That's the biggest question in the mind of Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt heading into training camp with a team poised to make a run at the NFC West crown. The decision of whether Kolb or Skelton will start at quarterback will be settled on the practice field, and the outcome will have a significant impact on the style and function of the Cardinals' offense.
Given the potential ramifications of this quarterback battle, I popped in some tape to size up the competitors and see how the Cardinals' offense could look in the fall. My findings are below, along with who I think should emerge with the job:
The book on Kevin Kolb
The fifth-year pro was acquired last summer in a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Eagles (for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick) and immediately signed to a five-year, $63 million deal (with $20 million in guaranteed money) to serve as the Cardinals' franchise quarterback. At the time, this was widely hailed as a great move for the team, despite the fact that Kolb entered 2011 with only seven career starts under his belt. He had shown outstanding talent and potential in limited action, amassing three 300-yard games and completing over 60 percent of his passes in four of his starts.
From a scout's perspective, Kolb was accurate and effective running the Eagles' quick-rhythm passing game. He was efficient with his reads and routinely got the ball out of his hands before the pocket collapsed. Although Kolb didn't display the strongest arm, his superb timing and anticipation allowed him to squeeze the ball into tight windows. He played with confidence and poise, and appeared to make sound decisions under duress, despite having a high number of interceptions in his final two starts in Philadelphia.
However, Kolb looked inexperienced and overwhelmed last season as the Cardinals' starter. Part of his struggles certainly could be attributed to the lockout and impact of a condensed offseason on his ability to fully grasp the offense. Without the benefit of minicamps and OTAs to work out the kinks, Kolb suffered through his growing pains during game action. For instance, he didn't appear to have a complete mastery of the Cardinals' passing game, so he would struggle moving on to his second or third read in the progression when the primary target was covered. As a result, he took a number of hits and sacks within the pocket, and appeared jumpy when rushers closed. In looking at the majority of his interceptions from last year, it was the threat of the rush that led him to toss errant passes into traffic. If Kolb is going to blossom into the franchise quarterback Cardinals officials envisioned, he must rediscover his nerve within the pocket.
How will the Cardinals' offense look with Kolb at the helm?
1. Empty formations will be featured. The Cardinals have routinely used variations of the empty formation throughout Whisenhunt's tenure. The formation simplifies the reads for the quarterback and allows him to quickly target the vulnerable areas of coverage. Last season, Kolb thrived while directing the offense from this set, with both of his 70-plus-yard completions coming from passes out of empty formations.
Kolb is very comfortable operating from empty formations because it makes it easy for him to identify the coverage prior to the snap.
In this example against the Carolina Panthers, Kolb sees six defenders in the box and knows his receivers have one-on-one coverage across the board.
When Kolb sees the Panthers' linebackers blitz through the A-gaps, he quickly gets the ball to Early Doucet on the slant before the pressure gets home for a 70-yard catch-and-run score.
2. Expect more quick-rhythm throws to the wide receivers. Kolb spent the first four years of his career directing a quick-rhythm offense that utilized a lot of three- and five-step drops. He shows little wasted movement getting to the top of his drops, which allows him to quickly get the ball into the hands of his playmakers on the move. While most of his throws fall in the short-to-intermediate range, he displayed outstanding touch and accuracy on the fade, particularly to Larry Fitzgerald against press coverage.
Kolb is adept at making those throws from the shotgun or under center, so the Cardinals have the ability to feature quick passes from a variety of formations to keep opponents from honing in their tendencies.
3. Play-action passes will be a prominent part of the game plan. The Cardinals want to morph into a blue-collar team behind a physical running game that forces opponents to utilize eight-man boxes on early downs. If they are able to establish a dominant running game with Ryan Williams and/or Beanie Wells, Kolb will have the opportunity to create big plays in the passing game off play-action. For instance, the Cardinals love to run the inside zone play out of their "12" personnel package. They complement the running play with a "Flood" pass that starts with a strong run fake in the backfield, as the "Z" (Andre Roberts) runs a post route to clear the zone with the "H" (Todd Heap) running a "Sail" route and the "Y" (Jeff King) running to the flat. The concept creates a high/low read on the flat defender, which makes it an easy completion for Kolb.
If the Cardinals can create easy opportunities for Kolb to generate production, the offense will regain some of the potency that has been missing since Kurt Warner retired a few seasons ago.
The book on John Skelton
Skelton is entering his third season with the Cardinals after making the team as a fifth-round pick in the 2010 draft. He was lauded in scouting circles for his imposing physical stature (6-foot-6, 244 pounds) and strong arm, but evaluators were concerned about his ability to acclimate to the pro game, despite a stellar career at Fordham.
Coming out of college, Skelton could make all of the throws from any range and distance with excellent velocity, but he struggled with ball placement and accuracy. He relied extensively on his superior arm strength and didn't utilize proper footwork in the pocket. As a result, his balls sailed on him on intermediate throws and he failed to string together completions.
As a pro, though, Skelton has significantly improved his mechanics. He has shown better footwork and balance in the pocket, and become more effective throwing balls inside the numbers. This is a huge development for the Cardinals because it allows Whisenhunt to incorporate square-ins, seam routes and skinny posts into the game plan to take advantage of the superior size, strength and physicality of his receiving corps.
Skelton's physical tools are certainly impressive, but it has been his intangibles that have forced the Cardinals to open up the quarterback competition. He demonstrated uncanny poise and confidence by directing six game-winning drives, including five fourth-quarter comebacks, in only 11 career starts (13 game appearances). With elite quarterbacks expected to engineer productive drives under pressure, Skelton's ability to get it done in the clutch certainly enhances his value to the team.
How will the Cardinals' offense look with Skelton at the helm?
1. The vertical passing game will be a focal point. A good offensive coordinator will tailor his game plans to fit the skills of his best players, so Arizona definitely will feature a vertical passing game with Skelton under center. Last season, the Cardinals utilized more skinny post and four-vertical concepts with Skelton at the helm. He made the tactics work by trusting his guys to come down with some 50/50 balls on the perimeter. For instance, in the video on the right, Skelton fires a laser to Fitzgerald on a deep post over the middle, despite a 49ers safety roaming between the hashes. While most quarterbacks lack the arm strength to fit pinpoint throws into tight windows, Skelton's superior velocity and zip allows him to take calculated risks on throws that produce big plays.
2. More bunch formations will be featured in the game plan. Skelton's limited game experience makes him vulnerable to complex coverages from opponents. One of the ways the Cardinals can simplify the game for Skelton is to utilize a variety of bunch formations to dictate coverage by the defense. By closely aligning several receivers together, Arizona forces the defense to declare its intentions with the alignment of defenders. If the opponent places defenders directly over top of the two or three receivers aligned in a cluster, then the quarterback can anticipate man coverage and look for a receiver to break free off a pick or rub near the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, the defense will employ a zone against the formation, which will lead to an easy throw to the second or third option in the route progression.
Last season, Skelton showed outstanding efficiency reading coverage against bunch formations, so the Cardinals would be wise to expand on the package to create high-percentage passes for their young quarterback.
The Cardinals will use bunch formations to create confusion for the defense, while clarifying the reads for the quarterback.
Skelton can look at the tight alignment of the defenders and anticipate some form of man coverage. Most defenses will press the point man of the bunch formation and align the remaining the defenders at different levels to help them avoid picks at the line of scrimmage.
The Cardinals are running a "star" play, with Fitzgerald executing a post-corner route, Heap running an inside snag and Doucet running a flat route. The play is design to create a pick on a defender at the line of scrimmage or create assignment confusion for the defense when the receivers criss-cross while moving up the field.
In this play, Dimitri Patterson will eventually blow his assignment due to confusion created following the snap, which leads to a 32-yard completion to Fitzgerald.
3. Expect the Cardinals to take shots from two-back formations. Arizona will likely attempt to protect Skelton by establishing the running game to force defenses into eight-man fronts. With eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, Skelton will see a single-high safety in the middle of the field, while getting one-on-one coverage on the outside. This will create big-play opportunities to Fitzgerald and rookie Michael Floyd on drop-back or play-action passes. Last season, Skelton enjoyed success throwing the "Bang-8" against eight-man fronts and will be more effective with two imposing targets on the outside.
Kolb vs. Skelton: Who I like
The Cardinals' quarterback battle is one of the most intriguing competitions in the NFL due to the enormous financial commitment to a veteran who has been outplayed by a younger, cheaper prospect. While Kolb's status as a marquee acquisition certainly will give him the first shot at the job, how well he performs on the field ultimately will decides if he keeps it. He must show a better mastery of the scheme and play with the confidence expected from a franchise-caliber quarterback.
But I don't believe Kolb can make a dramatic turnaround with his performance, so I would opt for Skelton in this competition. We will soon see if Whisenhunt agrees with my assessment.