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Line of Scrimmage: QB crisis could keep Cardinals grounded

Ken Whisenhunt may be as respected a leader there is in the football world, but he's also the ultimate example of how a head coach is really only as good as the quarterback he's dealt with.

Whisenhunt has never strayed from the level-headed, straight-shooting approach that's made him a refreshing antithesis from the calculated, over-secretive mentality that dominates his current creed in today's NFL, but the results he's obtained over the course of his five-year reign with the Arizona Cardinals haven't been synonymous with his even-keeled persona.

It's no coincidence that the two best seasons in the Whisenhunt era -- and the Cardinals' nearly quarter-century residence in Arizona -- corresponded with a reinvigorated Kurt Warner undergoing a remarkable late-career renaissance. Likewise, it's no accident that the franchise has regained its trademark mediocrity in the two years since the future Hall of Fame candidate hung up his cleats.

After winning 19 regular season games, one NFC West title and making a surprise Super Bowl run in Warner's final two seasons, the Cardinals stumbled their way to a furiously frustrating 5-11 record under the comical quarterback combo of the ever-erratic Derek Anderson, the in-way-over-his-head Max Hall and the then-unpolished rookie John Skelton in 2010. Arizona was plagued by uneven play under center last year as well, which was boldly reflected in its up-and-down 8-8 finish.

The Cardinals believed they had the problem solved by now, but it's becoming more and more evident that the team may have come out craps on its roll of the dice on expected savior Kevin Kolb.

Kolb wasn't a complete flop in his desert debut, but the 3-6 record, 57.7 percent completion percentage and 9-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio he produced in nine injury-shortened starts in 2011 didn't come anywhere close to justifying the steep price Arizona paid to acquire the former Philadelphia Eagle last summer, when the Cardinals shipped talented cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round draft choice to Philly and immediately signed Kolb to an eyebrow-raising six-year, $65 million contract.

That disappointing performance may have deserved a mulligan, as Kolb had to digest an entirely new offense on the fly without the benefit of an offseason. There's no excuse, however, for his utterly wretched outcome over the Cardinals' first two preseason games. The soon-to-be 28-year-old has hit on a mere 2-of-9 passes for 25 yards with an interception in four scoreless possessions thus far, numbers that make even Anderson's forgettable 2010 display look respectable in comparison.

Andy Reid hasn't had much to smile about lately, but it wouldn't be the least surprising if the grieving Eagles head coach drew a smirk over how he swindled unsuspecting Cardinals general manager Rod Graves after learning of Kolb's awful 1-for-5, 21-yard output against Kansas City on Friday, much like how he hornswoggled the Washington Redskins two years ago by selling way high on an out-of-shape, over-entitled Donovan McNabb.

Kolb's implosion has opened the door wide for Skelton, his only true competitor for the starting job, but the third-year pro hasn't exactly made the most of his golden opportunity either. He went an uninspiring 3-for-6 for 35 yards and an interception against the Chiefs, with the offense mustering a scant 43 yards and no points in three drives under his command.

Skelton does have moxie, however, as he showed by orchestrating four fourth- quarter comebacks and leading the Cards to a 5-2 record in seven starts while stepping in for an ailing Kolb a year ago, and his physical tools are superior to that of his higher-paid opponent. However, his other career numbers (52.6 completion percentage, 16 interceptions to 13 TD passes) identify best with a serviceable and trustworthy backup -- precisely the role he was expected to hold in the first place.

With just 11 career starts under his belt (which is only five less than Kolb, by the way) and still just 24 years old, the possibility that Skelton has yet to reach his ceiling does exist. There's also a chance Kolb once again demonstrates the promise he briefly flashed during his somewhat turbulent time in Philadelphia, and after receiving a whopping $7 million option bonus in March from an organization that famously tried to low-ball Warner following a 4,500-yard, 30-touchdown season, he'll still have the opportunity to do so.

Minus any other realistic options, it's a must that one of the two raises their play for the Cardinals to have any prayer of contending in an NFC lot filled with top-level quarterbacks. Otherwise, it could be a very expensive mistake for both Graves and Whisenhunt.

QUICK HITS -- PRESEASON WEEK 1

Pretty good first impression by the 2012 rookie quarterback class. Andrew Luck begins the post-Peyton era in Indianapolis by throwing a 63-yard touchdown pass and directs the Colts into the end zone on three of four possessions in an absolutely superb Sunday intro. Robert Griffin III's opener as a Redskin was short (14 plays, likely due to the fact Washington was without three offensive linemen) but very sharp (4-of-6, 70 yds, 1 TD), while Ryan Tannehill looked like the most experienced triggerman on a Miami Dolphins squad with a 10-year veteran and a career 25-game starter also on the roster in his 14- of-21, 167-yard, one-touchdown effort on Friday. Russell Wilson's initial outing in Seattle easily outshined the unveiling of the Seahawks' gaudy new uniforms as well, with the short-statured third-round pick throwing for 124 yards and a touchdown and running for a 32-yard score in his team's victory over Tennessee.

Brandon Weeden's first game for the hard-luck Cleveland Browns didn't go as smoothly as his fellow young gunslingers, however, with the 28-year-old completing just 3-of-9 throws with an interception Friday against Detroit. By the way, the Browns now could or will be without impact rookie Trent Richardson (knee surgery) and projected starters Joe Haden, Scott Fujita (suspensions), Mohamed Massaquoi, Chris Gocong and Phil Taylor (injuries) for their regular-season opener against Philadelphia. The Eagles seem like a nice play in Week 1 suicide pools. So does Cincinnati in Week 2. And Buffalo in Week 3, etc.

The worst start to a pro career? How about Pittsburgh offensive tackle Mike Adams, who gave up 2 1/2 sacks in nine plays against the Eagles on Thursday, then exited the contest with a sprained knee that may keep him out the rest of the preseason. Good thing GM Kevin Colbert re-signed Max Starks just prior to training camp.

Based on the early reviews (and there were plenty of them), the replacement officials also weren't much of a hit in the first preseason week. In their defense, there's somewhat of a witch-hunt scenario going on here, with analysts, broadcasters and seemingly everyone with access to a blog quick to chime in about every questionable decision the substitute crews made this past weekend. Were there blown calls? Of course. Happens every week with the regular refs as well. Was the officiating of the quality we're all used to seeing? Probably not, and it shouldn't expected to be considering the vast rule differences between the NFL and the college ranks that most of the replacements were plucked from. If anything, the bad publicity the league's getting over the situation should enhance the likelihood that it strikes a deal with the locked-out officials before the season opener.

Hard to truly assess Peyton Manning's much-anticipated return to the field and first appearance as a Denver Bronco. The still-recovering star quarterback only played one series in Thursday's rout of Chicago, and none of his seven passes were beyond the intermediate range. Manning's arm strength, or possible lack thereof, will be revealed in the coming weeks as he continues the long process back from multiple neck surgeries.

Tough break for David Garrard, who was making a comeback bid of his own from an injury-forced absence in 2011 and had emerged as a leading contender in the Dolphins' three-man battle for the No. 1 quarterback position before being set back by a knee problem that will require surgery.

As for Garrard's now ex-Miami teammate, if this what the "new" Chad Johnson is all about, the world would probably like the old one back. At least Hard Knocks just got a little more interesting.