Head coach Ken Whisenhunt has yet to determine which quarterback, Kevin Kolb or John Skelton, will be under center when the Arizona Cardinals travel to southern Ohio to lineup against the Cincinnati Bengals on Christmas Eve (1:00 PM, ET, FOX).
While Whisenhunt debates the decision, let's make it.
The Cardinals started off the season a strong 1-6 behind starter Kevin Kolb. Yes, you read that correctly: a strong 1-6. Four of the Cardinals' six losses could have easily gone the other way; they were all late fourth quarter losses decided by a single play in each game.
Since Skelton has taken the offensive reins, the Cardinals have won six of their previous seven games. Similar to the first seven games of the season, the Skelton-era games have been decided in overtime or by late fourth quarter plays.
Some look to the Cardinals' record as the deciding factor; Kolb sunk the team to 1-6, while Skelton is soaring at 6-1. Actually, that would be 5-1; if you recall, Kolb was the signal -caller in the win against the Dallas Cowboys (13-19) in Week 13, and went 16-for-25, throwing 247 yards and a score.
With several games that could've been wins or losses because of a single play, Arizona's record is of little relevance when deciding which quarterback to start. So let's dispense with the "Skelton's winning, so he should start" chatter. It's irrelevant.
For those who are hanging on to the "Skelton is winning games and therefore he should start argument," let's take a closer look at the teams he has faced.
The Cardinals have beat four teams with Skelton as the starting quarterback: St. Louis Rams (twice), San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns. The combined record for these teams is 23-33, or a .410 winning percentage.
The Rams have been lucky to win two games all season, the Eagles have floundered since Week 1 (and were without two-time Pro Bowler DeSean Jackson (alarm clock issues), and the Browns are 30th in the NFL for points scored in a game (13.9).
Skelton couldn't make it through the first game against the 49ers; Whisenhunt pulled him after throwing three picks. In the rematch against the 49ers (when the 49ers had already clinched a playoff berth), Skelton threw two picks, but did have some nice throws and racked up three scores.
Skelton has garnered a 69.8 quarterback rating in his time as a starter. He has had only one game with a quarterback rating over 100, and that was against the resting 49ers. He has tossed more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (8), and typically struggles in the first half of play. Of Skelton's opponents, only one in all likelihood, will make it into the playoffs (49ers).
Kolb has had much more difficult sledding.
Kolb faced the likes of the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Some of the more cupcake teams he's lined up against are the Carolina Panthers (5-9), Minnesota Vikings (2-12), Seattle Seahawks (7-7) and Washington Redskins (5-9). All told, Kolb's opponents are at a combined 54-58, for a .482 winning percentage.
Unquestionably, Kolb's slate of games has been much more difficult. He was able to pull out wins against only two of those teams, the Panthers and Cowboys. Other than against the Vikings and Steelers, all of the games were winnable late in the fourth quarter where Kolb was the starting quarterback.
In Kolb's eight games, he's thrown for more touchdowns (9) than interceptions (8), and has a combined quarterback rating of 81.1. Kolb has shown more confidence in the pocket than Skelton, but if you ask wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, he would say that Skelton has the confidence of "a two-time Super Bowl champion."
Based on the opponents each quarterback has faced, Kolb has the edge over Skelton. Kolb has managed to keep the Cardinals in games against more formidable opponents. He just couldn't lead the Cardinals to the late-game wins.
Clutchness of the Quarterbacks
Maybe that's what the decision comes down to for Whisenhunt: the "clutchness" of each quarterback. Yes, most of the Cardinals' games were winnable late in the fourth quarter. The difference is that Skelton has won most of those games, while Kolb has not. Like my high school coach used to say, "Some can, some can't." From the looks of things, Skelton can, Kolb can't.
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But then again, Skelton wasn't the one returning a punt 99 yards in overtime to beat the Rams in their first meeting, nor was he in on either of the Seneca Wallace sacks by the goal line. And I don't recall Skelton lining up next to Calais Campbell when the Cardinals blocked a field goal to force an overtime.
Of the Cardinals' seven wins this season, six of them have been from fourth quarter comebacks. Of those comeback wins, Kolb and Skelton have each accounted for one of the comebacks with a touchdown pass.
Kolb threw a screen pass for a touchdown to LaRod Stephens-Howling in overtime against the Cowboys, while Skelton threw a 5-yard touchdown strike to Early Doucet against the Eagles with 1:53 remaining. The other games have either been because of an electrifying Patrick Peterson punt return, or a valiant defensive effort.
Other Factors to Consider
In other words, there are a number of factors that have gone into the Cardinals wins and losses. Take, for example, the recent outstanding play of the defense. At the start of the season, the Cardinals were unable to utilize defensive coordinator Ray Horton's complete playbook. Now, Horton has the defensive group looking like one of the strongest units in the league.
Also, Arizona's youthful secondary has had time to mature over the course of the season, and is starting to outplay opposing receivers. The Dallas game was a test that they passed convincingly.
Which Quarterback Should Start Against the Bengals?
One thing is for sure, neither quarterback has separated himself from the other, which makes the decision of who to start a difficult one. And while Whisenhunt may not have officially announce the starter, based on the snap count at practice, it appears that Skelton will be tapped for the game against the Bengals.
If Whisenhunt goes with Skelton, it would be the wrong call. Skelton has been decent against mediocre teams. In large part, the attacking Cardinals defense puts Arizona in a position to win games, and Skelton has admitted to as much.
If Kolb is medically cleared, he should lead the Cardinals on offense. He gives Arizona the best chance to beat the Bengals and keep playoff hopes alive.
UPDATE: ESPN is reporting that John Skelton will get the nod over Kevin Kolb.