Faced with an agonizing choice between a high-priced incumbent and an ascending player who just found ways to win, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt followed his gut.
So even though Kevin Kolb will make $8 million in total compensation this year, John Skelton will start the season opener for the Cardinals against NFC West division rival Seattle on Sunday in the desert.
“Ultimately, in evaluating all of the factors and all of the different things that we looked at, we felt at this time that John gave us the best chance to win going forward, and that’s the decision that we made,” Whisenhunt said during a conference call with Seattle-area reporters this week.
“It was definitely a tough decision.”
With neither quarterback distinguishing themselves during preseason play, Whisenhunt chose Skelton because of his success last season. Skelton finished 5-2 as a starter — actually 6-2 if you count Arizona’s 21-19 victory over San Francisco in Week 14, in which he replaced an injured Kolb after three plays.
Skelton also went undefeated as a starter at home, helping the Cardinals take seven of nine games down the stretch last season and finish with a .500 record at 8-8.
“It’s kind of a bottom line league and everyone looks at wins and losses,” Skelton said. “But at the same time there is a lot of room for improvement. There were a lot of plays that I let go, a lot of bad decisions, a lot of bad throws, but it is something to build on.”
Looking for a franchise quarterback after Kurt Warner retired two years ago, the Cardinals traded with Philadelphia for Kevin Kolb during the offseason last year, handing over a 2011, second-round draft pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Eagles as compensation.
Arizona promptly signed Kolb to a five-year, $63 million deal. But Kolb struggled to stay on the field in his first year with the Cardinals, with toe and head injuries forcing him to miss seven games in 2011.
Enter third-year pro Skelton. The Fordham University product did not post eye-popping stats. Skelton threw for 1,913 yards, 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last year, and finished with a 68.9 passer rating.
However, one of Skelton’s wins was a 19-17 overtime victory of Seattle in final game of the 2011 season.
And at 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds, Skelton has drawn comparisons to a familiar face to Whisenhunt from his time in Pittsburgh — Ben Roethlisberger — because of his ability to extend plays and how hard it is to bring him down.
“I’m not the fastest guy,” Skelton said. “I’m not the quickest guy. 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.”
“He’s very, very good at it,” added Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said. “This staff (Arizona’s coaching staff) is basically from Pittsburgh, where they watched Ben for all of those years and doing his thing. … You don’t know when you have him. He can make something happen when you’re hanging all over him.”
One thing working in Seattle’s favor is Arizona is dealing with a transition on its offensive line. Starting left tackle Levi Brown is out for the year with a torn triceps injury. So the Cardinals had to move starting right tackle D’Anthony Batiste to left tackle. And rookie fourth-round pick Bobby Massie will replace Batiste at right tackle.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said Arizona’s line changes, along with the fact that his unit faced Skelton in 2011, will help in his team’s preparation this week.
“We should be able to get a little more pressure on him,” Sherman said. “And it’s always nice to have seen him before.”
Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch returned to practice for the first time in over two weeks after sitting out due to back spasms. Lynch was a limited participant on Thursday. Reserve quarterback Matt Flynn is one again dealing with a sore elbow on his throwing arm, and was a limited participant in practice. Defensive end Greg Scruggs (hamstring), receiver Golden Tate (knee) and cornerback Byron Maxwell (shoulder) did not practice. … The Seahawks made a couple roster moves on Thursday, releasing offensive lineman Edawn Coughman and linebacker Allen Bradford from the practice squad. Seattle replaced them on the roster with Oregon State product tight end/defensive end Gabe Miller and center Tommie Draheim.