87 times for a career high 3,929 yards in 2011. Field position is important for teams that like to play good defense. The opposing offense has to work harder, their guys get hit more often and there's more opportunities for turnovers. Zastudil will consistently provide a long field for the opposing team to work against.
At kick returner, LaRod Stevens Howling and AJ Jefferson are expected to field what few kickoffs do not bounce out of the back of the end zone. Howling should see more opportunities to create matchup problems in open space like this ball he caught in the flat and ran in for a touchdown against the Cowboys. Patrick Peterson is the best punt returner Arizona has seen...ever? I certainly can't remember another play with his level of talent returning punts.
Overall...what's all the fuss about anyway? The biggest issue for the Cardinals is the offensive line, and if that part of the game improves, Kolb or Skelton can start. The team can be a run-first/play defense type of team (if offensive coordinator Mike Miller decides that throwing 40 passes a game is too many). The depth at running back should at least suggest more running plays this year than the previous year. On defense, the Cardinals need to generate turnovers. The team excelled in blocked kicks but did not win the turnover battle. This is one area of concern that the Cardinals have not done well in the past two years. The Cardinals need to avoid fumbles and interceptions while at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities that will likely be there from Alex Smith (is he really as good as he played last year?), Sam Bradford (who underachieved with the Rams in 2011) and, well...whoever is quarterbacking for the Seattle Seahawks. It looks like Russell Wilson, but since there's no way to know just how well or poorly a rookie quarterback will perform, Matt Flynn may see playing time in 2012. I don't believe Pete Carroll's job is in any danger, but he does need to find a franchise quarterback as soon as possible.
My prediction: 10-6. A bit on the optimistic side? Okay, so it is. Upsets galore this season, fourth-quarter comebacks, special teams touchdowns, good defensive play. My biggest concern is the New England Patriots game early in the season. Arizona is a team that thrives on emotion and momentum. If somehow they can pull the upset against the Patriots, expect the team to be riding high all the way to the playoffs.