by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

One wonders if HC Ken Whisenhunt might start feeling some heat at U of P Stadium if the Big Red can’t crack .500 for the third straight year this fall. The Kurt Warner years are looking further and further back in the rear-view mirror, and team prexy Michael Bidwill could be getting antsy if the Cards fall out of playoff contention again.

“Coach Wiz” made a big gamble before last season when trading for Eagle QB Kevin Kolb and then signing him to a mega-bucks deal, but Kolb was unconvincing in an injury-marred 2011 campaign. Ex-Fordham QB John Skelton finished the season at the controls of the attack and indeed led a late push that included a 5-1 mark in the last six games and getting the Big Red to .500 (8-8) when the season concluded.

Indicating some dissatisfaction with Kolb, Whisenhunt made a spirited run at Peyton Manning in the offseason, only to finish second behind Denver in that derby. When that effort failed, Whisenhunt was left with a race between Kolb and Skelton during a preseason in which neither admittedly shined.

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Then, after the exhibition slate concluded with a limp 16-13 loss to the Broncos in which neither took a snap, Coach Wiz made the call: Skelton will start the September 9 opener against Seattle.

Whether it be Skelton, Kolb, Neil Lomax, or Jim Hart taking snaps, Las Vegas oddsmakers aren’t expecting a lot from the Big Red. They’ve being rated a clear third choice in the four-team NFC West, priced at 15/2 to win the division. A return to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years is also considered highly unlikely, priced at 35/1. Securing the franchise’s first NFL championship since 1947 (when the Cardinals were located in Chicago and played at the White Sox’ old Comiskey Park) is also rated a significant longshot at 66/1.

Meanwhile, the season-win total at Nevada wagering outlets is posted at a modest 7, a slight downgrade from the final record last season.

The demotion of Kolb is just the latest QB misadventure for Whisenhunt and the Big Red since the aforementioned Warner hung ‘em up after Arizona’s last playoff appearance in 2009. Heir apparent Matt Leinart, a first-round draft pick in 2006 from the preceding Dennis Green regime, proved an immature leader who was so detested by Whisenhunt and management that he was cut unceremoniously prior to the 2010 campaign. Journeyman Derek “Wild Thing” Anderson proved a stop-gap at best two falls ago when then-rookie Skelton also made a brief appearance in the starting lineup late in that season.

Then, prior to the 2011 season, the Cards made that big investment in Kolb, who had hinted at some real upside, although never establishing himself as a force, for several years behind Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick in Philadelphia.

That major trade, and subsequent big contract awarded Kolb, are now looking like major mistakes by the Big Red braintrust. Kolb’s recent demotion is the latest indicator that Whisenhunt believes that roster move was probably a bust. Now we’re left to wonder if any resulting damage from the Kolb misadventure could end up costing Whisenhunt his job.

Assuming Whisenhunt doesn’t release Kolb (unlikely because of contract dynamics for this season) as he did Leinart two years ago, Kolb could yet get one more chance to salvage his career in the desert if either a) Skelton struggles as the starter or b) Skelton gets hurt. Barring a late waiver wire move after the final cutdowns elsewhere in the league, it would seem unlikely that Whisenhunt would go into the season with only San Diego State rookie Ryan Lindley (who in truth might have outshined both Kolb and Skelton in preseason) as cover behind Skelton.

So, there still might be a chapter or two left to the Kolb adventure in Glendale, though to this point it hardly appears as if it will be a story with a happy ending. Stay tuned for further developments.

For the moment, then, the question is if Skelton at QB enough for Arizona to challenge the 49ers and get back into the playoff equation. Although the ex-Fordham gunslinger was indeed 5-1 down the stretch as the starter last season, assuming he is ready to lead a playoff charge appears to be a bit of a reach, at least at the moment. The fact of the matter is that Skelton is probably on a short leash, too, and probably only has a short window for an audition to remain as an NFL starting QB. If Skelton implodes and Whisenhunt is forced to look elsewhere, don’t be surprised if the Big Red decides to blow up the entire QB situation and look elsewhere for help in the offseason.

At least there are no shortage of receiving targets for the QBs, not with WR non-pareil Larry Fitzgerald (another 80 catches last season) now complemented by Notre Dame’s field-distorting first-round choice Michael Floyd, who in theory could make it more difficult for foes to gang up on Fitzgerald. Although Whisenhunt is apt to bring rookies slowly into the fold, most NFC West observers suggest it won’t be long before Floyd is on the field most of the time. In the interim, Whisenhunt has been pleased with efforts from sorts such as Andre Roberts and Early Doucet to take some pressure off Fitzgerald until Floyd is deemed ready for full-time duty.

Meanwhile, the infantry should be serviceable if ex-Ohio State RB Beanie Wells can stay healthy. Ex-Virginia Tech slasher Ryan Williams, brought along slowly in preseason following knee surgery, gave hints of better things to come in cameo roles during exhibition play and could evolve into a playmaker sometime during the fall.

But the concerns along the OL are almost as great as those at QB, especially after vet LT Levi Brown, re-signed in the summer, suffered a season-ending torn triceps muscle in the summer. With Ole Miss rookie Bobby Massie penciled in at RT, and journey Anthony D’Anthony Batiste, who has started only four games in a seven-year career and has never before played at LT, at the other bookend, Whisenhunt has grave concerns in pass protection. Moreover, there are serious depth concerns along the line.

Thus, expect the Cardinals to do some active shopping from the waiver wire to try and shore up the forward wall as best as they possibly can before the September 9 opener vs. the Seahawks. Needless to say, scouring for help at any position before the regular season begins is a serious red flag.

Prospects at least appear a bit more promising on the defensive side. Although it took a while for the Big Red to adjust to d.c. Ray Horton’s new Steeler-like 3-4 schemes last fall, perhaps because the summer lockout prevented the Cards from digesting the new looks in the offseason. Later last season, however, several defenders began to flourish, and all starters return from a year ago.

Along the way a last fall, DE Calais Campbell became dominant at times, and ILB Daryl Washington emerged as a playmaker who could cover the field from sideline-to-sideline. Keeping NT Dan Williams healthy after he missed most of his first two seasons in the league with injuries as he dealt with weight issues will be one important defensive development to watch this fall.

Maybe the team’s most-exciting component, ex-LSU CB Patrick Peterson (right), also emerged as a big-play force last season, especially on punt returns. Horton is hoping that offseason FA addition William Gay (via Detroit) can provide an upgrade on the right corner opposite Peterson.

Spread-wise, note that the Cards have had trouble lately away from the desert, just 6-13 vs. the line away from home since late in the 2009 campaign. The Big Red was also “over” 10-5-1 a year ago.

Summary...Whisenhunt is already running low on options at QB, given his decision to roll the dice with John Skelton as his starter for the opener against Seattle. Which indicates that Kevin Kolb’s days are probably numbered in the desert. Despite an encouraging collection of skill-position weapons led by Canton-bound WR Larry Fitzgerald, the combination of QB and offensive line issues is a familiar theme in the desert and threatens to undermine yet another Big Red campaign.

If Arizona makes an unlikely run at a playoff spot, it will likely be due to Ray Horton’s defense becoming dominant, as well as Skelton providing serviceable work at QB. But a more-likely scenario will instead see the Cards fighting off the Rams at the bottom of the division rather than challenging the 49ers at the top of the NFC West.


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