Unbeaten Cardinals riding Kolb as far as possible

Posted Sept. 17, 2012 @ 2:42 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Forget the final one minute plus for just a moment.

Let it sink in: The Cardinals, with a backup quarterback, beat Tom Brady and the Patriots. In his house.

No, you first need to resist replaying those ridiculous final 70 seconds.

First, you must acknowledge what happened prior to that in Foxborough, Mass. The Cardinals, who were the joke of the preseason with their anemic quarterback play, advanced to 2-0 with a 20-18 win over the Patriots. And not some fluky win — again, control your thoughts; remember the first 59 minutes.

This was a signature victory for so many people. Kevin Kolb. Ken Whisenhunt. Calais Campbell, who might have been the best player on the field Sunday.

The last time the Cardinals were in New England, on Dec. 21, 2008, they trailed 31-0 at halftime and it got worse: a 47-7 final in which Matt Leinart mopped up for Kurt Warner. As bad as those memories were, this day was as joyous for the Cardinals, who won for the first time in this town since 1984 (it was known as Sullivan Stadium back then and the Cards’ franchise was still in St. Louis).

Have we delayed the inevitable long enough? It’s true: We must talk about the final two possessions of the game.

It will soon be remade as a high school clinic of how not to close out a game — stunning when you consider that Whisenhunt and Bill Belichick might be two of the 10 best coaches in the NFL.

The Cardinals led 20-18 after a failed Patriots two-point conversion. From their own 35-yard line, with 1:10 remaining, the Cards faced a 3rd-and-13 situation. You have to take a knee. If your intention is not to make a first down — I doubt that a sweep to the short side of the field is designed to gain 13 — then you lose a yard, punt the ball and make Brady drive 60 or more yards with no timeouts in less than a minute.

Based on the way things had gone Sunday, that would have been quite a chore. With X-factor TE Aaron Hernandez out for the game with a high ankle sprain and only four of the Patriots’ 72 offensive plays to that point having traveled more than 19 yards, it might have been too far to go.

Plus, the Patriots’ ballyhooed hurry-up had been muted by the Cardinals’ defense. The coverage was incredible all game. New England had only one drive longer than 47 yards and scored only one touchdown in three visits to the red zone.

But on that 3rd-and-13 play, the Cardinals ran it. They gave it to Ryan Williams on a slow-developing play. You could almost feel the ball come out before it was officially a fumble. Brandon Spikes forced it, Vince Wilfork fell on it, Patriots ball. Suddenly it appeared as if they were going to win a game they in no way deserved to.

But poetic justice earned its revenge. Bad karma got its comeuppance. The Patriots also botched their execution down the stretch, with a TD called back because of a holding penalty, a false-start infraction on a kneeldown (no longer called the Victory Formation in these parts) and a hooked 42-yard field-goal attempt by a kicker who was 4-for-4 with makes from 46, 34, 51 and 53 on the day.

In a season whose script already has been tossed into the incinerator, in a modern league where lacking a franchise quarterback is tantamount to a death sentence, the Cardinals are unbeaten and no other result would have made cosmic sense.

“Yeah, that’s how we like to do it, it seems like,” Kolb said. “As long as they keep falling into the ‘W’ column we’re good.”

So how did the Cardinals get to leading in the first place? That’s important, too.

Maybe they do have a franchise quarterback. Maybe Kolb is the most unlikely choice for this title, considering his path to redemption by way of weekly, painful blight. He deserves a massive amount of credit. Like Eli Manning prior to the 2007 playoffs, Kolb’s job is clear: Plug his ears. Throw with conviction. Believe in himself. Then repeat.

The chorus prior to the start of Kolb’s injury-relief appearance of John Skelton in Week One was that the Cardinals were a talented team but one that didn’t have a shot because of its QB quandary. The talk leaguewide was a collective love sonnet for Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and the slew of first- and second-year quarterbacks who were starting. No team, many said, mismanaged the QB position as blatantly the previous two years as the Cardinals, who gave up a starting cornerback and a second-round pick for a guy who wasn’t even starting anymore.

Skelton, who won the job in camp, was the lesser of two evils. Kolb, the loser, was the everlasting scourge being paid like Ebenezer Scrooge.

So, how has all of that been undercut so swiftly? Smart coaching and the rest of that talent coming out hasn’t hurt.

The Cardinals flashed some versatility in Sunday’s game that the Patriots typically are best known for. It included:

And, of course, Kolb. He was confident, effective and steady. He was the more sure of the two quarterbacks on the field (pickle your brain with that concept). Kolb ran for a score on a sneaky, Brady-esque QB draw, capping off a nine-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter. On the road. Heady stuff. It was the kind of play the Cardinals expected when they signed Kolb to a five-year, $63 million deal.

“Yeah, that was huge,” Kolb said of the score that put the Cards up 20-9. “We knew we had to do that at least one time. We were in a good position before that.

“We knew coming in we had to make one more good drive and at least give it two scores. We knew with Brady and the bunch that they were going to have a shot there at the end.”

Now comes the obvious questions: How far can this go? How good are these Cardinals? Three of their next four are at home, where they have won nine of their past 11 games dating back to 2010.

They also have games at the Rams and Vikings, who combined for five victories a year ago, before they face the 49ers and Packers prior to the bye.

Could Kolb and the Cardinals be, in all seriousness, 6-1 or 7-0 before hosting San Fran on Oct. 29?

“It’s crazy. It really is nuts,” Kolb said. “It seems to be just our vibe — as soon as you think you get in a rhythm or as soon as things are done, then something sparks it up. The last 10 to 11 games have been going our way and hopefully they continue to do that.”

They can’t go back to Skelton if they keep winning. That’s obvious. That’s known. This team should just enjoy the moment and ride the wave. Maybe Kolb blows up in the next two weeks. Or maybe he just needed to hit rock bottom before he was able to come back up. A quarterback’s path to anywhere — the top, bottom or as someone’s No. 3 — rarely is linear.

Bucs building something over time

It’s the kind of coaching shtick that is one part inspiration, one part media fodder, but for Greg Schiano and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in 2006, it became an identity.

Keep chopping. That was the team’s thoroughly worn mantra, a battle cry for the long-disrespected New Jersians through what became perhaps the best season in modern school history.

What it meant: Stay focused on the task at hand through hard work.

And if ever there was a team that needed this inspiration, it was the Buccaneers. What Schiano inherited after taking the job in Tampa was a team that quit on its previous head coach, Raheem Morris. Through the final 10 games of last season, following an upset of the Saints at home, the team imploded in just about every way a team can.

But mostly mentally. It was a soft team. That’s never going to work at any level, much less the NFL.

The seeds of Schiano’s work for the past eight months were on display in the Buccaneers’ heartbreaking 41-34 loss to the Giants. The hackneyed wood saying has been left to wither somewhat, although there no doubt were people at MetLife Stadium who revived it for a few hours.

They knew what Schiano built at Rutgers — a smart, feisty and fierce team that few teams wanted to see on the schedule — and have to think that’s what is happening with the Bucs.

The Buccaneers picked off Eli Manning three times in the first half and scored 21 points off of those. They led by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Now this young, still-growing team must learn how to close out games.

They got conservative in Week One and almost blew it to the Panthers. They failed to execute in the fourth against the Giants, when they allowed 243 passing yards (!) to Manning on defense and punted twice and threw a pick on offense.

Then things unraveled in the final few moments a bit. As the Giants set to kneel down (what is it with these plays today?), the Bucs’ defenders pushed as if it was a normal play — with Manning getting shoved back. Gerald McCoy was asked about it afterwards, and he said that was the way he was coached (by Schiano) to play it.

Here’s Schiano’s explanation: “I don’t know if that’s not something that’s done in the National Football League,” he said, “but what I do with our football team is we fight until they tell us the game is over. There’s nothing dirty about it. There’s nothing illegal about it. We crowd the ball. It’s like a sneak defense and we try to knock it loose. If they watch Rutgers, they would know, that’s what we do at the end of the game. We’re not going to quit. That’s just the way I coach and teach our players. Some people were upset about it. I don’t have any hesitation. That’s the way we play: clean, hard football until they tell us the game is over.”

Now what they need to do is clean up some of those mistakes. Coaching — not letting up on the gas. Playing — not playing not to lose. It should come in time. The Bucs will keep chopping away in what should be a fascinating season to watch as they continue their ascent back to respectability.

And a note on the referees ...

By the afternoon games, things really turned foul around the NFL.

Both the Steelers-Jets and Rams-Redskins games were marred by extremely shaky officiating to the point where the law of diminishing returns might be kicking in. The officiating was notable the first week of the season for its lack of major, glaring mistakes. Sunday might have been a tipping point.

If you want to watch perhaps the biggest phantom pass-interference call, fast forward to the second half of Jets-Steelers where CB Ike Taylor is called against Jets WR Santonio Holmes. It just wasn’t there. That was one of a few really shaky calls, including another one where it appeared RB Isaac Redman might not have been down but was called as such.

It was equally as shaky when the referees allowed a play to happen at the end of the first quarter that ended up being a defensive pass interference against the Lions, placing the ball on the 1-yard line. The problem? The first-quarter clock read 0:00 before the 49ers snapped the ball. The Lions were apoplectic on the sideline. The 49ers scored on the next play.

And though we’ll talk about how Redskins WR Josh Morgan blew the game by letting Cortland Finnegan get under his skin and throwing the ball at the noted instigator, there was another sub-story: The refs let that game get out of hand.

“The game was a little out of control,” said Mike Shanahan. He’s right.

That doesn’t excuse Morgan’s mistake, of course. Nor do I think Joe Flacco, who made comments about the replacement refs and the NFL “affecting the integrity of the game,” won’t regret what he said to some degree.

But that doesn’t make him wrong.

Others chimed in on the lack of control in games this week, something that wasn’t blatantly evident in Week One.

“I can’t talk about the referees too much, but it seemed like it was a lopsided game,” Buccaneers OLT Donald Penn said. “They came and bit us in the end. (Mike Williams) caught the ball, got two feet down, got hit out of bounds, and the ball came loose. It’s a fumble out of bounds. It should have been a first down.

“We didn’t get that break.”

Will it affect the negotiations between the locked-out officials and the NFL? Likely not, sadly. With nothing obvious in Week One to complain about, people (mostly) stayed quiet. But now, with a rash of shaky officiating, people are honing in on every single bad call or non-call.

That’s bad business for the NFL. Their product is being sullied. The fans have noticed. The media is all over it. The players are sounding off on it, despite the obvious gag order from the league.

Like the play at the end of Redskins-Rams, this one has gotten out of control. Can we not renew talks — soon?