NFC West: John McNulty

The Arizona Cardinals have made available a Bruce Arians interview shot while the team's new head coach unpacked boxes in his office.

There's a comfortable feel to Arians even with a large photo of a serious looking Bear Bryant perched over Arians' shoulder all the while. A former player's father gave the photo to Arians years ago. Arians worked on Bryant's staff at Alabama during the 1981 and 1982 seasons.



"The one thing Coach Bryant left me with when I went away to be a head coach at 30 was [to] coach them hard and hug them later," Arians says on the video. "I've never forgotten that. We like to be up-tempo at practice, coach them extremely hard and then [have] a great relationship. We want the players to want to be around the coaches, and vice versa. That is something that is extremely important to me."

Arians provides a quick overview of his new coaching staff, pointing out connections among them. His offensive coordinator, Harold Goodwin, came to the Cardinals after the Indianapolis Colts allowed Goodwin out of his contract. Teams regularly block such moves.

Last offseason, the Cardinals prevented their quarterbacks coach at the time, John McNulty, from interviewing to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator. That was bad for McNulty, who remained saddled with a rough quarterback situation in Arizona -- one that would get worse through injuries. McNulty is now the Bucs' quarterbacks coach.

More recently, the San Francisco 49ers reportedly prevented secondary coach Ed Donatell from interviewing with the New Orleans Saints (Donatell has defended the system that prevented him from seeking a promotion).

Back to the Cardinals. Arians seems to have secured the coaching staff he wanted to assemble, for the most part. That can be tough to accomplish for a coach hired relatively late in the process. At the very least, Arians has put together a staff featuring coaches he knows well from working with many of them in the past.
We interrupt our steady diet of San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl coverage to check out where the Arizona Cardinals stand in filling vacancies on their coaching staff.

The chart lists the team's coaches from last season and those the team announced as having joined Bruce Arians' new staff. Reports have listed other coaches expected to join the staff, but sometimes plans change. Those hires are not yet official. Mike Caldwell (linebackers) and Amos Jones (special teams) are two potential candidates.

Bold lettering in the chart shows which 2012 Cardinals assistants remain with the team until further notice. Some could remain as part of Arians' staff. None has been released from his contract.

General manager Steve Keim has said he expects the new staff to place heavy emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines. I'll be watching to see whether the Cardinals give Arians additional resources. Arizona had fewer assistants than other NFC West teams employed last season.
Sure, there was a spike in injuries, but bad quarterback play and evaluation doomed Ken Whisenhunt's tenure as Arizona Cardinals head coach. There is no way around it.

"Every quarterback he acquired and developed seemed to get worse, not better," was how I put it when the Cardinals announced Bruce Arians' hiring Thursday night.

That was a little harsh, in retrospect, and so I've rephrased it.

Semantics? Perhaps. But the way we characterize what happened matters. Outcomes too frequently influence our analysis of process.

The quarterback situation in Arizona provides a good case in point.

When the Cardinals were a Super Bowl team, Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley got credit for the roles they played in reviving Kurt Warner's career. Whisenhunt got credit for naming Warner the starter back when the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a far-fetched dream for the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback -- back when Cardinals fans booed Warner.

Once Warner retired, however, his achievements in Arizona became the measuring stick for future Cardinals quarterbacks -- independent of the role Whisenhunt or anyone else played in helping Warner set the bar so high.

It's now easy to say Whisenhunt won because he had a potential Hall of Fame quarterback. But Warner wasn't Hall of Fame material after throwing 23 touchdowns with 18 interceptions over the three-year period before Whisenhunt's arrival.

Warner deserves much of the credit for his revival, of course. But the credit Whisenhunt and the coaching staff received at the time should be valid now as well.

Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Ryan Lindley left the Cardinals no better and arguably worse than when they arrived, in my view.

They deserve much of the blame, but Whisenhunt thought he could win with some of them.

Kevin Kolb arguably made strides under Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach John McNulty from 2011 to 2012. His touchdown-to-interception ratio improved from 9-8 to 8-3, but his passer rating rose only marginally (81.1 to 86.1). His Total QBR score rose marginally (34.4 to 38.0).

Injuries at running back and the offensive line complicated efforts to evaluate Kolb.

In the end, Kolb failed to meet expectations, the quarterback situation deteriorated to an unacceptable level and people lost their jobs.

That is the bottom line, but it's not the whole story.

NFC West Stock Watch

December, 11, 2012
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FALLING

1. 48th U.S. state. That would be Arizona, home of the only team in NFL history to lose a game by a 58-0 final score. The Cardinals' performance against Seattle was so bad, the Seahawks scored a touchdown even after they punted. Twice. Seattle scored more points from those two punts than the Cardinals have scored in their last 10 quarters.

2. Brandon Jacobs, 49ers RB. Jacobs complained about his lack of playing time until the 49ers suspended him for the final three regular-season games. Jacobs figures to lose salary. His value in free agency could take a hit. Jacobs will be 31 before next season, so there are no guarantees another team will give him a spot on its 53-man roster.

3. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals return man. Peterson was already struggling to duplicate his record-setting performance in 2011, when he returned four punts for touchdowns. His turnovers during two returns handed 14 points to the Seahawks. Peterson is averaging 8.3 yards per return, down from 15.9 last season. He has six fumbles, twice as many as last season. He has four returns of 20-plus yards (eight last season) and zero returns of 40-plus yards (five in 2011).

4. Cardinals offensive staff. Coach Ken Whisenhunt's status took a hit in previous stock watches. Losing 58-0 amplifies questions about his job status. No matter what happens, Whisenhunt and his offensive staff will emerge from 2012 with lower profiles. Struggling is one thing. Going from awful to worse is another. Whisenhunt, line coach Russ Grimm, coordinator Mike Miller and quarterbacks coach John McNulty will want to omit this season from their résumés.

RISING

1. Brandon Gibson, Rams WR. Gibson caught six passes for 100 yards and the game-winning touchdown against Buffalo, helping St. Louis to its first three-game winning streak since 2006. Gibson has taken heat around here for past failures, including when his penalty wiped out an 80-yard overtime reception during an eventual tie at San Francisco. It's only fair, then, that Gibson get his due when it's earned. Gibson caught two passes for 37 yards on third down, including a 15-yarder on third-and-10 during the final drive.

2. Chris Culliver, 49ers CB. Niners outside linebacker Aldon Smith has commanded much of the attention while threatening Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record for sacks since 1982. His stock was already high, of course. Culliver deserves acknowledgement for the aggressive, effective play he provides on a weekly basis. If he gave up a reception during the 49ers' 27-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 14, I did not see it.

3. Anthony McCoy, Seahawks TE. The final score in Seattle got most of the attention. There was plenty of credit to go around in Seattle. McCoy's first 100-yard receiving game could be a good sign for the Seahawks. McCoy made an important catch to help beat Chicago on the road last week. His 67-yard reception against the Cardinals set up Marshawn Lynch's touchdown run for a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. Arizona hadn't scored more than 17 points in seven of its previous eight games.

4. Michael Brockers, Rams DT. The Rams face Minnesota's incomparable Adrian Peterson, which means their run defense is going to take a hit. Before that happens, let's acknowledge one of the best rookies in the NFC West so far this season. Defensive tackles generally don't get much attention unless they're piling up sacks. Brockers deserves some for the physical presence he has brought to the Rams' defensive line. A violent open-field tackle near the goal line against Buffalo stood out.

Where they stand: NFC West QB battles

August, 25, 2012
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The three-year, $19.5 million contract Matt Flynn signed in free agency signaled his status as the Seattle Seahawks' likely starting quarterback in 2012.

Coach Pete Carroll stressed from the beginning that Flynn would have to compete for the job. At the time, that seemed mostly like a respectful nod toward incumbent Tarvaris Jackson, who had played through a torn pectoral muscle during the 2011 season.



Russell Wilson's arrival as a third-round draft choice added another dimension to the competition, but rookies tend to struggle if given enough opportunities. Wilson isn't your typical rookie, however. He has only gotten better as the team has given him more chances. At this point, it'll be tough for Carroll and the Seahawks to keep him out of their lineup against Arizona in Week 1.

The 43 snaps Wilson played Friday night at Kansas City were the most in a 2012 preseason game for a potential NFC West starter.

Wilson did not let the opportunity slip past. Seattle scored three field goals and three touchdowns on Wilson's first six possessions during a 44-14 victory at Kansas City. A seventh drive produced a 40-yard completion and a missed field-goal attempt.

"Honestly, this is what we had hoped to see," Carroll told reporters after the game. "He was very comfortable in the pocket. He had good protection for the most part. He took off when he needed to. He did that really well. He had run so much in the first two games, and I wanted to see if he would hold in there and read it out and he did exactly that. It was a nice job by him."

Wilson has now taken 112 preseason snaps, most for an NFC West quarterback. Below, I've updated an earlier chart showing how many snaps potential NFC West starters have taken during the preseason to this point.

St. Louis' Sam Bradford and San Francisco's Alex Smith are running unopposed. Neither player's team has played its third preseason game yet.

Arizona has already played four thanks to its participation in the Hall of Fame game. Even so, Cardinals quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton have combined to play only four more snaps than Wilson to this point.

Arizona went into its fourth preseason game expecting to take a longer look at Skelton. Kolb wound up playing the most. His 32 snaps against Tennessee doubled his snap count from the previous three games combined.

My general impression was that Kolb helped his cause against the Titans despite throwing two interceptions, one of which Tennessee returned for a touchdown. Kolb showed some resiliency in the game. He played freely and effectively while leading a touchdown drive in the two-minute offense. There were enough mistakes to amplify questions about his worthiness for the starting role, but Skelton wasn't any better. For the first time this summer, Kolb emerged with a foundation from which to build.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, like Seattle's Carroll, has said he won't announce a quarterback decision right away. Whisenhunt indicated he would probably use the next few practices to help make a decision. Carroll was less specific during postgame remarks Friday night. Might he wait til after the fourth exhibition game before announcing whether Wilson or Flynn would win the job?

Flynn's absence from Seattle's game against the Chiefs threw another twist into the competition. Flynn had missed practice with a sore elbow earlier in the week. He planned to play against the Chiefs, Carroll said, but the elbow flared up on game day.

Quarterbacks do take many reps during training camps, but this injury comes as a surprise under the circumstances. The NFL's labor agreement has significantly limited the number of snaps available to players over the course of a camp. An NFC West assistant coach I spoke with during camp estimated a roughly 50 percent reduction in the number of camp throws.

"Overall, if you counted them all the way through camp, maybe a little more than half, 60 percent," Cardinals quarterbacks coach John McNulty said last week. "In those double sessions, you ran those long seven-on-seven periods. You might be at half the throws realistically."

How teams allocate those snaps varies from camp to camp. Seattle put added focus on getting reps for Flynn and Wilson at the expense of its other quarterbacks. Flynn had worked only as a backup in the past. This was his first camp as a potential NFL starter.

Wilson was going to be the featured quarterback Friday night whether or not Flynn was available. The team concludes its preseason schedule at home against Oakland on Thursday night. Arizona is home against Denver on the same night. Quarterbacks will be the focus, as usual.

Camp Confidential: Cardinals

August, 23, 2012
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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.

Four, if we count Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle.

"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?

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb and John Skelton
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJohn Skelton, right, appears to have the upper hand over Kevin Kolb for the Cardinals' starting quarterback job.
"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.

[+] EnlargeLevi Brown
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Cardinals may have lost arguably their best offensive tackle, Levi Brown, for the season.
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).

OBSERVATION DECK

  • 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.
  • Arizona should be strong at nose tackle with a leaner Dan Williams and underrated backup David Carter at the position.
  • 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."
Revisiting three under-the-radar moves for the Arizona Cardinals to see how well these June storylines are holding up:

1. Cornerback shuffle. Improved depth at cornerback gave the Cardinals renewed confidence at the position even after losing productive veteran Richard Marshall in free agency. This angle holds up decently even though the competition at right cornerback hasn't been all that fierce. William Gay seems to be holding onto the position. Rookie Jamell Fleming appears on track. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. singled out Fleming for impressive work during the Cardinals' preseason game against Oakland. The Cardinals would like to see other players step up.

2. Naming John McNulty as QB coach. McNulty moved from receivers coach to replace Chris Miller. The idea was for McNulty to put more emphasis on the fundamentals, helping Kevin Kolb do a better job staying in the pocket and finding receivers. No one expected miracles, but some improvement seemed reasonable. The results have not been promising to this point. Kolb has struggled through the preseason. The quarterback competition between Kolb and John Skelton isn't inspiring much confidence.

3. Re-signing Levi Brown. Forget about this one. The torn triceps Brown suffered against Oakland could end the left tackle's season. I had pointed to Brown's re-signing as an under-the radar move because Brown made strides late last season. There seemed to be some similarities in career trajectory between Brown and San Francisco's Alex Smith. Both struggled and were heavily criticized early in their careers, failing to fare as well as other prominent players their teams could have selected. Smith rebounded last season. Brown appeared headed in the right direction.
Kevin Kolb Kyle Terada/US PresswireThe concussion Kevin Kolb suffered on this play capped off a season to forget for the Cardinals QB.

Half of a second can mean everything for a quarterback when an All-Pro defensive lineman is bearing down on him.

Kevin Kolb appeared to do little wrong on the play that ended his first season with the Arizona Cardinals. He dropped back to pass on third-and-6 and hesitated briefly before attempting to target tight end Todd Heap in the right flat.

Only 2.5 seconds elapsed between the snap and the blindside hit from San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith. Smith hit Kolb from behind and knocked the ball free. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks turned to chase the loose ball and, in the process, whacked Kolb in the helmet with a churning knee.

The diagnosis: concussion.

The treatment: lots of rest, followed by an offseason focusing on the little things a quarterback can do to avoid undue punishment and keep an offense moving efficiently.

In some ways, that play against the 49ers typified Kolb's first season. He never had much of a chance. Acquired from Philadelphia as the lockout was giving way to training camps, Kolb was on the field for his first exhibition game after less than 12 hours of camp practices. He struggled to make the transition. Kolb took 30 sacks in nine regular-season starts, missing seven games to injury and opening the door for backup John Skelton to challenge him for the starting job this summer.

The first-year reviews for Kolb were resoundingly negative.

"Kolb's play was disturbing and uneven in Year 1, but like the rookie QBs from a year ago, judging him just off of that is probably too harsh," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Still, he is a limited passer and takes way too many sacks. Of course, his offensive line didn’t help that. He isn't extremely accurate in terms of ball placement, either, which is something you must have if your arm is average."

On the positive side?

"He did do very well against the blitz, which shocked me, honestly, when I heard Jaws doing his Kolb breakdown, because I wouldn't have said that Kolb is the type of QB to stand firm in the pocket, take a big hit and deliver the football," Williamson said.

Even the praise was qualified, in other words.

Kolb's mindset

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't like to anoint players as starters based on their salaries, but he had little choice last offseason.

The lockout left little time for a true quarterback competition. Division-rival Seattle, another team big on competition at all spots, forced into its lineup the newly acquired Tarvaris Jackson, also in the interests of expediency.

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireKevin Kolb's contract with the Cardinals averages $12.6 million per year.
But with Kolb, there was another factor. Arizona, desperate for a quarterback, paid a financial price high enough to identify Kolb as its man right away. Their agreement averages $12.6 million per year and included a $7 million payment this offseason.

"Sometimes when you want something really bad, you press a little bit too hard," Kolb said after a recent minicamp practice. "I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen. I'm trying to make sure I stay relaxed, stay calm, because when I play like that, I usually play pretty good football. ... Hopefully try to make that last for 16 weeks."

A new approach

The Cardinals fired quarterbacks coach Chris Miller and replaced him with receivers coach John McNulty. The move came after Arizona denied McNulty a chance to pursue the offensive coordinator's job with Tampa Bay. It also came with a mandate to re-emphasize the basics.

Arizona wants Kolb adhering more closely to the offensive script. That means methodically moving from one receiver to the next on schedule. It means throwing away the ball instead of inviting trouble with unscripted scrambles. Less creating, more executing.

"In Philadelphia, I think there was a lot of movement stuff they did," McNulty said. "They moved the pocket a lot. You can do that for a while and you can do that, I think, when a guy is playing on a limited basis. But when you want to operate the whole game and the whole season, there's a high percentage of the plays you're going to have to be in the pocket and operate in the pocket.

"He hadn't had as much experience, and he didn't have experience in our system of being just a pure pocket guy that hangs in there and doesn't rely on moving to get things a chance to get open."

Whisenhunt has alluded to the Cardinals having receivers running open frequently without getting the ball last season. That was the case specifically with Andre Roberts, a player Whisenhunt thought enjoyed a strong season without sufficient statistical rewards. Evidence collected over a four-game stretch suggested that might have been a problem for Kolb in particular.

A firmer grasp of the playbook should make it easier for Kolb to trust that his secondary receivers will be available. McNulty is working with Kolb on shortening the quarterback's movements in the pocket to keep plays on rhythm. Nothing too fancy, in other words.

"Just being around for a long time in some different systems now and being around some really good coaches, the ones that simplify it are the ones that really grasp it," Kolb said. "He's really good at that."

What Kolb can become

The Cardinals went 3-6 when Kolb started, but Skelton was the primary quarterback for the Dec. 12 game against San Francisco, the one in which Kolb suffered the concussion.

The burden of proof lies with Kolb after Skelton, who is receiving less than $500,000 per year, played a role in five game-winning drives last season. There is no way around that reality, not with Whisenhunt insisting on an honest competition.

Still, the Cardinals invested $12 million a year in Kolb because they liked his potential, not just because they needed a quarterback and that was the price.

"He's an athletic guy who is very smart," McNulty said. "He's a football guy. He's really done a lot of work to master the system in the last few months, and if he can get the ball out quickly, he's got a whip arm, he's accurate with it when he's working in rhythm. He can present problems as a guy who can move enough to get out of the way if he needs to, but he's capable of taking the snap and getting the ball out quickly and accurately and really diminishing what the rush can do to him."

Less than 11 months have passed since Arizona acquired Kolb. The vision McNulty described is still there for Kolb to salvage.

Just as Kolb must learn to avoid the rush, there's risk for his team if it rushes to judgment.

"I've really got a good hunch, a good instinct about this year," Kolb said. "I really think things are going to go well. That helps. When I have that feeling, that helps relax me and play better ball."
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The roughly 15,000 people at University of Phoenix Stadium cheered loudest when receivers Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald snatched deep passes during the Arizona Cardinals' FanFest practice Wednesday night.

While those plays were naturally favorites, the ones most significant to the Cardinals' 2012 season generated no discernible buzz. These three plays meant everything to second-year running back Ryan Williams, who was back on the field for his most meaningful work since suffering a torn patella during the 2011 exhibition season.

Williams
Williams
"The adrenalin is pumping right now," Williams said on the field following the practice. "It was the first time I actually ran full speed (since the injury). ... I reassured myself. I've got about three months left before the season and I'll be good to go for the season."

The Cardinals need better luck with injuries at the position. Beanie Wells remains sidelined by knee surgery his agent described as a clean-out procedure. Wells, who topped 1,000 yards rushing last season despite playing hurt for stretches, worked with a trainer on the sideline during practice.

This was the second of three non-contact minicamp days for the Cardinals before the team breaks until training camp. Players wore helmets but no pads.

As the session was winding down, Williams lined up at halfback from the I-formation with two tight ends. Fitzgerald lined up wide to the right. Williams took the handoff up the middle, made a cut and churned his legs through a mass of linemen. This was as close as Williams could come to simulating a game situation under the circumstances.

"You can't really make your full reads when everybody is two-hand touching you," Williams said. "I was just trying to make my reads, seeing if I still have it."

A few more notes from practice Wednesday night:
  • Tight end Rob Housler stands out for his size-speed combination. The Cardinals thought all along Housler would emerge in his second season, after adapting to the pro game following a college career at Florida Atlantic. Housler will be a player to watch when the Cardinals put on the pads at training camp.
  • Cornerback Greg Toler appeared to be practicing without fear, a good sign after recovering from season-ending knee surgery. Toler contested one pass to Fitzgerald about as aggressively as the rules would allow.
  • Andre Roberts dropped a ball early, but he caught several and played much better last season than his stats indicated, coach Ken Whisenhunt said. The Cardinals feel as though they had receivers running open all season, if only their quarterbacks could have found them.
  • Speaking of the quarterbacks, they hit some passes and missed a few. As much as I'd like to declare Kevin Kolb or John Skelton the early leader in their competition, this job will be won or lost during camp. I did catch up with Kolb and quarterbacks coach John McNulty during this trip. More on them as time permits.
  • Undrafted rookie receiver LaRon Byrd made an impressive leaping grab in the corner of the end zone. He's 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. The Cardinals like his potential. He'll be a player to watch in camp. The game changes when players put on the pads. Many little-known receivers have impressed early in camp, only to fade when exhibition games start. That might not happen for Byrd, of course, but the disclaimer is worth keeping in mind.

That's it from Cardinals camp. I'm on an early flight Friday to Seattle and plan to check in from Seahawks camp then. Also, I'll be processing multiple interviews from San Francisco 49ers and Cardinals camps once I'm back on a regular schedule.

As for St. Louis, not to worry. I'm already booked for an extended stay at Rams camp beginning in late July.
A look at three potentially significant under-the-radar offseason moves for each NFC West team, continuing with the Arizona Cardinals:

1. Cornerback shuffle. Former Pittsburgh Steelers corner William Gay is working with the starting unit during organized team activities. Arizona signed him to a modest deal after losing Richard Marshall in free agency. Gay played for Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton previously. He should fit the defense. Third-round corner Jamell Fleming has been the Cardinals' best rookie during organized team activities. Arizona could wind up cutting a cornerback who once projected as a starter. Patrick Peterson, Gay and Fleming have job security. A.J. Jefferson, Greg Toler and Michael Adams could be competing for two spots. Jefferson and Toler have been starters. Adams knows how to win a roster spot as an underdog. He's a good special-teams player and sound tackler.

2. Naming John McNulty as QB coach. The stakes are sky-high for the Cardinals at quarterback this season. Former QB coach Chris Miller made his coaching debut in 2009 and, as a former player, was probably an ideal sounding board for then-starter Kurt Warner. The landscape has changed dramatically since then. McNulty brings college coordinating experience, organizational skills and an emphasis on mechanics to the role. He's a professional coach, not a former pro player making the transition to coaching. The Cardinals are banking on McNulty to challenge Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. They are asking him to help develop rookie Ryan Lindley for the future. McNulty coached the Cardinals' receivers previously. Coach Ken Whisenhunt considered him to be a rising talent, one reason the Cardinals blocked Tampa Bay from interviewing McNulty for its opening at offensive coordinator.

3. Re-signing Levi Brown. There are some parallels between this move and the San Francisco 49ers' decision to bring back Alex Smith a year ago. Both players were disappointing as high first-round draft choices. Both cited unfinished business when deciding to return. Both players' teams easily could have moved in another direction. But Arizona, like San Francisco, might have been worse off in the short term. Brown, like Smith a year ago, re-signed after finishing the previous season relatively strong. Arizona had a tough enough time trying to replace its right tackle this offseason. Replacing both of them probably would have set the team back.
» AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Cardinals in 2012:

Dream scenario (11-5): A full offseason of healing and playbook study lets Kevin Kolb prove the Cardinals knew what they were doing when they acquired him from Philadelphia in the offseason. There's plenty of credit to go around. The team's decision to reassign assistant coach John McNulty from receivers to quarterbacks becomes a popular storyline. There's no doubt Kolb's mechanics have improved, but talent and good health are what win football games.

Michael Floyd's addition through the draft makes the Cardinals' passing game nearly impossible to defend, particularly with second-year back Ryan Williams emerging as the game-breaking runner Arizona was convinced it had drafted. Adding young linemen for Russ Grimm to develop also pays off, particularly as the season progresses. Bobby Massie looks like a keeper at right tackle. On the other side, Levi Brown picks up where he left off last season, proving Arizona was right in re-signing him to a five-year contract.

The transformation on defense surprises even the Cardinals. Yes, Arizona made strides on that side of the ball while winning seven of its final nine games in 2011. But there was no way anyone could have expected Sam Acho to challenge Simeon Rice's season franchise record for sacks since 1982 (Rice had 16.5 in 1999). With a healthy Dan Williams at nose tackle and Acho pumping up an already-underrated pass rush, cornerback Patrick Peterson takes the next logical step in his development: picking off passes and returning them for touchdowns.

Winning at San Francisco in Week 17 delivers an 11-5 record and the NFC West title to Arizona, the team's third division crown in five years.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): No one can blame Gregg Williams or Jonathan Vilma for the concussion Kolb suffers in the Hall of Fame game against New Orleans to open the exhibition season. Some in the Cardinals' organization welcome the switch to John Skelton, but with Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells predictably battling knee problems, the offense becomes one-dimensional. That's tough for a team with Brown and a rookie starting at tackle. Kolb's return after a few weeks means as much as it did last season -- nothing.

By October, it's clear the Cardinals didn't do enough at tackle or outside linebacker to take the next step. Those offseason stories about a full offseason helping Kolb seemed justified at the time, but we should have known better. McNulty's coaching helps, but players revert to form under pressure, and Kolb is no exception. He wasn't going to develop instincts all of a sudden, was he? Aldon Smith's three-sack game against Arizona on Monday night in Week 8 doesn't seem so bad when Clay Matthews collects four of them the following week.

For the second time in three seasons, the Cards finish 5-11 after getting blown out at San Francisco in Week 17. The quarterback questions persisting upon Kurt Warner's retirement continue to linger. Watching Peyton Manning in the playoffs doesn't help.
SeattleAztec from San Diego asks whether Matt Flynn might be the "most developed" quarterback in the NFC West after learning from Mike McCarthy in Green Bay.

"Alex Smith and Sam Bradford seem to be the least developed with having multiple offensive coordinators and no great vets to learn behind," he writes. "Kevin Kolb had a good upbringing in Philadelphia and Arizona has shown an ability to handle QBs, but Flynn had the benefit of learning in the Green Bay system. Learning behind Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy will give him an advantage, assuming he wins the starting job. Thoughts?"

Mike Sando: Flynn's background with McCarthy and the Packers appealed to the Seahawks. McCarthy, with nothing more than a compensatory draft choice to gain from advocating for Flynn in free agency, gave glowing reviews in conversations with the Seahawks. Those conversations appear more credible based on Seahawks general manager John Schneider's long association and friendship with McCarthy.

"We really respect the job that they’ve done with their offense and their quarterbacking and Matt is a beneficiary of that, so therefore we are also," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said after signing Flynn in March. "His process to learn as Aaron Rodgers has learned has really been helpful to him. There are a lot of similarities in their style of movement and decision-making, play and conscience that I think helps us."

That doesn't necessarily mean Flynn will be the "most developed" quarterback in the division. A few thoughts on what the other NFC West quarterbacks have going for them:
  • Smith (49ers): Jim Harbaugh should know the position better than any head coach in the division. Smith has more experience than any quarterback in the division. Harbaugh and Smith meshed well last season. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst round out what looks like a solid support group. Smith has finally had time this offseason to work on his mechanics. He's getting a second season in the offense. Spending one season with McCarthy and a second with Norv Turner probably counts for something, too, despite the passage of time.
  • Kolb (Cardinals): Kolb did not practice with the Cardinals until 38 days before the 2011 opener. That made it tough for Kolb to learn a new system and settle into the role. Injuries derailed Kolb once he finally did get experience in the system. The Cardinals fired quarterbacks coach Chris Miller and promoted receivers coach John McNulty to the position. Arizona valued McNulty enough to block Tampa Bay from pursuing him as its offensive coordinator. The team's new receivers coach, Frank Reich, was an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons. What does it all mean? It's a little early to tell.
  • Bradford (Rams): New coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was with Mark Sanchez previously. One line of thinking says Schottenheimer led Sanchez as far as Sanchez could go, then took the fall when Sanchez failed to carry more of the offensive load. Another line of thinking says Schottenheimer couldn't get Sanchez past a certain point. Bradford is on his third coordinator in as many seasons. The Rams went through 2011 without a quarterbacks coach. The new quarterbacks coach, Frank Cignetti, coached the 49ers' Smith under coordinator Jim Hostler in 2007. That was one of the worst offensive seasons in 49ers history. Hostler took the blame. It's tough to fault Cignetti in that context, but also tough to offer a strong endorsement without seeing results.

Circling back to the original question, we could make a case that Flynn should be the most developed quarterback in the division.

Other factors go into success, of course. Bradford and Smith were No. 1 overall choices, indicating that teams thought they were more talented than Flynn, a seventh-rounder who drew moderate interest in free agency this offseason. And if the Seahawks were convinced Flynn were the answer, they would have had less reason to use a third-round choice for a quarterback after signing Flynn.

I do think Flynn's background with the Packers was crucial for the Seahawks. Schneider's first-hand knowledge of Green Bay's quarterback training techniques was a factor.
A look at the Arizona Cardinals' offseason to this point ...

What went right: The Cardinals struck a long-term contract agreement with franchise player Calais Campbell, solidifying their defensive line. ... First-round draft choice Michael Floyd promised to give the Cardinals a big, talented weapon opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Floyd's addition makes Arizona four players deep at wide receiver. The team expects Andre Roberts to become more productive from the slot as a result. ... The Cardinals arguably have better cornerback depth than they've had in years, particularly if rookie Jamell Fleming builds upon an impressive rookie camp debut. ... Running back Ryan Williams has beat expectations in his recovery from a knee injury that could have been career-threatening. The team thinks he can contribute significantly this season, one reason the Cardinals did not address the position much this offseason. ... Keeping assistant John McNulty away from Tampa bay and converting him to quarterbacks coach has the potential to benefit Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. ... The Cardinals finally have young prospects for the offensive line after selecting three in the draft.

What went wrong: Arizona made landing Peyton Manning a top priority, involving in the pursuit everyone from ownership to Fitzgerald. The effort was admirable, but the results were disappointing and the fallback -- paying another $7 million to retain Kolb -- was unsatisfying. ... The Miami Dolphins paid relatively big money to sign cornerback Richard Marshall away from the Cardinals. Marshall had been Arizona's defensive MVP, according to coordinator Ray Horton. The resources Arizona used to replace Marshall might have been directed elsewhere, as the Cardinals navigated the offseason with relatively scarce resources (little salary-cap space, no second-round draft choice). ... The search for a veteran offensive tackle led nowhere after Demetress Bell signed with Philadelphia. ... Arizona could be over-reliant on young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield after failing to upgrade that position. Clark Haggans' expected return would help.

The bottom line: The Cardinals need better play from their quarterbacks. Everything else is details.

Your turn: Any significant omissions here?
The NFL rule expanding roster limits to 90 players came at the right time for teams overhauling their personnel.

The St. Louis Rams are one of those teams.

They drafted 10 players and are close to adding 23 undrafted free agents.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams cut five veteran players Thursday -- Demarco Cosby, John Henderson, Nate Ness, Quinn Porter and Chris Smith -- to make room for the influx. Thomas: "The Rams attempted to address their shortage of linebackers by adding undrafted rookies Sammy Brown of Houston, Derrick Choice of Stephen F. Austin, Alex Hoffman-Ellis of Washington State, and Noah Keller of Ohio. Brown led the nation in tackles for loss (30), while also registering 13.5 sacks for Houston. He's 6-2, 242 and ran a 4.63 at his pro day. Hoffman-Ellis was named Washington State's defensive MVP for the 2011 season after recording 88 tackles and two sacks, and returning his only interception for a touchdown." Noted: Releasing veteran kicker Josh Brown also contributed to the youth movement.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the San Francisco 49ers "have not ruled out" moving right tackle Anthony Davis to right guard, allowing Alex Boone to take over at right tackle. But Boone might be the front-runner at right guard for now. Maiocco: "The 49ers were fine letting Adam Snyder get away to sign a five-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals because the team believes a promotion from within will result in an upgrade. If Boone wins the starting job at right guard, he could still serve as the team's swing tackle. It would be easier for the 49ers to move Boone to one of the tackle positions and bring someone off the sideline to take over at guard than to groom another player to back up at both tackle spots."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says rookie Josh Looney faces stiff competition in his push to start at right guard.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with former 49ers linebacker and broadcaster Gary Plummer regarding the death of Plummer's friend and former teammate, Junior Seau. Plummer estimated he had suffered more than 1,000 concussions during his career, and that Seau probably suffered more than that. Plummer: "In the 1990s, I did a concussion seminar. They said a Grade 3 concussion meant you were knocked out, and a Grade 1 meant you were seeing stars after a hit, which made me burst out in laughter. As a middle linebacker in the NFL, if you don't have five of these (Grade 1 effects) each game, you were inactive the next game. Junior played for 20 years. That's five concussions a game, easily. How many in his career then? That's over 1,500 concussions. I know that's startling, but I know it's true. I had over 1,000 in my 15 years. I felt the effects of it. I felt depression going on throughout my divorce. Junior went through it with his divorce." Noted: I'd be interested in hearing what a doctor would say about Plummer's estimates.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com looks at all the starters who have been in the lineup with Leroy Hill.

Also from Farnsworth: a look at the unusual pieces the Seahawks have put together on defense. Coach Pete Carroll: "Our defense is a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel. It’s just utilizing the special talents of our guys."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle runs the Robert Turbin photo Carroll was marveling over during draft weekend. Does any player in the NFL have more muscular arms?

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' decision to draft a cornerback early added competition to a position that wasn't hurting in that area. Somers: "At least four cornerbacks, including Greg Toler and Jamell Fleming, have a legitimate shot at starting at left cornerback. Toler was contending for the job last summer when he suffered a torn ACL and missed the season. A.J. Jefferson, who lost the starting job after seven games, is returning. William Gay signed as a free agent."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team has recommitted to quarterback fundamentals with John McNulty coaching the position. John Skelton: "In years past, it seemed like, if the ball’s on the money and where it needs to be, we could let everything else slide. Now, I am throwing some good balls but my feet are messed up and that’s when I get coached up. Not only with coach McNulty but coach (Ken Whisenhunt) back there and coach Mike (Miller) sometimes."

Sizing up NFC West coaching staffs

April, 10, 2012
4/10/12
7:26
PM ET
A few notes on NFC West coaching staffs after the St. Louis Rams announced theirs for 2012 in a news release Tuesday:
  • The Rams are not listing suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on their staff. They did not mention him in the news release. They did not list a defensive coordinator. Coach Jeff Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis will presumably take the lead. Secondary coach Chuck Cecil has also been a coordinator.
  • Williams' son, Blake, coaches the Rams' linebackers.
  • The Cardinals have 3-4 fewer assistants than the other teams in the division. I've noticed that to be the case in recent seasons. Staff sizes can vary. Arizona has one more than the NFL listed for New England heading into the most recent Super Bowl.
  • Every team in the division has an assistant head coach. Two serve as offensive line coaches. Another coaches special teams. Assistant head coaches might earn more money than they otherwise would, but the title does not distinguish them from other assistants in relation to hiring protocol. The title affords no additional protections against losing an assistant to another team, in other words.
  • Paul Boudreau is the Rams' offensive line coach. His son, also named Paul, is assistant special teams coach. They are not Paul Sr. and Paul Jr., however. It's not yet clear how the Rams intend to differentiate between the two. Middle initials?
  • Niners offensive assistant Michael Christianson is also coordinator of football technology.

The chart lists full-time assistants, not interns or administrative assistants. Strength-and-conditioning coaches aren't involved in football strategy, but I have listed them.

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