FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- One quarterback at Arizona Cardinals camp was fighting to win back the starting job he'd never really earned. The team had paid millions to him, but questions persisted over his toughness, durability and leadership.
Another quarterback at Cardinals camp had outperformed his status as a late-round draft choice. He was bigger and had a stronger arm. Teammates responded more favorably to his presence on the field, it seemed, but he wasn't the most accurate passer, which was a concern.
If those descriptions stirred thoughts of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, respectively, you'd be correct. But the same passages applied to the Cardinals' ill-fated 2010 quarterback race between Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson. Back then, Arizona cut Leinart, struggled with Anderson and finished with a 5-11 record.
The comparison naturally did not sit well with Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals' sixth-year head coach. He sees a team that has won with both Kolb and especially Skelton behind center. He sees a team returning a 1,000-yard rusher, a fleet of perimeter playmakers featuring the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald and a defense that dominated during a 7-2 run to finish last season.
"The biggest difference, in 2009, we were a damn good football team at 10-6, but how many [key] players did we lose after that year, five?" Whisenhunt said.
"This year, we didn’t lose that," Whisenhunt said. "That is the biggest difference in how I feel from 2010 and the way I feel in 2012."
How the quarterback situation plays out will largely determine whether Whisenhunt is right.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Kolb's adjustment. Going from Philadelphia's West Coast system to the Cardinals' offense has been tougher than anticipated for the Cardinals' would-be starting quarterback. The goal seems so simple: Find ways for Kolb to remain in the pocket and trust the offense. But the instincts Kolb developed with the Eagles keep getting in the way. That could explain what Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly indelicately called "skittishness" -- the tendency for Kolb to bail from the pocket at the first sign of trouble.
Learning the Cardinals' offense hasn't been a problem. Unlearning what he did in Philly? That's another story.
"It's just the way they create the pocket, there versus here," Kolb said. "They teach us to really push up in the pocket in Philly. Two, three hitches up in the pocket when you get up there. You can see that. If you watch Mike [Vick], he has got two really big hitches into his throws. If it’s not there, it’s go or throw, you know what I mean?
"Here, when you get to that 8-yard range [on a drop-back], they want you to hang in that vicinity and just stay there. It is just a different deal. A lot of it is rhythm. As a quarterback, you always want to be on rhythm."
Coaches would rather have Kolb throw the ball away immediately than take off running without clear purpose. The line has a hard enough time protecting Kolb when it knows the quarterback's location. Unscripted relocation has proved costly.
Kolb has a firm command of the offense. He's football savvy and fully capable of processing information at the line of scrimmage. That's what makes his difficulties confounding.
"There haven't been any problems mentally," quarterbacks coach John McNulty said. "He is on top of things, he anticipates things. I think sometimes it’s not as clean or as clear as he wants and then all of a sudden you start moving. And when you make those big, violent moves when the line is not expecting it, then you’re kind of on your own. If we’re not making plays out of it, they’re not worth doing, because all you’re going to do is get hit or go backwards."
2. Shaky offensive line. The Cardinals were auditioning left tackles as camp broke after Levi Brown suffered a potentially season-ending torn triceps tendon. For all the criticism Brown has taken over the years, he was clearly the best offensive tackle on the team. The line was a concern even before Brown's injury. Now, it's bordering on a crisis.
Jeremy Bridges, D'Anthony Batiste, Bobby Massie, D.J. Young and Nate Potter are the other tackles on the roster. Bridges has started 55 regular-season NFL games. Batiste has started four. Massie and Potter are rookies. Young has no starts after entering the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted free agent.
One more time: The Cardinals have drafted zero offensive linemen in the first three rounds over the past five drafts. They did not draft an offensive lineman in any round of the 2011 or 2010 draft. The 2012 draft didn't fall right for them when it came to adding a tackle early. They got Massie in the fourth round, which seemed like good value. He'll start at right tackle eventually, and perhaps right away.
3. Running back health. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are coming off knee surgeries. The Cardinals felt good enough about their prospects to sail through the offseason without addressing the position. That seemed a little risky.
Likely troubles in pass protection could lead the Cardinals to lean more heavily on their ground game, at least in theory. Wells and Williams would appear to carry greater injury risks than backs without recent knee troubles. Utility back LaRod Stephens-Howling was banged up during camp.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
The team showed dramatic improvement, particularly on defense, while finishing with that 7-2 record over the final nine games last season.
Sometimes momentum doesn't carry over. In the Cardinals' case, however, there are reasons to expect sustained improvement.
The 2011 team was breaking in a first-time defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, following a lockout-shortened offseason. Players needed time to grasp the concepts. They got better late in the season. They should be better yet following a full offseason.
Arizona has front-line talent at every level of its defense. End Calais Campbell, inside linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerback Patrick Peterson are dynamic young players on the rise. End Darnell Dockett and strong safety Adrian Wilson are in their 30s now, but both remain productive.
The team has gone 7-4 with Skelton as its starter. That figure doesn't even count Skelton's most impressive performance of the 2011 season, when he replaced an injured Kolb and helped Arizona upset San Francisco.
Skelton might not be pretty to watch, but six game-winning drives in 13 career appearances give him credibility in the locker room. Whisenhunt was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the team won ugly with a young Ben Roethlisberger. Skelton is not Roethlisberger, but he is a big, strong quarterback with some moxie.
The Cardinals have big-play threats on offense. They finished last season with 15 pass plays of at least 40 yards, more than New England and every team but the New York Giants (18), Detroit Lions (16) and Green Bay Packers (16).
Greater consistency from the quarterback position isn't out of the question. If the Cardinals get it, they'll surprise skeptics.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
The team that finished last season on that 7-2 hot streak also went 1-6 to open the season.
And let's face it, the Cardinals, while unfortunate in a few instances early in the year, were fortunate to win seven of their final nine. They claimed four of those seven victories in overtime. Five came against teams with losing records at the time.
The young talent on defense is backed up with the oldest reserves in the league. The offensive line is solid at center and left guard, but the other three positions should strike more fear in the Cardinals' quarterbacks than in the opposition. Removing Brown from the equation was devastating, given the already tenuous nature of the tackle situation.
Kolb hasn't been able to stay healthy or produce when on the field. That isn't going to change with the floodgates likely opening at both tackle spots.
Skelton has shown greater ability to keep his wits against pressure. Whichever QB starts will need every bit of resourcefulness he can muster against a schedule featuring a long list of able pass-rushers: Jared Allen (22 sacks last season), Jason Babin (18), Aldon Smith (14), Chris Long (13), Chris Clemons (11), Julius Peppers (11), Cliff Avril (11), Trent Cole (11), Mark Anderson (10), John Abraham (9.5), Cameron Wake (8.5), Kyle Vanden Bosch (8), Justin Smith (7.5), Clay Matthews (6) and Mario Williams (5).
William Gay appears to be running unopposed at right cornerback. Opportunistic rookie Jamell Fleming, a third-round choice, will factor one way or another at the position. Fitzgerald: "[Fleming] is extremely talented. The thing I like about him is he can move around. They’ve got him playing inside a little bit, playing outside. What it shows you is that he is intelligent, he can pick up the defense. He understands terminology, what’s going on, and he plays fast. And the ball just seems to find him."
Coaches noticed a big jump from the spring to June to training camp in Skelton's ability to handle pre-snap responsibilities. They hope that progress can help him fare better early in games. One theory holds that Skelton's grasp of a game would improve as he had a chance to study photos of opposing formations on the sideline between possessions. By the fourth quarter, he was up to speed. "We're trying to get to where we have the handle before the game," McNulty said.
Losing Brown hurt, but center Lyle Sendlein is arguably the offensive lineman Arizona can least afford to lose. He has started every game over the past four seasons and, like many centers, holds everything together up front. Left guard Daryn Colledge: "If we had to replace one guy, he would be the worst one probably on the whole football team. He is the key cog, especially for this offensive line. He is the captain and he is our guy. Without him, the wheels just might come off."
Sixth-round choice Justin Bethel, a free safety, looks like a keeper after making a positive impact on special teams.
Inside linebacker Stewart Bradley appears more comfortable in the Cardinals' defensive scheme, but the team still appears to value Paris Lenon as the starter next to Washington. That arrangement is more palatable after Bradley, one of the team's big free-agent signings in 2011, took a pay reduction.
First-round draft choice Michael Floyd hasn't stood out yet. Fitzgerald will continue to carry the passing game. Rob Housler will emerge as more of a threat at tight end. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet give the team two strong inside options. Getting Floyd going will be one key to unleashing Roberts from the slot. Roberts has good quickness and instincts. The Cardinals' quarterbacks like the way he moves within zones, but they need to do a better job locating him.
The Cardinals think they have a great one in Peterson. The physical attributes are obvious. Peterson also has the necessary desire. Arizona saw it last season when Peterson played through an Achilles injury suffered at Cincinnati.
This season as last, the Cardinals are counting on young outside pass-rushers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho. Schofield is fighting through knee problems, a potential concern given the career-altering surgery he underwent coming out of college. He played 38 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Arizona will need him to play a much higher percentage in 2012. Can Schofield hold up? Clark Haggans, 35, is the backup.
It's tough to envision Kolb emerging as the starter based on what we've seen to this point. There's no clear indication Kolb is close to breaking through. "The only thing I can do is stay patient, know that it’s all part of God’s plan," Kolb said. "My mentality is that I’m going to get through the bad to get to the good. Something good is going to come of it."