Under the gun in the desert

Posted May 29, 2012 @ 12:04 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Of all the players featured in ProFootballWeekly.com’s recently concluded eight-part “In the Crosshairs” series, is there anybody facing a hairier situation than Kevin Kolb?

Probably not.

In a perfect world, Kolb, who turns 28 Aug. 24, would be firmly entrenched at the moment as the Cardinals’ starting QB after pocketing $19 million of the five-year, $63 million contract he agreed to a year ago last offseason, including the $7 million roster bonus he received this March.

But Kolb was far from perfect in his first season with the Cardinals after being acquired in a high-profile trade with the Eagles in exchange for CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Arizona’s second-round pick (51st overall) in this year’s draft.

Foot and concussion injuries that forced him to miss seven games and most of an eighth had a lot to do with that imperfection. But in the nine games in which he played, Kolb’s performance steadily deteriorated.

More often than not, he looked clumsy and skittish in the pocket, later admitting that he needed to do a much better job of getting rid of the ball and being faster with his reads.

Kolb also struggled mightily with his accuracy. After completing 61.4 percent of his passes and registering a 4-1 TD-interception ratio in his first two games, he hit the skids with a 57.4 completion percentage and a 1-5 TD-interception ratio in his next three games.

His increasingly disturbing knack for missing wide-open receivers, particularly Cardinals rookie TE Rob Housler, and his six fumbles (three lost) in the first five games only made matters worse.

And then there was backup QB John Skelton, who made the most of the opportunity afforded him by Kolb’s injuries.

While Kolb won only three times in nine starts, Skelton won six of the eight games in which he appeared, including four extremely dramatic fourth-quarter comeback victories.

Considered a “poor man’s Ben Roethlisberger” by many close team observers due to his strong arm, impressive size (6-6, 244 pounds) and, most importantly, his ability to hang tough in the pocket and make something happen when plays break down, Skelton is very deservedly breathing down Kolb’s neck with the offseason just starting to heat up in the desert.

If the Cardinals’ fan base had a say in the matter, Skelton would probably be No. 1 on the depth chart at quarterback over Kolb, who has yet to prove himself over the course of a full 16-game slate entering his sixth pro campaign.

Truth be told, though, neither Kolb nor Skelton would seriously be in the mix had the Cardinals emerged victorious in the Peyton Manning Sweepstakes — a pursuit that put the roster bonus Kolb received in March in serious jeopardy.

Understandably, although he understood why the Cardinals took such a strong interest in possibly obtaining Manning, Kolb was a bit put off by the manner in which the Cardinals conducted their pursuit of the four-time league MVP.

“I think there were a few things that could have been handled a little bit different,” Kolb told Arizona Republic and PFW Cardinals correspondent Kent Somers in mid-April. “Communication, no matter what you’re doing, any kind of business, relationships, communication is the key.”

After Manning opted to follow in John Elway’s footsteps in Denver, Kolb and Whisenhunt supposedly cleared the air on just where Kolb stood in the grand scheme of things.

Since then, the Cardinals have concentrated on adding weapons and valuable new guidance for whoever ends up being their starting QB. They were relatively minor players in the free-agent market compared to the rest of the NFC West, but their one major offensive free-agent addition, ex-Niner Adam Snyder, figures to improve the often shaky protection in front of Kolb and Skelton last season, in addition to the three O-linemen they selected in the draft, led by fourth-round OT Bobby Massie.

They also have added a potentially potent new weapon via the draft in first-round WR Michael Floyd, who has all the makings of an Anquan Boldin-like complement to star WR Larry Fitzgerald.

As important as anything, former WR coach John McNulty is replacing the fired Chris Miller as the Cardinals' QB coach. With the benefit of a full offseason to get Kolb up to speed with an offense that requires a lot more route adjustments than Kolb had to make in Philadelphia, the well-regarded McNulty could end up being the MVP for a team that could be a dangerous sleeper with an improved situation under center.

As intriguing as Skelton has become, the investment in Kolb continues to make him the front-runner under center in the eyes of most close observers.

But while the football might be in Kolb’s court, the leash appears perilously short.

It’s time for him to put up or perhaps shut down for good, as he approaches a make-or-break career crossroad.

Nobody in the league faces a more challenging task.