Ah, 2011. I remember it like it was just last year. The powerfully frisky Cardinals clawed and pecked their way to 8-8 with a 7-2 finish. They beat the Eagles in Philly. They beat the Cowboys. They beat the Niners. They started woefully, but they finished strong. What happened at the same time the team turned around? John Skelton, their big-armed second-year quarterback, took over for a (what else?) injured Kevin Kolb for eight of Arizona's last nine games. Skelton wasn't good—euphemistically, we'd say he played like a kid out there—but he had the zip and receivers to engineer a handful of late-game comebacks. As we said: frisky.
Let's jump ahead to 2012. The Cardinals opened the season underdoggy and frisky as ever. Skelton had won the starter's job in camp, and then an injury gave the job to Kolb. Another injury soon gave the job back to Skelton. Arizona won its first four—narrowly over Seattle, New England, and Miami (all three could be playoff teams) and less narrowly over Philly (emphatically not a playoff team)—before the wheels came off. They lost five in a row, only one by less than a touchdown. Not much had changed with the passing situation, but the Cardinals had lost their top two running backs (Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells), and their defense had tailed off (as defenses tend to do when offenses fail). The Cardinals appeared to have entered a tidy unceasing slump.
And then Sunday happened. You were probably checking your phone during your local scintillating early game, when you saw "ARI 13 ATL 0." You knew the Falcons were not as good as their record would suggest. But down 13-0 at home to the Cardinals? How could it be? Simply: the Arizona defense showed up in a way they hadn't in weeks. By game's end, they had picked off Matt Ryan five times. There's some luck in interceptions, yes, but the Cardinals covered well too, especially considering their assignments—Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez. (Some of that improved coverage came from Adrian Wilson's demotion.) These were the Cardinals that had gone on that long, surprising run from 2011 until 2012.
Yet Arizona lost the game yesterday, 23-19. This is amazing! The game stories will have it down as just another Cardinals loss, another possible nail in Ken Whisenhunt's coffin, or just another Falcons win, a "gritty effort" from a team that "just knows how to get it done" (except in the first round of the playoffs). But it's much more: Whisenhunt replaced John Skelton with rookie sixth-rounder Ryan Lindley after all of seven pass attempts. Moreover: Skelton's last snap came when his team was up 13-0. Lindley was strip-sacked for a touchdown on his first series, and he was sacked two more times. All told, he completed nine of his 20 passes for 64 yards. He played like a San Diego State rookie who's spent most of his season as a backup should play—not well. He was, however, better than Skelton. Skelton's 0.8 Total QBR made Lindley and his 4.7 look like Peyton Manning. It's probably not worth blaming Ken Whisenhunt over this, because we can't imagine how a team armed with John Skelton, LaRod Stephens-Howling, and two rookie tackles is supposed to win road games against good teams, regardless of how well its defense plays. Although one does wonder why Skelton even started if Whisenhunt was so prepared to pull him.
The real lesson here is that the Cardinals—the once-4-0 Cardinals, with their mean rushing defense and improved secondary—are hopelessly, hopelessly screwed at quarterback. The only glimmer of 2012 hope is Kevin Kolb's return in a week or two. I can't imagine what it's like to look forward to that.