Many thoughts floated in and out of my head Thursday night:
I wondered if the Philly fan - while snarfing down a cheesesteak - was thinking to himself, just how did his beloved Eagles lose to this team. I wondered if the Patriots' fan (sub out the cheesesteak, sub in a lobster or something) was wondering the same thing about his team.
I wondered if Kevin Kolb has a good dentist.
I wondered if Gambo misses Levi Brown.
A week ago Ron Jaworski told us that the Green Bay Packers' offensive line play in that Monday Night game was the worst he's ever seen. I wondered if he would care to revise that statement.
I know the focus will be on the offensive line, Kolb getting bloodied and battered, the 17 sacks given up over the last five days (according to Mike Sando there are a handful of teams that have given up 17 or fewer sacks in an entire season). I'm sure some will look at the Cardinals and decide that they are, in fact, not for real. Not after that game. Not with that line. That's where the debate will live for the next week and a half until the Bills hit town.
But once you get past the obvious stuff, the fingerprints of this loss can be found in the first half. On all the missed opportunities. All the plays that, if even just a couple were made, might have changed the entire outcome of the game.
A bad pass to Rob Housler, Kolb not looking to Larry Fitzgerald's side of the field (had he, he would have seen a wide open Fitz), a Michael Floyd drop, a Jay Feely missed FG, a Janoris Jenkins breakup of a pass that didn't quite get to Rob Housler in stride, Andre Roberts open deep but missed, penalties that negated potentially great field position on a Patrick Peterson punt return, and on and on and on.
How many points did the Cardinals leave on the field in the first half? How would that have changed the dynamic of the game? Who knows. But it was a factor and a big part of this disheartening loss.
I'm not trying to take the focus off the historically bad protection; I am merely pointing out there were other reasons for this loss.
I recall an interview with director Quentin Tarantino, who listed his 25 favorite movies since he became a director.
The Matrix rightfully made the list, but he almost kept it off. His reasoning was that the two sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, were so horrible that they minimized the greatness of the original.
What does this have to do with anything? It has to do with Kevin Kolb.
I had a hard time seeing his performance vs. the Dolphins without looking at it through the lens of that dreadful pick. Every great play he made was followed by a "yeah, but..." It was distorting my entire view.
It was my own Tarantino moment, and it was a mistake.
For as much grief as I gave him for the pick, he deserves an equal amount of praise for the recovery. Given all the circumstances surrounding it, the touchdown throw on 4th and 10 was a thing of beauty. On that same drive, he was staring cold at a 3rd and 18, yet managed to convert a first down after two pass plays. Big picture; Kolb's avoidance of the big mistake is a big reason for the 4-0 start.
It was a potentially fatal blow, and he can't hope to get away with a similar type gaffe in the future. But he was able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again and that demands far more credit than he was given by me.
When he spoke the words, Ken Whisenhunt did it with such certitude; it could convince even the most skeptical of souls:
"It's not luck...it can't be luck."
Clearly the coach subscribes to Ralph Waldo Emerson ("Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.") and not Donald Trump ("Everything in life is luck.")
After a crushing two-play swing that featured one of Kevin Kolb's most egregious errors ever in a Cardinals' uniform, immediately followed by an 80-yard touchdown pass to Brian Hartline (who ran as free as a dog that got out of the backyard), you'd be hard-pressed to think that luck didn't have something to do with this.
After winning a game in which they were out-gained by nearly 200 yards, fumbled the ball four times -- yet lost none of them -- and gave up eight sacks, you might think lady luck is a season ticket holder hanging out in Section 137, Row 8, Seat 5 with a cold beer and a Cardinals' logo tattooed on her shoulder blade.
Or if you really want to get fancy you could subscribe to the principle of Occam's Razor, the one that says the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.
So what is the simplest explanation: that the 4-0 Cardinals are one of the elite teams in the National Football League or that they were lucky Seattle dropped a touchdown pass or that Stephen Gostkowski pushed it wide left or that Kolb converted a 4th and 10 for a touchdown with 29 seconds left in the game?
As easy as it would be to chalk it up to luck, I'm with the coach and Ralph on this one. I don't believe in luck. OK, scratch that. The guy who walks into a random casino, drops a random coin into a random slot machine and wins a million bucks is lucky. The Cardinals have done it now 11 times over the last 10 months or so.
How does luck explain that?
Prior to last week's 21 point win, the Cardinals previous 11 wins had come by 2, 4, 7, 6, 4, 3, 6, 2, 3, 3 and 1 point. Four of those wins (make it five now) came in overtime. Like the coach said, that can't be luck.
They're a football team, that over this 11-2 stretch is good enough and talented enough to win football games in spite of their own shortcomings. On the exceptionally rare days they rise above those shortcomings, they dominate (see last week's game against the Eagles).
It doesn't mean they always will.
Always the movie geek, I've got the line from The Return of the King stuck in my head ("A day may come when the courage of men fails...but it is not this day.") The day will come when the Cardinals get burned for playing footsy under the table with foolish plays, but it is not this day.
And this is where the burden falls on Kolb. Be clear, the Cardinals are 4-0 in part because Kolb has avoided mistakes. He has risen above his own shortcomings. And yet...
The pick in the end zone was the mother of all foolish plays; as he said after the game "definitely the worst in my career...a terrible decision and a terrible throw." Kolb's own 4th down touchdown pass and the interception in overtime allow us to forgive that mistake, but we won't forget it either.
Perhaps one day the Cardinals will win because of Kevin Kolb. For now they'd be happy winning with Kevin Kolb. After Sunday, its clear winning in spite of Kevin Kolb is too much to ask.
It seems history was on everybody's mind at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Right next to me in the press box, our own Vince Marotta is furiously finding the top TV shows, songs and movies from the last time the Cardinals started a season 3-0; 1974.
(It was, by the way, a damn good year for movies. The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein…the movie geek in me never takes a day off, never)
History too was on the mind of Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. He slyly dropped a reference to James Harrison's interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl 43. Clearly it is far better to receive than give when it comes to one of those length-of-the-field deals that break both the back and the heart.
The history on my mind though takes me back to December 6, 2009.
On Sunday Night Football, the nation watched as Kurt Warner and Arizona beat Minnesota -- who was 10-1 coming into the game -- 30-17. After the game Brett Favre, who was picked off twice and sacked three times, commented the Cardinals "played like they were in the Super Bowl last year." Warner said the win proved that "they can play with anybody; we can play with the big dogs."
I recall walking out of this stadium with that same limitless feeling. There was no ceiling for that team. Nothing -- not even a return trip to the Super Bowl -- couldn't be done.
It's a similar sensation now. It's boundless. The Arizona Cardinals, the (clearing throat) first place Arizona Cardinals are one of three 3-0 teams in the NFL. Cards broadcaster Dave Pasch made the point in the pregame show; you go 3-0 and you're talking about a magical season. Where is the ceiling for this football team? How good can they be? How far can they go?
To hazard a prediction on any of those questions is risky business to be sure but know this: they're good. Argue that the two wins against Seattle and New England were lucky but make no such claims about this Philly game.
The defense treated Michael Vick like a piñata in the backyard. Seemingly everybody; Kerry Rhodes, Daryl Washington, Calais Campbell, O'Brien Schofield, Sam Acho and Quentin Groves took a whack with the stick. Five sacks, 13 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles. The defense continues to be exceptional.
Larry Fitzgerald did what he always does to the Eagles...dominate. First round pick Michael Floyd juggled his way into the end zone for the first time in his career. Forty-two of Ryan Williams' 83 yards came on the drive that bled the clock out; a measure of redemption after last week's fumble.
But if history is the theme of the game, then the game belongs to Kevin Kolb. History has not treated Kolb or the Cardinals well since the trade of a year ago. It's appropriate to look at everything given up to get Kolb (players, picks, money) and conclude that they were swindled. Truthfully, Kolb was never going to conquer that mountain and change all those minds by winning this game. And yet…
Beating his old team is a major plateau in that climb. He, and we, should all stop and admire the view for a moment.
If you want a history lesson, how about this one: exactly one month ago from Sunday, the Cards lost to the Titans in a preseason game that saw Kolb throw two picks, including the mind-numbing pick-six to start the second half. The journey from where they were to where they are -- a 3-0 start with Kolb at the helm -- seems quite literally impossible.
Yet here we are. And just like that December night three years ago I can't wait to see what's next.
Once upon a time I guaranteed the Cardinals would not -- could not -- win a playoff game in Carolina.
I boldly and foolishly claimed that, if proven wrong, I would literally eat crow. When a caller suggested that not only would the Cardinals win but they would go on to host the NFC Championship game, I suggested he was…what was the word…..oh yeah, certifiable.
The next day was spent on the phone with a game and fish official trying to determine where I could buy cooked crow. Just for fun I also rented a strait jacket from a costume company and wore it for a half hour while hosting the show, payback for the certifiable crack.
I watched the Cards win over the Patriots with the same level of incredulity. The Arizona Cardinals -- a two touchdown underdog, with Kevin Kolb at quarterback and a beleaguered offensive line in hostile territory -- beat the New England Patriots. A team that had not once lost their home opener in the Brady/Belichick era. I semi-joked on the air that it was like a high school homecoming game for the Patriots, one where you schedule a team you know you'll beat so everybody goes home happy.
Had you bet $100 on the Cardinals to win you would have won $600. That, folks, is not a very good bet. And yet here they sit, 9-2 in their last 11 regular season games. 2-0 to start 2012. And we all know why.
The defense….all together now….was the difference. Just as it was last week against Seattle. Just as it has been in the last 11 regular season games. They harassed Tom Brady all day long, imploring Rodney Harrison to say that Brady was "running for his life". They play with such ferocity, especially in the red zone and on third down, they should keep the Cardinals in every game they play this year. And certainly don't forget a special teams unit that gave the Cardinals the kind of field position that even they can't screw up. But they can only do so much.
It seems bad karma to complain after a win like this, or even during this 9-2 stretch. But dig a little deeper. As was pointed out by Craig Morgan of Fox Sports Arizona, all nine of those wins have been by six points or fewer, five of the nine wins have been by three points or fewer and four have come in overtime. That is a reflection of an offense, and in particular a quarterback, that does just enough to win games. Kevin Kolb played a decent game Sunday, only one silly turnover, no horrendously costly sacks.
But until those missed opportunities (missing Heap down the seam, throwing the ball at the feet of the receiver on the screen play) become converted opportunities, every game is going to be like this. LaRod Stephens-Howling taking a knee in the end zone, the Ryan Williams fumble, not just taking a knee on that 3rd and 13, the missed FG, etc, etc. Consider the drama of last week, the drama of last year. This is the norm. Get used to it.
This Cardinals offense simply isn't consistently good enough for it to be any other way.
On Friday I said that I had never had such low expectations for a Ken Whisenhunt coached Arizona Cardinal team (the first year doesn't count of course). Did the Cardinals opening win over Seattle put me in a revisionist mood?
No. Not yet.
Were this a trial, and I was the jury, an argument based around the redemption of Kevin Kolb wouldn't sway me to change my mind. Nor would the evidence of the improved Cardinals running game. After all, there is no such evidence (Andre Roberts was the Cardinals leading rusher -- one carry for 15 yards….yeesch).
The only spark of hope comes from the seven angry men who make up the Cardinals front seven. Any optimism about 2012 begins and ends with them.
Kolb's salvation, Skelton's injury and the botch job by the refs are the stories that will get all the clicks on all the sites, but let's be clear. The Cardinals defense was the star; the reason for this victory. In many ways this game was a re-rack of nearly every game last year: Hyper attention paid to the quarterback when everybody knows the only reason the Cards plucked an 8-8 season out of thin air was the defense.
On Sunday, Darnell Docket blew up every other play, Daryl Washington had his hands in just about everything on the field, Calais Campbell has become the NFL's version of Dikembe Mutombo, Paris Lenon had two sacks, Dan Williams clogged the middle.
The Seahawks scored 13 second half points. All 13 came on a short field (the Seahawks started drives on the Cardinals 24, 34 and 16) thanks to special teams breakdowns and a mind-numbing pick thrown by Skelton.
The secondary was a bit of a mixed bag. Questionable as they may be, there were a couple of pass interference calls on Patrick Peterson and a couple of P-I calls on the final Seahawks drive. Ultimately, that unit delivered on the final three shots Wilson took at the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Overall, the Cardinals defense was flying around like they were on a G2. More efforts like this and Ray Horton will need his own private jet for all the head coaching interviews he'll have lined up.
Yes, it came against a rookie quarterback making his debut. That luxury is lost in the next two weeks when they go from Russell Wilson to Tom Brady and Michael Vick. But after that? Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins, Sam Bradford and the Rams, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills, Christian Ponder and the Vikings. There are plenty of chances to impress in the coming weeks.
Besides, if memory serves, a rookie QB making his debut carved up the Cardinals pretty good last year (422 yards, two touchdowns for Cam Newton).
Maybe the low expectations are unfair. Whisenhunt has only one losing season in his tenure as coach. The Cardinals have, dating back to last season, won eight of their last 10 regular season games. But to expect consistent play out of Kolb is the stuff of Fantasyland; the go ahead drive was made for terrific entertainment but he lost the job to Skelton for a reason. Without knowing the specific diagnosis, Skelton is going to be out for a while. Honestly, does anybody know who is going to be the Cardinals starting quarterback in Week four? Week six?
You want to sway the jury and sell optimism? Start with the seven angry men up front.
I'm happy the Cardinals went with John Skelton as their starting quarterback. His selection feels right and natural. Comfortable. He never grabbed the job as forcefully as we would've liked, but between his arm strength, pocket poise and size it seems to me he gives the Cardinals more of a chance to reach their potential, wherever that may end up being. Up until the Titans game he was the clear leader in this race and had to deal with the most difficult handicap of the preseason: D.J. Young at left tackle. Between his shaky play and the dropped passes, it made a proper evaluation of Skelton nearly impossible. I have to think that collectively the locker room nods in approval at this choice.
Had Kolb been named the starter, it would have felt forced. A choice of circumstance rather than competition. No doubt he had his moments in that Titans game, but his lows are so low (the sacks, the unexplainable picks) that it felt he would end up doing you more harm than good. Skelton plays the position with a projection of calmness. Kolb, chaos.
It goes without saying we'll probably see Kolb at some point this season, and I'd even bet a mortgage payment Ryan Lindley shows up in a game or two in 2012.
It was a brave pick for Whisenhunt. Right on cue, moments after the announcement, the tweets from NFL writers began filling the timeline. About how the Kolb trade was a disaster. The worst ever. The fact that he chose Skelton over Kolb indicates he respects the locker room and the notion of competition more than avoiding the inevitable criticism.
But make no mistake, just because Whisenhunt made the right choice on Friday doesn't mean he won't have to answer for the wrong choice that was made a year ago. How exactly he'll have to answer for it is a conversation for another day and is likely tied to the results of 2012. The re-signing of Larry Fitzgerald and the lack of QB options from last summer have to be factored into that evaluation.
For now, the coach got it right and that's all that matters.
It was a surreal moment as I made my way to the Sun Devil Stadium press box; I couldn't recall if I had set foot in the building during the entire Dennis Erickson era.
Sun Devil fans can certainly relate.
Outside of a Holiday Bowl run in year one and the horrendous stumbles of the final season, the entire Erickson era had the feel of a dream sequence in the movie Inception. Did Vontaze Burfict actually happen or did I dream the whole thing up?
Well I'm back and -- if you believe what you read on Twitter -- so are the Devils, as evidenced by their 42-0 halftime lead over NAU.
It was complete ownership by ASU with the title in hand to prove it. Outgaining the Lumberjacks 365-92, the Sun Devils were like a 16-year-old who just got their first car; they did what they wanted, when they wanted. The Todd Graham era is off to a sterling start and will probably lead some to believe that, perhaps, this year will be better than projected.
After all, this is an NAU team that usually gives the opponent a game for at least a half. The two times the ‘Jacks played the Devils in Erickson's tenure, the average score was 35-16. NAU always left with a paycheck and a little bit of respect. But not on Thursday night and I'm sure it felt good for the fans and maybe the players to hammer the team you're supposed to hammer.
But it should end right there.
These games are nothing more than preseason games. In the past, under Erickson, ASU has won similar type games by scores of 45-3 (San Jose State), 50-3 (Idaho State), 54-9 (Portland State) and 48-14 (UC Davis). As my co-host Gambo pointed out, last year Vontaze Burfict had three sacks vs. UC Davis. Some indicator that turned out to be.
We all want to believe (hope) that Graham is the answer after the fog of Erickson. Every element of the game looked sharp for ASU under their new coach. But the restaurant critic doesn't judge the meal on the bread that is served when you sit down. The real meal starts next week against Illinois. And then Missouri. And then everybody's Pac-12 South sleeper Utah.
Then, and only then, will we know if the hazy dream is over.
The Cardinals quarterback competition is like getting lost in the woods. We've come all this way only to find we've been walking in a giant circle.
John Skelton (not Jonathon Trent Dilfer) was the night's biggest letdown. He completed 4-of-10 passes for 41 yards, tossed a pick on an overthrow and has a QB rating of 12.9. The drops were an issue (Heap, Floyd). His protection was a major issue (DJ Jazzy Jeff would have been more effective than DJ Young). It would be easy for me to rationalize Skelton's performance as not his fault since I had already (in my mind anyway) given him the starter's job. Maybe we'd look at his night differently if those balls were caught or a switch at left tackle happened sooner.
But let's be honest. He could have done so much more Thursday night.
Enter Kevin Kolb, who had to know that as the new underdog in this competition he had a chance to win back the hearts and minds of the coaches, players and fans. Here it is, an hour (as I'm writing this) later, and I'm still not sure what to make of Kolb's night that included:
• 17-for-22, 156 yards, and a QB rating of 73.3
• Two of the worst interceptions a QB fighting for his job could throw, sandwiched around….
• A touchdown drive that went 86 yards and included a 53-yard bomb to Larry Fitzgerald
• Authoring a three and out to start his night that one NFL writer coined "one of the worst possessions ever"
I suspect a lot of stock is going to be put in that top line. A pitcher who gives up a pair of two-run homers can say, well, I only threw two bad pitches all night. Similarly, Kolb and the coaches can say that overall it was a good night for him; he just threw two really awful picks. And since we all know the tie goes to Kolb due to the salary and all they gave up to get him, my guess is he has now pulled back in front.
None of which is actually designed to make you feel better.
I find that I keep going back to a comment Cardinals Play-by-Play man Dave Pasch said on the pregame show before the Hall of Fame game vs. the Saints. It's not a direct quote so apologies to Dave if I botch it, but I liked it so much I tweeted it out that afternoon:
I want to see something out of Kolb and Skelton to make me feel better about both.
Four preseason games and I'm still waiting. I'm starting to suspect I'll write the same thing after four regular season games.
There was never any doubt for me that the Cardinals game against the Raiders boiled down to a referendum on Kevin Kolb. While there were certainly other issues that required attention (defense, running game), the focus was on Kolb. This was going to be his night to win it or lose it. And he would be given ample opportunity to do either.
In the tradition of a November election, as the early precincts started to report, they did so in favor of Kolb. His first drive led to a touchdown and featured the 27-year-old quarterback completing all three of his passes, including a third down conversion. The fact that he hung in the pocket and took a hit did not go unnoticed.
It offered a sliver of hope that perhaps he could make this a difficult decision.
The sensation was short-lived. An intentional grounding. A safety. Incomplete pass. Another sack. Then another that included an unintentional pass to his offensive lineman.
Kolb's candidacy was crumbling before our eyes. Once John Skelton went 3-for-3 while calmly leading a short touchdown drive, I half expected Brian Williams to break in and declare Skelton the winner.
When the second half started with Ryan Lindley at the helm, it felt over. Nothing left to see.
Asked at halftime to assess the quarterbacks, coach Ken Whisenhunt said "we didn't get a lot of plays with John so it's hard to say." After the game he elaborated that it was more about the offensive line. Whisenhunt didn't want them to play the second half and he didn't want Skelton to play behind the twos. Again, Friday was always going to be more about Kolb.
Spin the white ball. Play the game of blame roulette. I'm not sure if it lands on Kolb or his offensive line. I don't think it matters much.
Perhaps this is an incredibly simplistic way of looking at it, but the offense just moves in a positive direction more often with Skelton than it does with Kolb. What else do you need to see or know?
Unless he implodes Thursday, John Skelton is the projected winner in the QB competition of 2012.