Arizona Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb, coach Ken Whisenhunt on Thin Ice Following Loss to Pittsburgh Steelers

COMMENTARY | The Arizona Cardinals came out of their bye week knowing they were about to to enter the toughest phase of their schedule. Their 1-4 record coming into their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was a disappointment to fans, many of whom had believed and hoped that those numbers should have been reversed heading into Week 7. Though fans worried that a win would be tough, leaving the game 1-5 was not something any of them wanted to think about.

After all, according to the Cardinals players, they were rested and recuperated, and according to the coaches, they had used the time to iron out many of the inconsistencies which plagued the team in their first five games, and were prepared to take the game to the Steelers, who themselves had not played up to expectations on the road, though had a much more favorable 4-2 record to show for it.

However for new quarterback Kevin Kolb, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt, they knew that the game could prove to be a make or break point in their season, and careers.

Though Kolb had played only five games under center for the Cards, and only a handful more than that anywhere, he entered the game already with everything to prove, if he hoped to be assert himself as anything more than a career backup and journeyman. Unfortunately for Kolb, the game did not go his way.

Through his first five games Kolb had looked inconsistent at best, and hapless at worst. In Week 7, he looked only marginally better.

Though he threw two touchdown passes, including a spectacular catch and run by LaRod Stephens-Howling which ended a three-game TD drought for Kolb, he also threw a pick early, ending what had the potential to be a positive drive, and set up the Steelers’ first score. Additionally, he managed to complete less than 50 percent of his passes, and committed an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone, which resulted in a safety for Pittsburgh, effectively putting the game out of reach.

The usual excuses are well known to Cardinals fans. Because of the lockout, he has taken thousands fewer snaps than usual, and because he came to the Cardinals in a trade, he had noticeably less time to get to know the playbook and practice with his team even than Rookies like Cam Newton, who got his playbook on the day of the draft.

All of these things are legitimate excuses, but the problem remains, they are still just that — excuses. What’s more, seven weeks into the season, Kolb should be more than caught up with any and all missed practices lost during the preseason.

Cardinals fans would perhaps have had more patience with Kolb in different circumstances. They would perhaps be a little more willing to give him time to develop had the team not bet the farm on his success. But the problem is, the Cardinals took Kolb, and not a rookie in the draft and veteran free agent to mentor him exactly because they wanted to win now, not in the future. They traded away a big chunk of their future because they believed Kolb would be the man to bring them success now, not in a few years time. If it was a project they wanted, they already have one in John Skelton, perhaps two, if you include Richard Bartel, who performed surprisingly well in preseason. Both are significantly more cost effective than Kevin Kolb if all he was brought in to be was a high upside project.

Kolb, I’m sure, has what it takes. He has so many intangibles which coaches crave. He is a natural leader. He won the locker room around in a matter of days, and appears to be a consummate professional off the field.

On the gridiron, he has shown flashes of what he can do. He has a cannon for an arm, and can get the ball to his go-to guys. He has good movement, and is surprisingly elusive for a QB known more as a pocket guy. Even in this game, his accuracy appeared good when he has time to make throws, and his decision making looks above average most of the time too. When running the game out of the no-huddle in previous games, Kolb has looked much more at home, and his stats improve dramatically when given a little freedom to call it at the line.

His problems appear that he doesn’t know the playbook well enough. He has regularly missed players who are wide open, while looking for plays elsewhere on the field. He doesn’t know his progressions, and doesn’t yet trust his safety-valves — whoever they may be — to make plays on the ball when no other options are available.

He also appears not to trust his O-Line, rather unsurprisingly given how often he has been hit — Kolb has been sacked 11 times in the last three games — meaning he is altogether too quick to leave the pocket and causing plays to break down, and open men to be missed while he scrambles around in the backfield.

Unfortunately for Kolb, there is not a lot of reason to hope for a magically improved O-line this season, so he is going to have to make the most of it. Hopefully however, the team will spend a little time preparing him to make plays while being hit, and if strength and conditioning coordinator John Lott can improve Kolb’s toughness, and perform with him some of the magic he achieved with Kurt Warner, Kolb, I believe, will be OK, assuming the fans give him a little time to develop.

The Cardinals travel east to Baltimore next, a game which is the very definition of an uphill battle. If Kolb has struggled under pressure against teams like Washington and Minnesota, then Ray Lewis and Co. are going to eat him for breakfast if he continues to try and escape the pocket and throw the ball away at the slightest bit of pressure.

Fortunately for Kolb, the Cards don’t even need to win the game — though of Cardinals fans could prefer it if they do — for him to prove himself. If Kolb can string together a few good drives, hold his nerve in the red zone, get more TDs than turnovers, and complete somewhere near 60% of his passes against the Ravens, win or lose in the game, Kolb wins in the minds of the fans.

For Whisenhunt, things are equally problematic. Since the Cardinals’ playoff run in 2009-1,0 Whisenhunt has lead the team to just six wins in 22 games. That’s nearly 3 losses for every win.

More than anyone else, it’s a head coach’s neck on the chopping block when a team loses, and few coaches would have survived this long in the same circumstances. Seemingly, leading the Cardinals to their first playoff berth in 10 years, and first ever Super Bowl in 2008 and making the playoffs again in 2009 has given Whiz a little grace in the eyes of the Bidwell family.

However against the Steelers, a team he and many of his staff know better than any other, Whisenhunt needed to pull something out of the bag to prove that he is still the same coach who lead the team to back-to-back NFC West titles. Worryingly against a Steelers team that the Cardinals should have had somewhat of an advantage over, they didn’t look anything like the team which valiantly lost to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.

Indeed, it is at times hard to understand the Cardinals’ decision-making process at all. With nearly four minutes to play, and needing two touchdowns, the Cardinals elected not to try an onside kick, effectively conceding the game. Though their hope was clearly a three-and-out, even still, this appeared to be a lack of desire on the part of the coach, and questionable decision-making to boot.

Coming into the game The Cardinals had an additional week to perfect their game plan against the Steelers, and practically all of the Cardinals coaching staff have close ties to the Steelers which should have resulted in more of an upper hand for the Cardinals than it produced.

New defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, for example, spent years helping Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau perfect his defensive scheme. He knows it so well, in fact, that he is confident enough to try install a nearly identical system in Arizona, and yet, in spite of this, the Cardinals looked thoroughly unprepared at times against the Steelers. While their run defense did keep the Steelers in check, this came at the expense of their pass defense, which at times looked non-existent.

Although Horton would have been well aware of the type of plays LeBeau would be calling in any given situation, he seemed unable to articulate this to offensive play caller Mike Miller or Whisenhunt himself, who were unable to do anything to stop the pressure.

As easy as it is to blame the players on the field for missed tackles, bad reads, fumbles and picks, it’s hard to imagine any of these things being quite so frequent had the Cardinals play-calling been a little less predictable, a little more creative, and a whole lot simpler for the Cardinals’ new QB to learn.

And while it’s also easy to blame the coordinators for these failings, Whisenhunt is the top dog, and has to take the rap for the failings of those beneath him — after all, he was the one who put them there.

The Cardinals playbook is overly complex, but because only a handful of plays have been mastered by the players, these self-same plays keep being called over and over in the same situations. To make matters worse, Whisenhunt and his team have been very poor at adjusting plays on the fly, and reacting to situations.

Had the Cardinals picked a much simpler, but flexible playbook in the first place, possibly something more akin to what the Panthers have achieved a measure of success with, perhaps we would not be having this conversation. But the fact remains that the coaches have seen how poorly it is working, and that they have not made and discernible adjustments to it is downright criminal.

I like Ken Whisenhunt. He has been very good for the Cardinals, and I would hate to see him go, even in spite of the poor play the Cardinals have recently produced, however, barring a miraculous, near perfect, close to the season — The Cardinals can drop only two games to get even a meager .500 record — it is hard to imagine Whisenhunt holding onto his job beyond the end of this season.

And that fact alone has to worry Kevin Kolb. Because as we all know, no matter how well he plays in the remaining games, a new head coach equals a new quarterback.

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