If it wasn't the worst trade in NFL history, it was certainly in the Pantheon. When the Arizona Cardinals sent a second-round draft pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles for backup quarterback Kevin Kolb, and then signed Kolb to a five-year, $65 million contract with $12 million guaranteed in July 2011, the resulting lack of value Kolb provided changed the way backups in high-volume offenses were treated from a contractual perspective. When ex-Green Bay Packers backup Matt Flynn had to "settle" for a three-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks worth $19.5 million and $10 million guaranteed, the die was clearly cast.
Of course, there's the matter of what the Cardinals do with Kolb now. After one injury-shortened regular season in 2011 and a perfectly abysmal preseason in 2012, the Cardinals are on the hook through this year -- hoping for the best, they picked up Kolb's $7 million option bonus in March, and now, former fifth-round draft pick John Skelton has been named the starter this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks. As Flynn similarly lost his presumed starting job to rookie Russell Wilson, you'll be able to see two teams with a lot of starter money on the bench.
In Kolb's case, it was a matter of head coach Ken Whisenhunt opting for NFL experience after the lockout -- a short-term process that seems erroneous in retrospect.
"We had an idea of the players that were going to be available to us at the fifth pick," Whisenhunt told me on Wednesday. "We felt like we made a good pick in Patrick Peterson, so we knew that we probably weren't going to take a quarterback at that spot just because how they were stacking up on our board. When you go that direction, you have to think about how you're going to address the position from that point. That was the year of the lockout so we went through the draft without getting a quarterback. We felt that was the right fit for us during the course of the draft so we knew we had to focus on free agency, whether it was through trade or whether it was a veteran free agent.
"We looked through all the options that were out there, we watched a lot tape, and we felt like Kevin was the best option available like most people did, and we took our shot with it. That's what you have to do in this league. We're certainly not disappointed in Kevin; I don't think that's ever been said. We are where we are as a football team right now, and we're trying to put our best team on the field going into the first game."
As much as Kolb's travails have been documented, there's an increasing buzz around the league that the Cardinals may have redeemed themselves with Skelton, whose 2012 base salary is just $540,000. The former Fordham flash, taken by the Cards in the 2010 NFL draft, outdid Kolb last year and this year -- it was a push in the stat sheet, but in and out of the pocket, Skelton at least has a command and authority Kolb clearly does not possess.
In fact, Skelton has drawn some comparisons to the embryonic version of another quarterback with whom Whisenhunt is very familiar: Ben Roethlisberger. Whisenhunt was Big Ben's offensive coordinator from 2004 through 2006, and there are a few similarities. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Skelton has been known to make throws after deflecting pressure with power, and there is a small measure of savvy on the run -- especially when flushed out of the pocket -- that seems to be the same. Nobody's yet putting Skelton on Roethlisberger's level, but for a team that has thrown a different quarterback out there to start each of the last four seasons (Kurt Warner in 2009, Derek Anderson in 2010, Kolb in 2011, and Skelton now), any port in a storm will do.
Last time the Cardinals and Seahawks played, Skelton went 22 of 40 for 271 yards and a touchdown in the 2011 regular-season finale, a 23-20 overtime win for Arizona. It kept Pete Carroll's team from a .500 record, and that was Carroll's frame of reference when I asked him about Skelton this week.
"Unfortunately, we have a have a lot of respect for him because of how well he played against us last season," Carroll said. "He did a great job in that game. We do know who he is, and think when you look back at his games now, you respect his way of managing the pocket. He's very, very good at it. This staff is basically from Pittsburgh, where they watched Ben for all of those years. John is a big guy in the pocket and he can move around and be resourceful and do stuff, very much in the same fashion. As he grows in his career, he could be a real challenge for us. You don't know when you have him [tackled]. He can make something happen when you're hanging all over him."
Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, whose general off-the-record and on-the-field response to quarterbacks alternates between derision and aggression, echoed Carroll's thoughts: Skelton hasn't put it all together yet, but he will impress in bursts.
"We faced him a little bit last year, and just watching him on film this year, he does a great job of keeping the play alive when he doesn't have a guy open," Chancellor said. "Or, if he's facing pressure, he can use his legs. He kind of reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger a little bit -- just using his legs and keeping the play alive. We've got to stick to our receivers at all times; make sure we keep our eyes on our man. It's kind of like that same [Pittsburgh] system, and we just game plan around that.
"When Kolb is under pressure, it's easier to get him -- he'll get sacked or take the sack. Skelton's a big guy, and little nickel blitzers won't [get him] -- he's breaking tackles and keeping it alive."
It's a difficult time for Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves -- they pushed all their chips in on Kolb, and if Skelton doesn't work out, it could very well be another season of frustration for the rest of the Cardinals team. Between elite receiver Larry Fitzgerald and a young, surprising defense, the Cardinals have enough to at least make the 2012 season interesting.
Skelton, for his part, seems unconcerned about the pressure -- literally or figuratively. "I'm not the fastest guy; I'm not the quickest guy," he said this week. "No one is going to confuse me for a speed guy, but at the same time as far as moving in the pocket, stepping up in the pocket, making one guy miss and keeping plays alive, that's something that I do pride myself on. I think a lot of guys in our offense kind of feel that even if the play doesn't go exactly as drawn up, there is still a chance of someone getting loose in the secondary or a back getting loose and making someone miss."
That's what an offense that used to be great will be relying on this year -- broken plays and pressure drops. After risking it all on a megabucks guy and busting out severely, the Arizona Cardinals are reduced to hoping their third-year, minimum-salary quarterback can pull it all out of his hat.