It was only one drive. Just part of one drive, actually. But it was probably the most important 3:43 of Kevin Kolb’s career.
The quarterback’s struggles since being traded from Philadelphia to Arizona in the 2011 offseason have been well documented. Since joining the Cardinals, Kolb has been injured, inconsistent and ineffective, all of which led to him, $65-million contract and all, losing the starting quarterback job to John Skelton during the preseason.
“He is skittish,” Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said of Kolb after the teams played in Week 2 of the preseason. “He is scared back there. Anytime anybody gets close to him he starts looking at the refs. As a defensive lineman you love a quarterback like that. He ain’t even trying to look at the routes no more. He is paying attention to us and you ain’t going to get nothing done like that.”
But none of those issues surfaced in Kolb’s game-winning drive, one that led the Cardinals to a 20-16 season-opening win over division-rival Seattle on Sunday. Kolb showed poise in the pocket. He got the ball out quickly. And most importantly, he was confident.
So how did the Cardinals get to the point where they needed the NFL’s highest-paid backup quarterback to save them in Week 1?
Arizona headed into halftime with a 10-3 lead over visiting Seattle. Skelton was solid to that point, showing why he beat out Kolb for the starting spot during the preseason. In the third quarter, though, things got dicey.
Skelton was just 2-of-9 for eight yards—one of those incompletion’s was an interception—in the third quarter and the first five minutes of the fourth. The Cardinals offense had given away its lead and, with less than 10 minutes left in the game, Seattle was leading 16-13.
The Cardinals got the ball at their own 20 with 9:20 to go. On first down Skelton was promptly sacked for a six-yard loss. On second down, he completed a 17-yard pass to Andre Roberts giving Arizona its first first down of the half. Skelton, however, was hit by Seattle’s Brandon Mebane as he released the ball, who landed on the quarterback’s right ankle.
Skelton went down in obvious pain. His receiving corps huddled around him and the training staff rushed onto the field. The same look of concern flashed on every Cardinal’s face as Skelton was carted off.
Enter Kevin Kolb.
On his first play of the game the Seahawks only rushed four. Apparently they didn’t want to test Kelly’s theory early. Still, Kolb badly overthrew Larry Fitzgerald and boos rained down in University of Phoenix Stadium.
On second down, Kolb lined up in the shotgun and found an open Fitzgerald sitting between a linebacker and safety in the Seattle zone for a gain of 14. A quick decision followed by an accurate throw.
After a batted pass on first down, Seattle’s blitz didn’t get to Kolb on second down and he found Fitzgerald again for a first down. Another quick decision and accurate pass. The Cardinals were charged with holding on the next play, but Kolb showed some mettle, standing tall in a collapsing pocket—a small sign that he was thinking less and playing on instinct.
On first-and-20 Kolb was in the shotgun and Seattle’s rush nearly got to him. Kolb didn’t seem to care, though, as he stepped into a pass intended for Andre Roberts. The throw was on point, and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman was charged with pass interference giving Arizona a first-and-10 at the Seattle 32.
Next play: Shotgun again. Five-man rush. Quick throw to tight end Todd Heap for 11 yards. Reports were that Kolb didn’t take any first-team reps last week in practice, but on Sunday he was in sync with his receivers as if they’d been working together all along.
“He just got in rhythm and ripped some balls in there,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll told reporters after the game.
After LaRod Stephens-Howling rushed for three yards, Arizona found themselves in the red zone, a place it struggled last season. But coach Ken Whisenhunt trusted his hot quarterback and went five-wide. Kolb rewarded his coach’s faith and threw a dart to Heap for another first down.
First-and-goal just inside the 10-yard line.
An easy, four-yard pass to Stephens-Howling brought up second down. There was some confusion at the line of scrimmage as Kolb tried to shift two wide receivers with six seconds left on the play clock. With the clock winding down, Whisenhunt ran onto the field and tried to call a timeout.
Lucky for coach, the refs didn’t hear him, because Kolb found Roberts in single coverage to his left and tossed a perfect pass, leading his receiver into the front corner of the end zone.
Five minutes later Arizona’s defense held on for the win.
Does Sunday’s game-winning drive give the 28-year old Kolb validation after a year of injuries and sub-par play? Of course not.
We didn’t learn a whole lot new about Kolb. He was thrown into a situation where he didn’t have time to think; he beat the Seahawks with his physical tools.
Those tools have never been questioned. He is accurate. He can read defenses. But the question marks arise when he seems to get in his own head and becomes more concerned with the pass rush than finding open receivers. Seattle also made things easier for him by not using overwhelming blitzes.
Reports say Skelton has a high ankle sprain, which could sideline him for four to six weeks. So the next few games will tell a lot more about whether Kelly’s “skittish” comments hold true, or if Kolb can become the franchise quarterback the Cardinals hoped they traded for.
Arizona, obviously, is hoping for the latter.