NFC West: Ken Whisenhunt


 
Looking back on three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' third exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 24-7 defeat at home against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday night:

1. Whisenhunt homecoming. Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt returned to University of Phoenix Stadium as the Chargers' offensive coordinator. His quarterback, Philip Rivers, averaged only 3.9 yards per attempt and threw one interception with no touchdown passes. However, the Chargers' first-team offense put together a 92-yard touchdown drive and generally outperformed the Cardinals' starting offense on this night. Both teams' running games were effective early. That provided some consolation for the Cardinals until the team lost running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) and rookie first-round guard Jonathan Cooper (ankle) to injuries of unknown severity. Cooper rode a cart off the field and wasn't putting any weight on his left leg after the injury. Another player flew into his left leg from the side and behind, causing Cooper's left ankle to roll inside out. A serious injury to Cooper would undermine the team's efforts to upgrade the line. That seemed particularly true on this night, when the Chargers' Dwight Freeney dominated against Cardinals left tackle Levi Brown.

2. Williams at running back.Third-year running back Ryan Williams returned to practice late in the week and made his 2013 preseason debut late in the third quarter. Williams, troubled by knee issues lingering from a 2011 injury, gained 5 yards on his first play. He was the fourth running back to get carries in this game, after Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith and Stepfan Taylor. Rookie Andre Ellington was shaken up returning a kick right before Williams went into the game. Ellington then went back into the game on offense, replacing Williams. Williams returned when Ryan Lindley took over at quarterback in the final five minutes. He carried one more time and gained 5 yards. He ran well on his two carries. Time could be running out for Williams. Three other recent high draft choices for Arizona -- Cooper, tight end Rob Housler (ankle) and nose tackle Dan Williams (knee) -- left this game with injuries. Rookie seventh-round tight end D.C. Jefferson also left with an injury. This was a brutal night for Arizona.

3. Red-zone offense. The Cardinals wanted to focus on this area after settling for four field goals and a 12-7 victory in their most recent preseason game. They scored one touchdown in two red-zone possessions against San Diego. Housler dropped an accurate pass from Carson Palmer in the end zone, killing the first opportunity. Receiver Michael Floyd made an impressive leaping grab in the back of the end zone to score on the other red-zone possession. This was progress, in a way, but the shaky pass protection and injuries likely prevented Arizona from enjoying it.

Three things: Chargers-Cardinals

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
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Three things to watch for Saturday in the Arizona Cardinals' third exhibition of the 2013 season, set for 10 p.m. ET at home against the San Diego Chargers:

1. Whisenhunt homecoming. Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt returns to University of Phoenix Stadium as offensive coordinator for the Chargers. Will his offense upstage the one his successor, Bruce Arians, has installed with the Cardinals? While this is a silly question in the bigger picture, it's an item of interest in the short term given how little time has passed since Whisenhunt's dismissal in January. Personal subplots abound. Whisenhunt and Arians worked together in Pittsburgh, where Arians succeeded Whisenhunt as the Steelers' offensive coordinator. The history between Whisenhunt, Arians and the Cardinals adds appeal to this matchup.

2. Williams at running back. Third-year running back Ryan Williams returned to practice late in the week and could play against San Diego. He appears to be fighting for a roster spot two years after the team drafted him 38th overall. The Cardinals are averaging 3.0 yards per carry during the preseason. Williams has not played in a game of any kind since Oct. 4, 2012. He has not been the same since suffering a torn patella tendon during the 2011 preseason. Whether Williams plays and how he performs is a leading storyline for Arizona. Either way, Rashard Mendenhall is the starter.

3. Red zone offense. Arians was ticked off after his team settled for four field goals during a 12-7 victory against the Dallas Cowboys at home last week. Finishing drives with touchdowns instead of field goals is always a priority. It's a heightened priority this week. Arizona will be looking for sharper play from quarterback Carson Palmer. Establishing at least the threat of a running game would help, too.
Looking back on three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' second exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 12-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at University of Phoenix Stadium:

1. Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. Pregame comparisons between Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson and those two sporting legends could not be fulfilled all in one meaningless game, of course. The Cardinals did work Peterson into their offense as a regular receiver, not as a gimmick player or within a trick-play context. That is the expectation for Peterson this season. Peterson gained 6 yards on a backwards pass (officially a rushing attempt). The Cardinals' failure to produce in the red zone will give them something to focus on beyond whatever role Peterson might play as a receiver.

2. Rookie free safety. Third-round choice Tyrann Mathieu started at free safety and played three quarters without making the obvious impact plays the Cardinals expect him to provide as his career progresses. That doesn't mean much in the bigger picture. Mathieu is just getting started and it's tough to know whether a safety was correct in his assignments. We're left to watch for standout plays. Mathieu did lead the team in tackles with seven, no surprise given how deep into the game he played. Mathieu lost 3 yards on a punt return after making a questionable decision to return the ball.

3. The home crowd. This was Bruce Arians' University of Phoenix Stadium debut as the Cardinals' head coach. His team collected six turnovers and won, but as an offensive-minded head coach, Arians will want his offense to produce better results regardless of venue. The Cardinals are home Aug. 24 against the San Diego Chargers. That game will feature Arians' offense and a Chargers offense coordinated by Arians' predecessor in Arizona, Ken Whisenhunt. That game might be better for monitoring crowd reaction.

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was chatting about his team on the sideline during a training camp practice when a wide receiver caught a pass in stride and pulled away from the secondary.

Except it wasn't really a wide receiver with the ball in his hands. It was cornerback Patrick Peterson, and the sight of him running with the football was compelling enough to redirect Keim in midsentence.

"He is so natural," Keim said. "Watch him running routes, particularly stops and digs. You watch him drop his weight at 219 and accelerate out of the break, that's not what cornerbacks do. He can come out here and just run a route, and you're just like, 'He looks like Percy Harvin running a route. How does he do that?'"

Keim has seen much more of Peterson at receiver in two-plus weeks of subsequent practices. He is now calling Peterson the closest thing he's seen to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in ability.

"From an ability standpoint, I've never seen anything like him," Keim told Robert Klemko. "He's the closest thing in the league to a Bo Jackson, a Deion Sanders. I've seen him stand on the field flat-footed and throw the ball 65-70 yards. He goes out to practice as a wideout, and runs a 10- and 15-yard out as well as anyone on our team. His value to our team is really unparalleled."

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPatrick Peterson has earned Pro Bowl honors for his ability as a return man and a cornerback.
Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns as a rookie and earned Pro Bowl honors in that capacity. He earned Pro Bowl honors as a cornerback in his second season, picking off seven passes. Could Peterson, with only four receptions for 10 yards to this point in his career, become that type of contributor on offense? It's doubtful any cornerback could play enough snaps on offense while remaining an every-down player on defense, but if any current corner could do it, Peterson would be the one.

Jackson played football and baseball, but he didn't play two positions in the NFL. Sanders dominated at cornerback and caught 36 passes for the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. He had 188 career receptions, three for touchdowns. Peterson is much sturdier than Sanders, outweighing him by about 20 pounds while showing similar ability with the ball in his hands. Peterson would have a better chance at holding up physically. Arizona goes only three deep at receiver, so there could be opportunities for Peterson without forcing the situation.

I came away from Cardinals camp thinking Peterson would get enough snaps on offense to make his presence on offense more than a gimmick. Keim's latest comments reinforce that idea. At face value, the "unparalleled" comment means the Cardinals value Peterson more than they value any other player on the team, including receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That does not mean the Cardinals plan to pay Peterson the way they are paying Fitzgerald, necessarily. Fitzgerald leveraged an over-the-top rookie deal into two extremely player-friendly veteran contracts, to the point that the salary-cap consequences are burdensome. But when the GM is comparing a young player to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from an ability standpoint while calling that player's value to the team unparalleled, I'd imagine the agent is taking notes. Peterson is signed through 2014 and is earning $4.6 million per year as the fifth player chosen in the 2011 draft class.

Praise for Peterson is nothing new in Arizona. Here is what Fitzgerald said of Peterson last offseason:
"From a physical standpoint, he has no weaknesses at all. Most guys you go against, bigger guys, I can manipulate them on the field or physically. Patrick is just so different. He has the game-changing speed. He can run with anybody in the league. His ball skills are like playing with another receiver. He can tackle you in the run game. He knows what’s going on, is a student of the game.

"You want to draft a guy to carry the torch for your team, Patrick Peterson epitomizes that. Just his maturity. He’s 22 years old [now 23]. He just got married. His outlook on life, the way he carries himself, the way he performs, it’s like a 30-year-old. He just gets it. To get it at that young of age, that is a scary combination when you couple that with elite talent."

Also last offseason, then-coach Ken Whisenhunt called Peterson "the same creature" as Fitzgerald in terms of talent, community involvement and the will to be great. He pointed to a rough 2011 defeat against Cincinnati when Peterson had hurt his Achilles tendon. Logic said the Cardinals needed to be careful. The defeat had eliminated them from playoff contention. One game remained in the season. Why risk it?

"He came out and played the next week against Seattle," Whisenhunt said. "It was that important to him. And that was very Larry-esque."
A look at what to expect as the Arizona Cardinals begin the Bruce Arians era:

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians, Steve Keim
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim, right, have given the Cardinals' roster a major overhaul.
Biggest change to expect: The Cardinals, the only NFC West team with a new coach, were going to be better on offense this season even if they had retained the previous coaching staff. They have a chance to be much, much better with a more competent quarterback (Carson Palmer) and upgraded personnel on the offensive line. The scheme will change Insider as well even though Arians shares Pittsburgh roots with predecessor Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona will no longer play with a fullback, explaining why the team traded Anthony Sherman, who had been a draft pick from the Whisenhunt era. The offense will put greater emphasis on deeper pass routes.

What success would look like: Larry Fitzgerald smiling again. Running backs healthy enough to average better than 3.1 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles picking up where Ray Horton left off. Daryl Washington restoring the team's confidence in him. Tyrann Mathieu making his mark on the field, not off it. Patrick Peterson returning a punt for a touchdown again. Palmer reviving his career with a healthy Freddie Kitchens coaching him. Avenging 58-0.

Protecting the nest: Winning at home is where it starts for the Cardinals. They lost home games to Buffalo, St. Louis and a by-then-struggling Chicago team last season. The 2013 home schedule won't be easy with playoff teams such as Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Indianapolis and Atlanta scheduled to visit. Two visiting teams with losing records last season, St. Louis and Detroit, also could be tough. There is simply no realistic way to compete without winning at home, however.

More or fewer wins? "More" is the answer reflexively given how bad the Cardinals were while falling from a 4-0 start to 5-11 last season. We figured Palmer could be worth another three victories over last season if he played about as well as he did with Oakland. Arians and general manager Steve Keim have turned over much of the roster, however, so we're still getting a feel for this team. I'm looking forward to visiting Cardinals training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium beginning Sunday.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC West team?

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Offense: Top running backs
Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have combined for one ruptured patella tendon (Williams), one torn ACL (Mendenhall) and one shoulder surgery (Williams) during the past two seasons. Williams has played five games in two seasons. Mendenhall missed 10 games last season (one to suspension) after returning from his knee injury. So while new quarterback Carson Palmer rightly commands much of the attention heading into camp, the running backs deserve our attention as well.

Defense: Coaching change
The coaching change from Ken Whisenhunt to Bruce Arians cost the Cardinals their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, just as the defense was gaining momentum. Arizona ranked third behind Chicago and Denver in defensive EPA last season. New coordinator Todd Bowles comes to Arizona after a difficult 2012 season with Philadelphia. Can the Cardinals sustain their recent defensive success under new leadership?

Wild card: Kitchens' health
Quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens underwent emergency heart surgery in early June after experiencing chest pain during practice. Last we heard, Kitchens was recuperating and expected to return sometime during camp, perhaps on a limited basis at first. Kitchens' health is a leading issue for the Cardinals even though the team has enough depth on its coaching staff to cover for him.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Offense: Second-year second-rounders
Two second-round picks from 2012 will help determine the Rams' trajectory on offense. Receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead each started one game as a rookie. Quick played 174 snaps and caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns. Pead played 39 snaps and had 10 carries. It's time for both to become meaningful contributors. They should have increased opportunities after St. Louis parted with veterans at their positions.

Defense: Rookie safety T.J. McDonald
The Rams will want to get McDonald up to speed quickly. They did sign veteran Matt Giordano for insurance, but McDonald, a third-round choice from USC, is the player they envision in the lineup. Coach Jeff Fisher has experience putting rookie safeties into the lineup right away. Tank Williams started all 16 games as a rookie under Fisher with Tennessee in 2002. Michael Griffin started 10 games as a rookie under Fisher with the Titans in 2007. Williams was a second-round choice. Griffin was a first-rounder.

Wild card: O-line health
The Rams are young just about everywhere except along their offensive line. That's OK as long as those veterans avoid some of the injury troubles they've suffered in recent seasons. Left tackle Jake Long has had two arm surgeries the past two seasons. Right guard Harvey Dahl is coming off a torn biceps. Center Scott Wells has had two surgeries on his right knee, plus a broken foot, in the past year and a half. Tackle Rodger Saffold has had a torn pectoral and a neck injury since late in the 2011 season. The group should be healthy going into camp. Will the good health last?

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Offense: Developing wideouts
Eight wide receivers have played in games for the 49ers during two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. The list -- Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Brett Swain -- includes zero players the team drafted and developed under Harbaugh. The team will be looking to develop young wideouts A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette while Crabtree and Manningham recover from serious injuries. Jenkins and Patton were draft choices under Harbaugh. Lockette was signed last season.

Defense: Roles on the D-line
General manager Trent Baalke has suggested the team could stand to expand its rotation on the defensive line. How will that play out once the 49ers are on the field and the coaching staff takes over? What role will newcomer Glenn Dorsey play to that end? Starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald could benefit from a little more rest now and then. They rank among the NFL leaders in total regular-season and postseason snaps played in the past couple of seasons. Smith, in particular, is hugely important to the defense's success.

Wild card: Eric Mangini
The coaching staff will have a different feel with Mangini as the new senior offensive consultant. Harbaugh has kept together his staff for two seasons, an upset for a team that has enjoyed so much success on the scoreboard and in scheming. We easily could have credited Harbaugh for staying the course in the name of continuity. Adding a coach with Mangini's profile shakes things up. It'll be interesting to see how Mangini assimilates.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Offense: James Carpenter
Carpenter's health is a key variable for the future of the offensive line. Coach Pete Carroll has indicated Carpenter should be available for the start of training camp after missing nine games last season and seven as a rookie. Drafted to play right tackle, Carpenter's future is at guard if he can get healthy, stay healthy and regain quickness. Having Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and Pro Bowl center Max Unger flanking a healthy Carpenter would give Seattle a line more like the one Carroll envisioned.

Defense: Cliff Avril's transition
Seattle will be looking to see how pass-rushing defensive ends Avril and Bruce Irvin fit at linebacker as the coaching staff promotes versatility through the front seven. Avril is particularly important in the short term because Irvin faces a four-game suspension to open the season while starting defensive end Chris Clemons continues to rehab from the torn ACL he suffered during the wild-card round last season. Carroll has hinted that Clemons could return in time for the season, but that's a best-case scenario.

Wild card: Keep it clean
All NFL players must submit to testing for performance-enhancing drugs when they report for training camp. That's significant for the Seahawks after Irvin became the fifth Seattle player since 2011 to incur a PED-related suspension. What are the chances another player tests positive?
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Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens developed a reputation for toughness while playing through knee, shoulder and chest injuries at Alabama.

Heart issues fall into a different category, of course.

Kitchens, stricken by dizziness during practice Tuesday, has received a positive early prognosis after undergoing heart surgery.

"During Tuesday’s practice Freddie Kitchens began to feel ill -- dizzy, light-headed -- and was sent to the training room," team vice president Mark Dalton reported. "After being evaluated by the team’s medical staff it was determined that he should be taken to the hospital for more evaluation and testing.

"During that process, a CT scan revealed a defect to his aorta that required surgery, which he had Tuesday night at the Arizona Heart Institute. According to the doctors who performed the surgery, it went very well and the early prognosis is positive. The Kitchens family is grateful to everyone who has and continues to extend their support, well wishes and prayers."

Kitchens, married with two daughters, played quarterback at the University of Alabama in the 1990s. The Cardinals hired him to coach tight ends beginning in 2007, when Ken Whisenhunt was head coach. The team promoted him to quarterbacks coach this offseason even while the Cardinals changed head coaches. One key: new coach Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator at Alabama when Kitchens played there.

It's too early to know when Kitchens, 38, might resume his coaching duties with the Cardinals. Arians has adjusted on the fly before, including when he became the Indianapolis Colts' interim head coach following Chuck Pagano's cancer diagnosis.

The chart below shows Kitchens and the other offensive-minded coaches in the NFC West.

Related: a Kitchens profile with background information on how he got into coaching.

The "Ground Chuck" nickname for Chuck Knox fit the former NFL coach's old-school reputation even if it sometimes misrepresented his approach to offensive football.

Quarterbacks John Hadl and Dave Krieg went to Pro Bowls with Knox as their head coach. Steve Largent retired as the NFL's all-time receiver and landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame largely for what he accomplished under Knox.

Not that I would question Knox's conservative reputation entirely. Football Outsiders ranked the former Los Angeles Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks coach 84th out of 84 qualifying coaches on its "Aggressiveness Index" showing fourth-down tendencies from 1991 through last season. Knox was least likely to go for it on fourth down outside situations when teams were obviously playing from behind.

Football Outsiders also produced a chart showing where coaches ranked in 2012 alone. The St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher and the Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt fell on the more aggressive side. The Seahawks' Pete Carroll, ranked 13th out of 84 coaches from 1991 to present, appeared to be less aggressive last season even though his team famously executed a fake punt while leading the Bills by 30 points.

The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh was slightly less aggressive than average while Bruce Arians, now in his first season with Arizona, was further down the list while serving as the Indianapolis Colts' interim coach.

Sample size is key in these studies and I'm not sure one season tell us how these NFC West coaches approach fourth down.

Seattle went for it twice on fourth down while leading the Minnesota Vikings by 10 points in the final 3:09. The Seahawks converted on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32 a few plays before converting on fourth-and-4 from the 15. Were those aggressive plays?

I have some ideas on this front and will pursue them in the future.

Research suggests coaches too frequently mistake punting or kicking field goals as "safer" decisions when going for it would actually make more sense. It can be a tough sell, like convincing a card player to disregard hunches no matter how much money is at stake or what happened in a similar situation previously.

These discussions will become more prevalent in football as the percentages become more commonly known. Coaches could have more direct access to that information as the NFL incorporates technology into its game-day experience. The NFL already plans for coaches to have playbooks on tablets beginning in 2014. How long before coaches have access to fourth-down calculators or other tools to aid in the decision-making process?

Aaron Schatz, who wrote the Football Outsiders piece, suggests there is considerable progress to be made on that front:
"One thing I have learned in talking to a lot of front office people who are interested in analytics is that there is very little correlation between how much analytical work is being done in a front office and how much the head coach's on-field decisions seem to reflect the general precepts that have developed in the football analytics community over the last decade.

"For most teams doing analytics, the impact is coming in draft and free-agency decisions, and the difference that analytics can make between one free-agent signing and another can be very subtle. Eventually we'll get to the point where a lot of head coaches have buy-in, but we aren't there yet, even on teams where the salary cap analyst is regularly reading Football Outsiders and fully understands Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator."
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each NFC West team who are coming back from injuries:

Arizona Cardinals: Levi Brown, left tackle. A torn triceps sidelined Brown last season, but the Cardinals expect him to be at full strength for 2013. A healthy Brown makes a happy Bruce Arians, it appears. Former coach Ken Whisenhunt was always quick to defend Brown from critics who expected more from a player drafted fifth overall. Arians, entering his first season as the Cardinals' coach, has taken the pro-Brown rhetoric to another level, calling the seventh-year tackle an "elite" player. Arizona improved its depth on the line. The team could conceivably get through the upcoming season with Nate Potter at left tackle. However, the Cardinals don't want to merely "get through" the season. They want Brown to play a key role on a line that now features first-round pick Jonathan Cooper.

St. Louis Rams: Jake Long, left tackle. The Rams ran Long through a thorough physical examination before signing the Pro Bowl left tackle in free agency. They are banking that a return to health will restore Long to his previously dominant ways. Long, like Brown in Arizona, is coming off triceps surgery. Injuries have slowed Long the past couple of seasons. The Rams think a healthy Long can stabilize their line, putting quarterback Sam Bradford at ease after three often-difficult seasons for the offense. Having Long in the lineup would allow incumbent left tackle Rodger Saffold to play on the right side, upgrading two positions. That's important for the Rams in a division featuring top defenses.

San Francisco 49ers: Justin Smith, defensive end. The 49ers' defense sagged considerably once Smith suffered a partially torn triceps during a late-season game against New England. Smith, who had surgery this offseason, has worked well in tandem with outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Both were hurting late last season, and the defense suffered as a result. The 49ers tried to address the issue in the draft by loading up on front-seven players. That made sense for the long term. More immediately, the team could use one more season of dominance from Justin Smith, one of their most important players on either side of the ball.

Seattle Seahawks: Chris Clemons, defensive end. The Seahawks' defense wasn't the same in the playoffs after Clemons suffered a torn ACL against Washington in the wild-card round. Seattle addressed the issue this offseason by adding Cliff Avril in free agency from the Detroit Lions. Avril's addition could put the Seahawks in position to bring along Clemons at a measured pace. Whatever the case, Seattle will want -- and possibly need -- Clemons near full strength for a playoff run, if not sooner. No other defensive end on the roster plays the run and pass as well as Clemons plays both. He's been a big part of Seattle's defensive success.
The NFL released dates and times for 2013 exhibition games, pushing back the final entry in our series examining NFC West offseasons. A few thoughts:
  • Rams: The opener at Cleveland carries one big what-if scenario. What if the Browns had succeeded in their efforts to outbid Washington for the second pick in the 2012 draft? The Rams wound up trading that pick to the Redskins for a package that continues replenishing their roster. The Browns, meanwhile, missed out on Robert Griffin III. Later, on Aug. 29, former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo returns to the Edward Jones Dome as a member of the Baltimore Ravens' staff.
  • 49ers: They face Peyton Manning and Alex Smith in the first two weeks of the preseason. They also have only four days between their third and fourth exhibition games. That could affect playing-time allotments.
  • Seahawks: Manning, who ignored the Seahawks' advances in free agency last offseason, can expect a few postgame questions regarding his thinking. The situation worked out pretty well for all involved, as things turned out.
  • Cardinals: Former coach Ken Whisenhunt, fired after six seasons with the team, visits University of Phoenix Stadium on Aug. 24 as the San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator.
Anthony Sherman should not go down in Arizona Cardinals history as a disappointing draft choice just because the team traded him after two seasons.

The 2011 fifth-round pick quickly became a solid starting fullback. But with new head coach Bruce Arians implementing a fullback-averse offense this offseason, Sherman became expendable through no fault of his own. That is why Arizona traded the 24-year-old blocking back to the Kansas City Chiefs in a deal Adam Caplan reported and Adam Teicher confirmed Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Sherman
Denny Medley/US PRESSWIREFullback is not a position valued by new coach Bruce Arians, so Anthony Sherman was traded to the Chiefs Wednesday.
"I have not been a fullback guy -- never have been," Arians told reporters during the NFL owners meeting in March.

The reasons for Arians' thinking are strategic. Fullbacks, for all their value in blocking, simply don't threaten defenses the way players at the other skill positions do. They tend to be one-dimensional players, so when they come into the game, defenses have a better idea what to expect. Some coaches have little use for fullbacks as a result.

"If you're a defensive coordinator and I send in a fullback and take out a tight end, I'm going to get your best call for that," Arians explained. "If I've got two tight ends, you don't know if one of them is going to play the fullback or one of them is going to be split out wide. You are going to be in that down-and-distance call. You don’t have a specific call."

Sherman started 11 of the 28 games he played in Arizona and logged 448 offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He carried the ball once and had 13 receptions for 111 yards.

The Cardinals drafted Sherman to develop him into a lead blocker while getting quality special-teams snaps from him. With former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt becoming the San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator recently, Sherman will twice a season in the AFC West play against one of the men responsible for drafting him.

"Two things, besides just being a good blocker, is that he’s an athletic player, he can catch the ball and do some things from that position athletically that can help us, and he’s a very good special-teamer," Whisenhunt said of Sherman during the 2011 draft. "When you have a role where you're expecting that player to get 15 or 20 snaps a game, he's got to have another significant contribution to your team. That’s how you build the strength of your team and we feel like he was probably, if not the best, at least in the top two or three of all the college players we looked at as special-teamers, and that’s important."

Sherman should be a better fit in Kansas City, where new Chiefs coach Andy Reid runs an offense featuring two backs a higher percentage of the time. Reid's Philadelphia teams did not rank among the NFL leaders in most plays featuring two backs, but they weren't far off the league average.

Also: A look at Javier Arenas, the slot corner Arizona is receiving from the Chiefs in return.
The Arizona Cardinals' situation at guard changed when the team used the seventh and 116th choices in the 2013 NFL draft to address the position.

Adam Snyder's release from the team Monday was one immediate consequence.

The five-year, $17.5 million contract Snyder signed with the Cardinals last offseason invited skepticism at the time because Snyder had seemingly struggled while starting at right guard for San Francisco previously. The 49ers were eager to move on from Snyder and Chilo Rachal at right guard last offseason. The Cardinals signed Snyder, paid him a $5 million signing bonus and made him their starter.

The Cardinals still must account for $4 million in charges against their salary cap relating to the bonus money Snyder received. The team will save $2.9 million in base salary this season, but the cap charge for Snyder's contract could be the same in 2013 without Snyder as it would have been had he remained on the roster: $4 million. Update: The Cardinals are reportedly designating Snyder as a post-June 1 release, meaning they can defer some cap consequences until 2014.

Arizona has mismanaged its offensive line over the past five-plus seasons, in my view. Using the fifth overall choice of the 2007 draft for Levi Brown delivered to the team a long-term starter, but not one of the NFL's top tackles. The team failed to draft another offensive lineman in the first three rounds from 2008 until selecting Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall choice this year.

The Cardinals' reliance on older backups with little room for improvement proved costly last season when D'Anthony Batiste was initially the replacement for an injured Brown at left tackle. Snyder also struggled.

A steady stream of overmatched quarterbacks has exacerbated the situation. Top quarterbacks help out their lines by getting rid of the ball quickly. Poor quarterbacks make bad lines look worse by holding the ball too long and inviting sacks or other negative plays, leading to unfavorable down-and-distance situations.

The team appears recommitted to improving its line. Selecting Cooper and fourth-round choice Earl Watford one year after drafting Bobby Massie and Nate Potter has given the team younger options.

Snyder would be best suited as a backup for all five positions on the line, in my view. I could see him landing in that capacity with a team such as San Diego. Former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is the Chargers' offensive coordinator. He was with Arizona when the team signed Snyder.
The NFL does not crown division champs in April. Matt Williamson and I kept that in mind when breaking down his pre-draft positional rankings for NFC West teams.

Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, wraps up the series with thoughts on where NFC West teams stand overall.

Williamson: I think Seattle is the best team in the league right now.

Sando: Spoiler alert.

Williamson: The 49ers are the second-best team. The Rams are maybe 12th or in that neighborhood and a very legitimate playoff contender, particularly if they were in another division. But it wouldn't shock me if three teams from this division made the postseason.

Sando: Arizona sends its regards.

Williamson: I think Arizona is underrated, definitely better than most people probably realize. Carson Palmer will help. Bruce Arians will help. Everyone talks about Palmer getting crushed behind that Arizona line, but Arians can scheme that up.

Sando: Andrew Luck was under duress or hit while throwing more than any quarterback in the NFL last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Arians was running that Colts offense. At the same time, Palmer has done a good job over his career getting rid of the football. He takes relatively few sacks.

Williamson: Ben Roethlisberger took hits when Arians was coordinating the Steelers' offense, but they still had a great offense throwing the deep ball with a bad offensive line. That was even more true with Indy. It's not like this coach [Arians] has never played with a bad offensive line.

Sando: Palmer will certainly benefit from playing with Larry Fitzgerald and a strong group of wide receivers.

Williamson: Last year, if you watched Raiders, Palmer had extreme knuckleheads playing receiver, running the wrong routes, dropping the ball. He’ll throw too many picks, but his circumstances will be better in Arizona.

Sando: It's only fitting we go on at some length about Arizona. We've spent quite a bit of time anointing Seattle and Arizona while pointing to what should be a bright future in St. Louis with all those draft choices.

Williamson: It just dawned on me that I ranked Seattle first or second on my list at every position but tight end. San Franciso actually has a couple fours. Some of these are pretty debatable, of course.

Sando: No question. The gap between first and fourth on the defensive line is miniscule. It's laughable in some ways to rank the 49ers fourth at more than one position on defense until you realize fourth in this division can still be really good. Back to the Cardinals, though. What do you think of their additions at running back?

Williamson: Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams, one can be very legit. The offensive line has to be better. It wasn't as bad in the second half of last season. They got an awful player off the field when they moved on from D'Anthony Batiste. Now you throw in Levi Brown and you are, say, the 25th-best line.

Sando: Sounds like the Cardinals think they'll be better than that. They could address the position in the draft, too. They will.

Williamson: Levi Brown is much better than a guy off the street, which is what Batiste was. I feel bad for Ken Whisenhunt. He had no chance.

Sando: We're out of time. Thanks for doing this, Matt. We'll revisit the rankings down the line.
PHOENIX -- The Arizona Cardinals could usually count on a quarterback competition under former coach Ken Whisenhunt.

That sometimes reflected the absence of a franchise quarterback. Whisenhunt also believed in making all players earn their starting jobs, even if it meant going deep into training camp and the preseason without a clearly defined starting quarterback.

Those days are over.

First-year Cardinals coach Bruce Arians plans to name the Cardinals' starter for 2013 well before training camp. That is his philosophy.

"I don't think there's any doubt when you have an established quarterback, it is much better than when someone is competing for a job," Arians said Tuesday from the NFL owners meeting. "Guys' friendships get involved and their own evaluations are made in the locker room because of friendships, and it's not always in the best interests of the ball club."

Whisenhunt and coaches such as the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll aren't willing to exempt quarterbacks from having to compete for their jobs. Whisenhunt in particular felt credibility in the locker room was at stake when a coach supported one quarterback as the starter in the absence of clear evidence the job had been earned outright.

Arians isn't going to name a starter randomly, of course, but he does treat the position differently. Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid and others lean toward this method of quarterback treatment. They feel as though the position deserves special treatment for the way its handling impacts the locker room.

"It's better to have one and he is your guy and let's rally around that guy," Arians said. "That is just my opinion. I have never been a two-quarterback guy."

Arians was responding to questions about his philosophy independent of what came before him in Arizona. I never brought up Whisenhunt or past quarterback battles featuring Matt Leinart, Kurt Warner, Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, etc.

It was with that history in mind, however, when I asked Arians whether he would be more apt to have a starting quarterback named during the earlier stages of training camp.

"Oh yeah, ours will be done before we get to camp," Arians said. "Our quarterback will be named quickly. We'll just see what is all there when we start practicing."

The recently signed Drew Stanton should have a head start on Brian Hoyer and Skelton when the Cardinals begin practicing. He played under Arians in Indianapolis and knows the offense.

Rules adopted last offseason allow teams with first-year head coaches to begin on-field work early next month. The Cardinals and other teams will not hold offense-against-defense sessions until after the draft.
Quarterback Kevin Kolb's release from the Arizona Cardinals, announced by the team Friday, lines up with expectations.

The absence of a surprise factor doesn't diminish the transaction's gravity, though.

Arizona paid $20,504,650 to Kolb for two seasons in which the quarterback ranked 33rd out of 38 qualifying players in Total QBR. The team posted a 6-8 record in games Kolb started, compared to 6-7 in games John Skelton started.

Also over that two-year span, Kolb took sacks on 11.6 percent of drop-backs, highest in the NFL for the 35 players with at least 400 pass attempts during that time. Six percent was the NFL average.

Kolb was not solely to blame for his or the team's struggles over the past two seasons. The Cardinals' offensive line wasn't good enough. Injuries hurt on the line and at running back in particular.

He also had trouble staying healthy, but he was a healthy scratch when then-coach Ken Whisenhunt named Skelton the starter over Kolb coming out of training camp last season. That decision, made even after the team paid a $7 million offseason bonus to retain Kolb, showed what Whisenhunt thought about Kolb's ability to lead the team.

It's not like Skelton was an All-Pro.

There was some sentiment that Kolb had shown meaningful improvement from 2011 to 2012 and that only the injury he suffered against Buffalo derailed him. That is a tough case to make from a statistical standpoint, as the second chart demonstrates.

An 8-3 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions for Kolb in 2012 had more impact on paper than on the field, where the Cardinals owed their 4-0 start largely to a defense that played well most of the season.

Releasing Kolb allows Arizona to make a clean break at the position under new coach Bruce Arians. That is probably best for all involved. In the short term, however, Arizona appears weaker at quarterback without him. The team might have been better off if Kolb had accepted a reduction from his scheduled $9 million salary.

There was simply no way Arizona was going to pay that money. The team had already parted with a 2011 second-round draft choice and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in acquiring Kolb from Philadelphia. That move worked out poorly for both teams and especially for Whisenhunt, who essentially bet his Arizona future on Kolb.

Kolb leaves Arizona having received a $10 million signing bonus, $3 million in base salary, a $7 million roster bonus and a $504,650 offseason workout bonus. He'll get a chance to revive his career elsewhere, perhaps under circumstances more favorable than the ones he encountered in Arizona.

The fallout from the Kolb trade goes beyond Whisenhunt's firing and the Cardinals' organizational overhaul. I suspect other teams have become less willing to acquire unproven veteran quarterbacks for the kind of draft compensation and salary Arizona shelled out. A team's desperation can override reason, however, and the Cardinals were truly desperate for quarterback help when they made the move to get Kolb. The risk was defensible at the time, I thought, but we all knew the consequences if the trade failed.

Kolb struggled adapting to the Cardinals' offense after coming up in Andy Reid's West Coast system. He held the ball too long. His footwork was a work in progress. Whisenhunt fired his quarterbacks coach after Kolb's first season with the team, but nothing seemed to work. And when injuries wiped out Kolb, both top running backs and multiple starters along the offensive line, there could be only one ending.

The Cardinals will be digging out for some time.

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