By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) When your preseason quarterback competition is won by the quarterback who was simply less bad, your season is off to an ominous start. When you’re starting a sixth-round rookie quarterback, your season has officially bottomed out. Welcome to the 2012 Arizona Cardinals.
Similar to the Bears, though not as acute, the Cardinals have a lingering hangover from their Super Bowl loss that they just can’t shake. Their slide directly correlates with Kurt Warner’s retirement. Once Warner hung up his cleats, names like Derek Anderson, Max Hall, and Richard Bartel took their turns lining up under center and underwhelming faithful Cardinals fans.
Finally, the Cardinals had enough of the quarterback clown car and made their bold move. Just 17 months ago, the Cardinals traded a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles to secure the services of Kevin Kolb.
But, the Cardinals didn’t stop with just acquiring Kolb, they proceeded to extend him with a 5-year, $63M contract with $20M in guaranteed money. For those playing at home, at the time of the deal, that worked out to $2.5 M per start, $1.67 M per touchdown, and $10 K per passing yard. Yes, the Cardinals took a huge leap of faith in Kolb.
What has Kolb done to justify the faith his organization showed in him? Like his predecessors, he’s largely underwhelmed, compiling a 5-8 record as a starter, and is known more for injuries and ineffectiveness which have landed him back on the bench. Kolb has average-at-best arm strength, and this limitation is compounded by his propensity to let his eyes drop to the pass rush instead of keeping them down the field.
As alluded to earlier, the quarterback situation this season has devolved from Skelton, back to Kolb, back to Skelton, and now sixth-round rookie Ryan Lindley is at the helm. Playing quarterback for the Cardinals comes with several occupational hazards, with the most frequent being sacks. The Cardinals’ offensive line is by far the worst in the league, surrendering 52 sacks, which works out to a sack every ten times they drop back to pass.
The herculean efforts and talents of All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald continue to be squandered in Arizona. Fitzgerald is best known for his body control to properly position himself and win the ball at its highest point, but he’s been able to couple his physical dominance with explosiveness after the catch. In 2011, despite consistent double-coverage, Fitzgerald averaged 17.6 yards per catch, which was the second-best mark in the NFL for receivers with 80+ catches.
This season, Fitzgerald’s numbers are pedestrian, ranking second on the team in yards, yards per catch, and touchdowns to shifty third-year receiver Andre Roberts. Since trading Anquan Boldin to the Ravens, the Cardinals have been searching for a secondary receiving option. This past April, they spent their first-round pick on Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd.
Floyd has done next-to-nothing, and despite the numbers he’s accumulated, Roberts seems to be best suited as a third or fourth option in the passing game. The Cardinals get no production from their tight ends, which makes it easier for teams to dedicate safety help over the top on Fitzgerald.
Not only do the Cardinals struggle to move the ball in the air, they rank dead last in rushing, averaging 80 yards per game. Certainly, after spending a first-round pick in 2009 (31st overall pick) on Beanie Wells and a second-round pick in 2011 on Ryan Williams (38th overall pick), the Cardinals weren’t anticipating this anemic production.
Offensive line coach Russ Grimm – the runner up in the Bears’ 2004 head coaching derby – is a highly regarded offensive line coach. Yes, the Cardinals already lacked talent before losing left tackle Levi Brown (triceps), but their issues are largely mental, as they have frequent breakdowns in communication about blocking assignments. Is this attributed to Grimm’s teaching, or his pupils ability to absorb the concepts? This is a question the Cardinals must ask during their season post-mortem.
Defensively, the Cardinals have stars at every level. They execute an aggressive, attacking 3-4 scheme orchestrated by defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Horton – a 10 year NFL veteran defensive back – borrows many principles from Dick LeBeau’s scheme, which creates pressure out of zone-blitz packages.
Back in September, the Cardinals defense was the flavor of the month, leading the charge in their 4-0 start. They racked up 16 sacks, six forced fumbles, four interceptions, and a touchdown. Just last week against the Lions, they intercepted Matthew Stafford three times, returning two for touchdowns. Seeing how porous the Bears protections has been all season, the Cardinals will dial up the pressure.
The defensive front is anchored by defensive ends Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. While Dockett hasn’t been his normal dominating self, he still must be accounted for. Dockett isn’t your prototypical 5-technique two-gap defender, but he has excellent feet and violent hands.
Campbell, on the other hand, has blossomed as one of the league’s marquee 3-4 defensive ends. Campbell has everything scouts look for in a 5-technique, length, size, and strength, which allows him to play with excellent leverage to set the edge against the run, and collapse the pocket.
Horton runs a lot of “fire” zone blitzes. In this concept, the Cardinals play outside contain with their defensive ends, and blitz both linebackers through the A-gap. The Cardinals run this blitz out of both two and three-man lines, to create pressure packages with five or six blitzers. Historically, Roberto Garza has struggled against 3-4 teams, Horton is certainly aware of this and will regularly blitz his gaps.
Of course, you need talent in your back seven to execute such blitzes, and the Cardinals have plenty. Linebacker Daryl Washington is one of the best linebackers in the NFL that nobody has ever heard of.
Washington flies under-the-radar because he plays in Arizona, but is putting together an All-Pro season. Washington leads the Cardinals in solo tackles (93), total tackles (115), sacks (9), forced fumbles (2), and is second in tackles for loss (7). Washington pursues aggressively downfield in run support, and shows great closing speed when he’s called upon to blitz.
Another star is cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is certainly the best cover cornerback in the NFC and is closing in on Darrelle Revis as the best in all of football. Peterson is bigger and faster than Revis, which allows him to let receivers get past him, only to flash his rare closing speed to make a play on the ball. With a cornerback like Peterson – who is able to cover half the field on his own – Horton is able to blitz his safeties. The battle between Peterson and Brandon Marshall will be a pleasure to watch.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt was hired because of his success as an offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. Barring some miraculous change over the next two weeks, the Cardinals will rank dead last in offense. After ranking 31st in 2010, it’s fair to speculate about Whisenhunt’s future in Arizona. The Cardinals are going nowhere in a hurry, but have enough firepower on defense to keep this game close against the toothless Bears offense.
All of the scenarios involving the Bears making the playoffs require them to win both of their final two games. Are the Bears who we think they are, a team that can only beat up on lesser opponents like Arizona? Or, will their playoff hopes be dashed in the desert?
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.