Arizona Cardinals: Levi Brown's Injury Forces Ken Whisenhunt to Adapt, or Lose
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Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt is not interested in the Wildcat.
Coordinators around the league are experimenting with new ways to run the pigskin, employing option QBs such as Cam Newton in Carolina, backup Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, and of course Tim Tebow in New York. But Whiz has stayed true to form with multiple spread formations and a complex aerial playbook, even as Arizona's passing game has struggled in the past two seasons with Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton at the helm.
Stubbornness is not necessarily a bad trait in a coach. Whisenhunt was criticized in 2007 for employing a two-quarterback system, using Kurt Warner (considered a has-been at the time) in a no-huddle shotgun throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Arizona finished 8-8 that year. But, the Cardinals offense blossomed under Warner in 2008-09, as the greybeard led the team to four playoff wins and a Super Bowl appearance.
Arizona's plan for 2012, undoubtedly, involves more of the same: use maligned but strong-armed passers Kolb and Skelton to distribute the ball to Fitzgerald, first-round draft pick Michael Floyd and a host of play-making tight ends and slot receivers. The Cardinals' up-the-middle ground game can then be used as a keep-'em-honest complement and a means of protecting leads in the second half.
The untimely injury to left tackle Levi Brown changes all of that. Whisenhunt, not known for his flexibility, now faces a binary decision: run, run, run the football or lose trying to throw it.
A pass-happy offense shines when executed well, racking up points and putting pressure on opposing QBs to keep up. But it places a burden on offensive tackles, who must block "uphill" most of the time.
When linemen get tired, the QB gets punished. With a veteran Kurt Warner releasing passes in nanoseconds to avoid the rush, Whisenhunt's house of cards rarely collapsed. Last year, and in the 2012 preseason, Whiz has seen Kolb beaten within an inch of his career.
Brown has been mocked and ridiculed by fans while blocking premier sack specialists on an island for several years. His injury will cripple the Arizona passing game in a trite-but-true scenario for those who sneeringly begged for Brown to leave the lineup: be careful what you wish for.
With no viable substitute at the second-most important position, probable starter Skelton will now see another spike in his health insurance premiums. The fragile Kolb becomes an injury waiting to happen.
But, the offense still has one chance, and it's in the backfield. The Cardinals' late run in 2011 highlighted an improved defense, but is also largely attributable to Beanie Wells. The bruising fourth-year tailback was finally healthy and reliable, breaking out against St. Louis on November 27th, and finishing the year with over 1,000 yards.
Meanwhile, Ryan Williams is a super-talented youngster who has spent the last 12 months rehabbing from surgery. Williams looked evasive in a brief appearance against Oakland last weekend, scoring the Cardinals' only first-quarter touchdown of the preseason.
With Wells and Williams, Whiz can whack opponents on the ground and give his woebegone O-line a fighting chance. Center Lyle Sendlein and tackle Jeremy Bridges still remain from a 2008 team that helped an aging Edgerrin James briefly resurrect his career.
Newly acquired guard Adam Snyder spent his 2011 season road-grading for the ground-and-pound 49'ers. By running on first down, Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Mike Miller can play to the strength of their blockers.
It would play to their strengths at QB, too. Skelton is not the ideal player for Whisenhunt's preferred advanced-calculus pass attack. However, Skelton has other assets. The third-year Fordham product is 6'5", 240 lbs, possesses a strong downfield arm and is an underrated athlete who ran for 1,216 yards in the Rams' spread-option offense.
If the ground game is cranked up, Skelton can flourish in play-action, where a QB is asked to throw it here or throw it there. A prolific run game would also keep the Big Red in manageable third-down situations, where the nimble Skelton can scramble and extend drives.
Ray Horton's Steelers-West defense, led by cornerback Patrick Peterson and laden two-deep with talent, can carry Arizona through the occasional offensive dry spell. What it can't do is make up for the disastrous turnover ratio and loss of field position that will occur if Skelton or Kolb is asked to throw 40 times a game.
During his tenure, Whisenhunt has talked often of the importance of running the ball. But such talk is cheap. Every NFL head coach speaks about emphasizing the run, but play-calling speaks louder than words. Contrary to what some fans believe, an NFL team cannot play-call its way to the Super Bowl. However, coaches can handicap a team by asking players to execute a game plan that doesn't suit them.
In 2012, the Cardinals have two choices—emphasize the run or lose. Whisenhunt's response to this conundrum may determine the outcome of the 2012 season and will say a lot about his future in Arizona.
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