Tall Task: Improved QB Play Can Make Cardinals Contender
By Justin Henry (@jrhwriting)
Cold Hard Football Facts Resident Dr. Death
The 5-11 Arizona Cardinals had the worst Offensive Passer Rating in the NFL: 63.10.
That performance put the Cardinals 45 points behind league-leader Green Bay and on par with the average NFL passer rating ... back in 1958. It was 20 points worse than the league average in 2012.
For all of the 2012 preseason chatter about Kevin Kolb being 'skittish' (Tommie Harris' words), the 2007 second-round pick of the Eagles was Arizona's best quarterback last season. But that's not saying much.
Kolb enjoyed his best season in which he threw at least 100 passes, completing 109 of 183 passes (59.6%) for 1,169 yards with 8 TDs, 3 INTs and an 86.07 rating.
Kolb, however, played in only six games. The not-so-fleet-footed quarterback took 27 sacks over his abbreviated season (five starts, plus rescue duty in the opener at Seattle).
After leading Arizona to a 4-0 start, Kolb was sacked nine times in a Thursday night loss to St. Louis, and then five times more in an overtime loss to Buffalo (his new employer for 2013) the following week.
John Skelton, the opening day starter, had to come off the bench after Kolb injured his ribs on a dual tackle by Alex Carrington and Chris Kelsay.
Kolb, in comparison to his three cohorts, was Tom Brady circa 2007. When the man is slipping on a wet rubber mat in the midst of a crucial competition with EJ Manuel (and later suffering a career-threatening head injury), it doesn't bode well for a team when you have four quarterbacks, and Kolb, comparitively, is Christ in Cleats.
Here's how the others fared:
Ironically, the team with the worst passing game in football last year boasted the best pass defense: the Cardinals finished No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 2 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating. To that unit they've added electrifying rookie defender Tyrann Mathieu, who has already impressed fans and coaches with his preseason play.
But you could assemble the best parts of the Steel Curtain, the '85 Bears, the '00 Ravens, and the '02 Bucs, maximize their chemistry level to the umpteenth value, and they couldn't play well enough to bail out the average Skelton/Lindley/Hoyer performance.
Excluding Skelton's win (opening week vs. Seattle, in which Kolb saved the day), the Cardinals scored more than 20 points only once after Kolb went down: hanging 38 on Detroit in their final victory.
Lindley started that game, playing rather mediocre (14/21, 104 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 pick), but Ray Horton's D made up for it with a pair of pick-sixes.
Adding to the dearth of passing success on the Cardinals was the offensive line. Arizona finished dead last on our Offensive Hog Index. As a group, they surrendered 58 sacks in all, the most in the NFL. Green Bay allowed the second most, seven behind the Cards with 51.
Arizona's offensive line was bad at everything: 31st protecting the passer, 32nd in average per rush and 32nd in third-down conversions.
Starting left tackle Levi Brown was felled with a torn pectoral, and was spelled by ineffective journeyman D'Anthony Batiste. Fourth-round rookie Bobby Massie was pressed in on the other end. Right guard Adam Snyder failed to live up to the potential his five-year deal was to reflect.
Kolb's 27 sacks over five-plus games shows a man freezing in the headlights. His three inferior teammates' 31 sacks and 18 interceptions indicate, if nothing else, that running isn't their strong suit. In fact, Skelton, Lindley, and Hoyer combined for just nine rushing attempts (18 yards).
Rectifying the Issue
After booting Ken Whisenhunt out of town, Arizona hired Bruce Arians to be his successor. Arians comes in off of winning the AP's Coach of the Year Award with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, the first coach to do so in an interim role. After Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was stricken with leukemia, Arians seized the controls, leading with comeback-capable rookie Andrew Luck an 11-5 playoff expedition.
As an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach over the years, Arians has mentored a pair of eventual champions in Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. There stands a good chance Luck will be hoisting some hardware before he retires as well.
Arians' greatest quality is his ability to simplify a playbook, increasing the chances of getting everyone on the same page. When the coach and the players are effortlessly speaking the same language, trust and comfort increase a thousand-fold.
Despite the history Arians has of installing user-friendly offenses, new quarterback Carson Palmer has called the playbook 'challenging.' After eight years in Cincinnati, and a season and a half in Oakland, Palmer comes to Arizona via trade. But rather than ponder over what he's stepped into, Palmer says he relishes this challenge.
Palmer hasn't had a Pro Bowl season since 2006, which was also the last year in which his passer rating topped 90.0. That doesn't mean he's not a highly capable quarterback; in 2012, Palmer topped 4000 yards for the third time in his career, and threw 22 touchdowns en route to an 85.3 rating, placing him 16th among qualifying quarterbacks.
Across fifteen games last season in Oakland, the 33-year-old was sacked just 26 times. That's because then-offensive coordinator for the Raiders, Gregg Knapp, installed a zone-blocking scheme for the line that benefitted Palmer, but hurt Darren McFadden (and McFadden's fantasy owners).
Fortunately for Palmer, a special scheme may not be necessary to keep him upright and throwing. Levi Brown is healthy again, etched in as left tackle. Standing next to him was to have been Cardinals first-round draft choice Jonathan Cooper. At UNC, Cooper demonstrated a nasty, physical streak framed with smooth coordination, but does tend to get overpowered at times.
However, Cooper broke his leg in the third preseason game, and could be lost for 2013. Veteran Chilo Rachal is waiting in the wings if need be.
After floating adrift in the free agent sea for months, right tackle Eric Winston was snatched up by the Cards in late July. Winston hasn't missed a start since 2006, and is well-rounded in both pass protection and run blocking.
The additions of Cooper (if he plays in 2013) and Winston do add layers of aid to an ailing running game (more on that in another article). In addition to Arians' vertical passing game, this increased viability for the running game, as well as Arians' indication that he'll use lots of screen passes, the Cardinals offense has the capacity to employ a varied attack, with more than adequate protection.
Breaking it Down
They certainly can't be any worse than last year. It's an offense that has Larry Fitzgerald, along with talented receivers in Michael Floyd in Andre Roberts. Together, the trio combined for 2119 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In other words, they were the only three players on the Cardinals that caught a touchdown pass, and Kolb, who didn't play after October 14, threw eight of them. The Cardinals had just three touchdown passes over the final ten weeks of the season.
That changes. The receiving triad, plus sleeper tight end Rob Housler, benefits from a proven quarterback that can avoid sacks (unlike Kolb) and make educated, accurate passes (unlike....well, the other quarterbacks from last year).
The line has to gel, obviously, for this to work out. The center and right guard are still Lyle Sendlein and Daryn Colledge, holdovers from last year's farcical offense. The other three components provide a more reliable core. If nothing else, most of the pressure Palmer would face would come from the middle, as opposed to the blindside, where Brown and Cooper/Rachal are situated.
A number of Arizona's opponents in 2013 have shaky defenses; among them are Detroit, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Tennessee.
While their own division rivals are defensive roadblocks, Palmer's offense and Arians' play-calling can find footing against these foes, and provide a foundation for continued growth.
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