|The Cardinals are hoping Kolb can play up to his big contract, but patience is wearing thin. (US Presswire)|
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- When I visit an NFL team during the summer it really makes a difference which week I am there. Stop at a few teams during the first few days of camp and optimism reigns supreme. Head into a camp after two poor performances in preseason games and there certainly is a different tone coming from the players and coaches.
The Arizona Cardinals fit the latter description. Coach Ken Whisenhunt was angry with his team after their second poor performance of the preseason. Veterans like Adrian Wilson also expressed their frustration about too many players letting little mistakes mushroom into big problems. I am impressed with the veteran leadership on this team and the coaches can still right the ship in time for a solid season. The sense of urgency created by the lackluster performances against New Orleans and Kansas City is the silver lining to the start of the 2012 preseason. As I leave Flagstaff, there is little doubt this team feels the pressure to get things right and do it right away.
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Here are the five most pressing questions this team faces with less than a month before the first regular-season game.
1. Who will be the starting QB in 2012?
The competition between Kevin Kolb, the highly paid 2011 acquisition, and John Skelton, the former fifth-round pick, rages on. The battle might go all the way until Labor Day the way things are going right now. In one sense it is unfortunate because both men need all the reps they can get and the winner of this competition might not be ready for the season. Skelton wins games, which counts for something, but Kolb gets rid of the ball quicker and was given a contract that says he should be the starter. After watching both on tape for an extended period of time I'm not sure either one is ready to lead this team to the playoffs. Skelton told me he's not afraid to throw it into double coverage in order to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball. I also saw Skelton stick a few difficult, and impressive, throws in to rookie Michael Floyd, but he also holds onto the ball waiting for his deep receivers to come open. He needs to hit the check-down or throw a few away. Kolb looks uncomfortable when the pocket closes in around him and he can no longer use the excuse that he doesn't know the system. If things get shaky late in the season, look for rookie Ryan Lindley to get a shot. He is confident and an accurate passer. As GM Rod Graves told me: "Kolb and Skelton have not reached their own, or our expectations at this point."
2. How do they reduce the 54 sacks the offense gave up last year?
The old-school answer to that is more six- and seven-man protection schemes. After watching the issues at offensive tackle and the inability of tailback LaRod Stephens-Howlings in third-down pass blocking, it might be better to go the other way. Put the QB in shotgun and employ five-man protections. Teams clearly want to snatch blitz Stephens-Howling and not let him release because he is so dangerous. The few times Stephens-Howling released he was a major threat in the passing attack. Neither QB demonstrates the foot speed to escape, so the answer to the sacks is a quicker release and a more aggressive shotgun game with quick passes. I saw the Cardinals employ a "bunch" pass attack and I would like to see more of it in the regular season with tight end Rob Housler and receivers Andre Roberts and Floyd, forcing a zone check by the defense which would help Skelton or Kolb with Fitzgerald singled on the opposite side. That concept would help eliminate the sack problems the Cardinals dealt with last year.
3. Which players are having a great camp?
There are a few Cardinals that jumped out at me during my stay in Arizona and they seem ready to make a big contribution. Roberts is not about to give up his spot to Floyd, the rookie, and looked exceptionally fast in practice. Rookie offensive guard Senio Kelemete isn't a starter by any means, but he competes and has a world of promise. Housler shows exceptional vertical speed and solid blocking skills. As veteran safety Wilson said, "Housler has been great in practice but now it's time to do it in the games." Rookie corner Jamell Fleming may be listed down the depth chart as third or fourth string, but he is already in the conversation for the nickel spot and as Graves said, "He is capable of winning the starting corner spot opposite Patrick Peterson."
4. How do the Cardinals sort out the running back situation?
Since Whisenhunt became the head coach he has wanted a power run game like he had in Pittsburgh when he was the Steelers' offensive coordinator. Arizona used first-round pick in 2009 on Beanie Wells and a second-round pick in 2011 on Ryan Williams and the Cardinals were still 24th in the NFL in rushing last year. Most of their issues were injury-related, but some were tied to the offensive line. The acquisition of right guard Adam Snyder, with his pulling skills and ability to open holes, will help. Wells told me he's ready for a good season, and I watched Williams burst through a few small holes on tape. If both men can stay healthy the Cardinals have a one-two punch that could move them into the top 12 for team rushing. I would think it is running back by committee this year. And if either man goes down with another injury, keep an eye on Alonso Smith, who is having a solid camp and could make the team as the fourth running back.
5. Is the locker room divided?
The defense is ahead of the offense, and in some locker rooms it could cause a divide. Last year the defense gave up 18 points a game in their six division games but the team only went 3-3 because the offense averaged 17 points. I like the Cardinals' defense, but they need to fix a few things themselves, as Wilson pointed out. Nine interceptions aren't good enough, and a minus-13 turnover ratio is a problem for an upstart offense. At no time in my visit did I get the impression the offense and defense were at odds. The leadership of Wilson and defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett will not let the locker room be divided.
Finally, the Cardinals were the only division opponent to beat the 49ers last year, which is something to build on for sure. I see the Cardinals as an 8-8 team that could be a 9-7 wild-card team with a little luck. A lapse in intensity by this team or a few critical injuries and they could be 5-11.