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Cardinals camp report: Competition between Kolb, Skelton will dictate team's progress

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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'It will be fun to figure out who our guy is,' says Larry Fitzgerald. (US Presswire)  
'It will be fun to figure out who our guy is,' says Larry Fitzgerald. (US Presswire)  

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Two years after Kurt Warner retired, the Arizona Cardinals are still looking for his replacement.

It was supposed to be Kevin Kolb, but he can't stay in the lineup. So now it's Kolb or John Skelton in a game of Last Man Standing, with no decision in sight. But that's OK because the Cardinals went down this path in 2008 when Matt Leinart was supposed to be the starter only to have Warner take the job and lead Arizona to the Super Bowl.

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Trust me, this is a legitimate quarterback competition, with neither side holding a clear advantage. But therein lies the problem: There's been no separation through the first two preseason games.

Kolb makes starter's money, but it was Skelton who rescued Arizona last year when it won seven of its last nine to finish 8-8 and second in the NFC West. Skelton was 5-2 and 6-2 if you include a defeat of San Francisco where he played all but the first three snaps.

But Kolb, whom Arizona acquired shortly after the end of last year's lockout, is more talented and more experienced. Plus, he finally went through an offseason in a system that was unfamiliar to him a year ago and that work that should benefit him now.

"The opportunity is there for him to be better," said coach Ken Whisenhunt. "He's put in an awful lot of hard work in the offseason, especially on things he wants to get better at.

"This is a different offense than what he was used to running [in Philadelphia], and he's been excited about that. We've seen a lot of progress out of him, and you'd like to think that with the offseason and having played a little in it that it would all come together for him and he'd have success."

That's the hope. The reality is that no one really knows.

"[The offseason work] is going to be a huge advantage," said Kolb. "I feel like the offense is second nature as far as the reads and protections go, and that's the way you want to feel as a quarterback. Now, it's just getting in there, getting some game time reps and being as prepared as possible when Game One comes."

That sounds like a quarterback who plans on starting, but this competition is far from over. In fact, it's just begun, with Whisenhunt under no pressure to make an immediate decision. Remember, he waited until the end of the 2008 training camp before deciding on Warner, and he's in no hurry now.

"You don't want to make a snap decision," said Whisenhunt. "Hey, we live in the information society now, where everybody wants instant information and instant decisions, and I understand that. But when you're trying to make a decision on any position -- and especially the quarterback position -- you've got to do it over time."

Team Objectives

  Settle on a quarterback. I don't mean to hammer this point ... OK, on second thought, I do. When the Cards traded for Kolb he was supposed to solidify the position and settle in as the starter for the next 5-10 years. That hasn't happened, which is why we've got a debate going on. Kolb keeps getting sidetracked by a litany of injuries -- including two concussions in two years -- and there are people wondering if he's the victim of bad luck or just brittle. "I don't believe in luck," said star receiver Larry Fitzgerald. "You create your own luck. Now, has he had some unfortunate breaks? Yeah, but that's football. Football is a dangerous, violent, ferocious game and things like that happen. Unfortunately, he's been bit by it. We just need to have that guy for Week One to be our leader."

  Pick up where the defense left off. There's a reason the Cards got on a second-half roll, and it's called defense. The club that surrendered an average of 26.1 points the first seven games -- six of which it lost -- cut that number to 18.1 the last nine. Players will tell you it took them time to adjust to coordinator Ray Horton's blitzing, attacking scheme. But once they did ... well, they were the only NFC West opponent to beat San Francisco -- and they did it with John Skelton. "Defensively," said Fitzgerald, "we're light years ahead of where we were last year going into the season. The way our defense performed down the stretch was courageous. They kept us in a lot of ballgames while we were trying to get our heads out of our butts, and they got us going late in the season. With them playing at that level it's going to allow us to be able to thrive a little bit. We'll get more possessions and should have the ability to get things going a little bit earlier."

  Establish a running game. When Whisenhunt took over the Cards he was determined to improve one of the league's worst rushing attacks. Five years later, he's still trying, only this time it appears he may have the people to get there. Granted, Arizona still has offensive line issues, but in Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams they have the backs to perk up the 24th-ranked running game -- provided, of course, both stay healthy. Williams bowed out in training camp last year, but he's back and he looks sharp. Wells, who underwent offseason knee surgery, is coming off a year where he ran for 1,047 yards and set the franchise's single-game rushing record. So the pieces are there.

Camp battles

Quarterback: Enough already. I think you get the picture: It's Kolb vs. Skelton, with a stable of talented wide receivers waiting for the first sign of white smoke. This offense could score a lot of points, but it must have someone deliver the ball to Fitzgerald, rookie Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts and Early Doucet, and so far the results aren't encouraging. Neither quarterback is distancing himself from the other, and the first-team offense has done little in two preseason games. "It'll be fun to figure out who our guy is," said Fitzgerald, "and follow his lead to The Promised Land."

Projected winner: Kolb. The Cards brought this guy in for a reason, and it wasn't to sit on the bench.

Right tackle: The Cards spent a fourth-round draft pick on Bobby Massie so they could start him here -- only he's not starting. Not yet. That's because he's been slow to develop and because Jeremy Bridges was in the way. But Bridges was benched after the preseason loss to Kansas City, and now it's D'Anthony Batiste who's working with the first team. Massie has been coming on lately, and there's a feeling that even if Batiste opens the season as the starter that it won't be long before Massie supplants him.

Projected winner: Massie. The Cards like the guy, and he's starting to make a move. He has time to win the job ... and he will.

Inside linebacker: Paris Lenon is older and more experienced, which means he's less prone to making mistakes. He also runs with the first team. One problem: He's hampered by an ankle injury that kept him out of the Kansas City game. Stewart Bradley is six years younger and more athletic, but he struggled to make the adjustment from a 4-3 defense to Horton's 3-4 scheme. Of course, that was last season. Now, however, Bradley seems to understand where he should be and when he should be there. He made a lot of plays in the preseason opener and looks like a guy determined to return to the starting lineup. "He's a different player this year," said Whisenhunt. "I think having an offseason makes him a lot more comfortable."

Projected winner: Bradley. Youth is served.

Somebody to watch

  CB Patrick Peterson. He said he wants to be the best cornerback in the business, and he has the talent to get there. He acknowledges that there's no one superior to the Jets' Darrelle Revis, but he also says, "I have all the intangibles he has. He just has a couple more years and a little bit more experience." Peterson already the best punt returner in the NFL, and that's after only one season. He's immensely gifted, with the Cards looking to use him on offense at times this season. But it's on defense where he will excel, which is why the Cards jumped at the chance to take him with their first draft pick last year. There was a feeling then that he might have been the best player on anyone's board, and Peterson seems determined to demonstrate that he was.

Injury Roundup

  The biggest issue is at running back where Wells and Williams are coming off knee injuries and have been limited in practice. In fact, Wells went through his first practice in pads Monday and said he feels fine. He is expected to start in the Sept. 9 opener vs. Seattle. Williams is expected to play this weekend in the Cards' preseason opener vs. Oakland.

  Tight end Jeff King returns to practice this week from a partially torn quadriceps that kept him out of offseason workouts and all of training camp. King was the team's starter last year and is a reliable blocker who could play a key role in Arizona's ability to run.

  Cornerback Greg Toler is coming off a torn ACL that sidelined him all of last season. He's been limited in practice, with the Cards easing him into workouts, but he could wind up pushing William Gay for a starting job at right cornerback.

  Linebacker Paris Lenon is sidelined by an ankle injury that kept him out of the Kansas City game. Lenon suffered the injury in the preseason opener, but no one seems overly concerned by it.

The Last Word

Fitzgerald is right when he says it's a quarterback's league, and that's an issue for Arizona -- because the Cards don't have one. Not now they don't, and Kolb or Skelton must make a move the next two weeks to turn a quarterback controversy into a quarterback problem.

They're loaded at wide receiver, and they could be deep at running back. But they must settle on a quarterback, and you don't want this thing won by default. Arizona wants Kolb or Skelton to emerge with consistent and productive play, and that hasn't happened in two preseason games.

Of course, there are still three more to go, so Whisenhunt will try to remain patient. He did in 2008, and the results speak for themselves.

"I believe healthy competition is good for your team," he said, "and it's good for these players. It makes them perform at a high level practice in and practice out."

Players don't seem overly concerned, but they should be. Because if Kolb doesn't improve on last year's performance, the Cards could settle into the middle of the pack again. Yet this is a team that has the players to push San Francisco in the division.

It also has the momentum, winning seven of its last nine starts, and there's a feeling within the organization that it could carry over into the beginning of 2012 when Arizona opens with three of its first four games at home.

"There are only three teams in the league who were better than us the last nine games last year," said Whisenhunt. "You don't go 1-6 and finish 7-2 [without something happening]. That means there's something there with the team.

"Now, the question is: Can we build off that? If we can, we have a chance. I've seen it before."

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