In the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill stood at a microphone and talked about what it would take to get his team back into the big game. He had a simple suggestion: "Improved quarterback play."
Suffice to say, Kevin Kolb, you have been put on notice.
Kolb wobbled his way through eight complete games for the Cardinals this season, winning only two of them. His backup, a wooden indian named John Skelton, somehow won six of his eight games played in relief, but there are few who believe that Skelton is the long-term answer. At least, not yet.
First, the question of what they have in Kolb has to be answered. This is the single-most important issue facing the Cardinals as they approach this year's offseason, and will dictate their approach to the draft and free agency.
The offense averaged a hair over 20 points per game while he was in it. Without him, that average dropped to 18.5 per game. Without getting into opponent adjustments, this suggests a couple of things: A) his poor won-loss record may be more a function of lousy defense than his offense, and B) Kolb's value over replacement isn't that much.
The former Eagle now has a grand total of 16 games started under his belt, essentially completing his first season of work over a five-year career. In these 16 games, Kolb has thrown for 4,037 yards, 20 TDs and 22 INTs... and been sacked 50 times. His 81.1 QB rating in 2011 is just a shade better than his 76.7 career average. Not franchise numbers, to be sure.
"There are teams that can get to the Super Bowl without a quarterback throwing lights out," Bidwill reminds fans. "If he's playing well and you've got a great defense and a strong running game, you can get there. And that's what we want to do."
John Skelton was far from lights-out in his playing time, with numbers that averaged out slightly worse than Kolb's last year. But the younger quarterback followed the formula of avoiding mistakes in big wins over Philadelphia and San Francisco as the Cardinals finished the season with seven wins in their final nine games. Skelton finished eight of those games, but completed only 55% of his passes with 14 INTs against 11 TDs, putting Cardinals fans in a maddening position of choosing sides in an unwinnable argument.
Do you like the mediocre quarterback? Or the mediocre-er quarterback? Or are you desperately looking for an Option #3?
Is Peyton Manning an option?
Fans looking for Option #3 had a briefly tantalizing nugget of news, as the Cardinals went out and hired Frank Reich, Peyton Manning's former QB coach, onto their offensive staff. This prompted an immediate desert storm of speculation that the Colts' hall of famer might be next. Realistically, though, this is a non-starter.
Firstly, it's doubtful that Peyton owes much of his career-long success to a QB coach that was in his ear for a couple of years, when he has been essentially the Colts' head coach (or at least its offensive coordinator) on the field. Secondly, even with all the medical clearances in the world, it's doubtful that Manning would choose a team with an offensive line in even worse shape than the one he left in Indianapolis.
Colts O-line 2010: Allowed 155 pressures and 40 quarterback hits.
Cardinals O-line 2011: Allowed 176 pressures and 28 quarterback hits.
And that leaves out sacks, which Manning is much better at avoiding than either Skelton or Kolb.
Naturally, Bidwill refuses to speculate openly about the possibility of signing another team's player. "You want to pay the fine?" he asks, rhetorically. But the team showed last offseason that it wasn't willing to stand pat with the lousy situation they had under center in 2010.
"We went out and put out best foot forward, and went and got a quarterback that we thought was going to really improve us," Bidwill said before pausing momentarily to arrange his words. "I still think that Kevin... with an offseason, he's going to be a darn good quarterback."
After damning Kolb with that faint praise, Bidwill drops more ominous notes reflecting the quandry this team finds itself in. "We've got two young guys, and we've got to develop them... we've got to make sure we've got an infrastructure around developing young quarterbacks, and we've got to get good quarterback play."
We won't know the depth of the Cardinals' commitment to Kolb until March 17, when the team is due to pay him a $7 million roster bonus. How committed is Bidwill and Whisenhunt to giving his supposed difference-maker a full offseason of work? And perhaps more importantly, how committed are they to improving the offensive line in front of him?
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