Thursday night’s Cardinals-Titans game was an interesting contrast of how teams choose to address the quarterback position. On the surface, we’re talking about two similar teams — the Titans had a 9-7 record a year ago, the Cardinals were 8-8. Each team played in a division with one runaway winner in 2011.
But how each team has dealt with stocking up at quarterback couldn’t be more different.
The Titans set out to build the position through a good combination of young and old. The Cardinals got caught trying to strike gold with Kevin Kolb prior to last season and have mismanaged things at the position ever since.
I have given a lot of praise to both teams’ front offices. The Titans have a terrific structure and have built a nice roster. They also have dealt with a few tricky situations — Chris Johnson’s holdout, the whole Vince Young situation — deftly the past few years. The Cardinals, too, deserve praise. GM Rod Graves has built a talented roster and has done well with limited financial flexibility in most cases.
But the Titans clearly have handled their QB situation far better of late. Both teams were forced to move on from respected veterans — Steve McNair in Tennessee, Kurt Warner more recently in Arizona — which can be difficult. Even more tough: Cutting ties with a former No. 3 overall pick in Young, who simply couldn’t cut it. They ate their losses and moved on appropriately.
Last fall, I talked with Titans then-GM Mike Reinfeldt (he’s now the team’s senior executive vice president/chief operating officer, with Ruston Webster taking over the GM duties) about how Tennessee was able to stock the cupboard with elements for the present and future. Reinfeldt pointed to landing Hasselbeck (after the lockout, no less) as the key to it all. They had drafted Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick but had no designs on throwing him to the wolves as a rookie the way the Vikings and Jaguars felt forced to do with Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert, respectively.
"He was the perfect man and quarterback to mentor Jake," Reinfeldt said in October of Hasselbeck. "Let alone, he's still a very productive player. He has played really, really well. For us, it was a win-win with Matt: We get a great player and a great person."
And they got the perfect bridge QB, too, a player whom Reinfeldt and Webster were familiar with from their Seattle days. They knew Hasselbeck was past his prime years, but they also knew he was a diligent offseason worker who would come in ready to play after a lockout and from whom they could squeeze out another year of productivity.
It worked. The Titans lost a tiebreaker for a playoff spot with the Bengals but otherwise had a successful season. There’s no question that Locker, who looked good in a few relief appearances of Hasselbeck last season, is better off for it now.
It wasn’t that long ago, less than three years in fact, that the Titans were a mess at the position. I was at the Titans’ 59-0 loss to the Patriots in New England on Oct. 18, 2009, during which Reinfeldt had to leave the press box to suppress his anger. Kerry Collins was miserable in the game, which dropped the team to 0-6, completing 2-of-12 passes for minus-7 yards and a pick. He was then benched late in the third quarter, and Young missed on both of his pass attempts in relief. Yes, down 59-0, the Titans were so down on Young they didn’t even try to have him throw the ball in that game.
Although they stuck with Collins and Young the next year (and had a 14-12 record from the blowout loss through the end of the 2010 season), the Titans knew they were on borrowed time. They drafted Locker and then hoped they could get Hasselbeck once the lockout ended. Was some luck involved? Oh, sure. But they had the right idea of how to execute their plan effectively. Reinfeldt told me there was a “strong Plan B” last year but obviously wouldn’t divulge it.
The Cardinals had their true Plan A, Peyton Manning, fall through this summer. They went after Manning, and Larry Fitzgerald outwardly wined and dined the free-agent QB, practically begging him to come to Arizona. Had it happened, we wouldn't be talking about Kolb (who would have been cut) or John Skelton (who would have been Manning's backup). But the Cardinals had to know that landing Manning would have been tantamount to hitting on a Hail Mary pass. It was a low-percentage move they had to make but one they had to expect they wouldn't be able to pull off.
Of course, the Titans also pursued Manning, but that was more of the whim of 89-year-old team owner Bud Adams, who likely wanted to reflect some of the damage Manning did to the Titans over 13 seasons in Indy back onto the Colts. That move, in essence was Plan B, part two. They were well protected when Manning chose the Broncos.
So much of how a team invests in quarterbacks also involves the surrounding cast. The Titans have built one of the finest offensive lines in the NFL. They have a Hall of Fame blocker and former OL coach as a head coach. They have added depth and talent at receiver, running back and tight end. Other than Johnson maybe, there are no truly elite standouts but a good stable of performers and a dependable support system.
But that’s exactly what the Cardinals have not done. Their offensive line perhaps ranks as one of the worst units in the NFL, despite the free-agent addition of OG Adam Snyder, who did a decent job with the 49ers' strong offensive line last season. The fact that the team has not used a first-, second- or third-round pick on an offensive lineman in the Graves-Ken Whisenhunt era since Levi Brown in Round One in 2007 certainly is a problem.
You know things are bad up front when a triceps injury hits Brown, who roundly has failed to meet expectations as a pro, and Cardinals fans are in a panic. They can’t even afford to lose overhyped guys at this point. Many thought that bringing in assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm — and keeping him after other NFL teams sought him as a head-coaching interview — would be the best solution to the OL problems, but it hasn’t worked that way.
Arizona has one thing going for it that the Titans only can dream of. Fitzgerald is a top-three receiver in the NFL, maybe second only to Calvin Johnson in terms of ability. RB Ryan Williams looks like a keeper, and there are a few other strong receiving options on the roster, including first-round WR Michael Floyd.
Part of the problem also might be coaching. Whisenhunt is an excellent head coach, but even his seemingly random substitution patterns with Kolb and Skelton this preseason at not above reproach. Plus, Whisenhunt has been a little wishy-washy on how the competition would stack up prior to this preseason.
Offensive coordinator Mike Miller, who was named to the role in 2011, hasn’t been able to help either guy grow. Perhaps hindered by poor protection and skittish with a history of concussions, Kolb has looked timid — just ask Raiders DT Tommy Kelly — and Skelton, for all his comeback prowess, is a 52.6-percent passer with more turnovers (18) than TDs (13) in his 11 career starts.
The flaws were on display in the preseason loss to the Titans. Kolb’s numbers looked good in some respects, and he led a nice two-minute scoring drill at the end of the first half. But he was undone by two terrible interceptions, one that was run back for a score, and did not play consistently at all. Skelton, who started, also threw a pick — and it was a bad one. He was never able to get into rhythm after attempting 10 passes (completing four) before giving way to Kolb.
Both men also suffered from horrendous protection. That can’t be stated enough. Meanwhile, Locker played three quarters, threw two TD passes and, most importantly, wasn’t sacked or hit one time by a talented Cardinals defensive line.
The Cardinals drafted Ryan Lindley in Round Five this year, and they continue to tout him as something great. But he’s not playing until the fourth quarter of the preseason games, is the third man to take reps and probably won’t be ready Week One. Lindley was a middling 13-of-24 passing for 112 yards in garbage time last night.
It’s impossible to say if the Titans are a playoff team or if the Cardinals are the front-runners for the first pick in the draft, even if things might be looking that way now. Locker still has to prove he can complete passes at a 60-percent clip and win consistently throughout a full season. And who knows? Maybe Skelton rediscovers his late-season magic or Kolb somehow can get out of his funk.
But for now, you can see the differences between how the teams have set themselves up heading into the season. It’s a quarterback-driven league, and the Cardinals have headed down a rough path with few good exits.