Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
This we know: The NFL is a quarterback league, as much as it has ever been.
And also this: The large trends that define the game are moving toward an even greater reliance on passing offense.
But as we’ve seen so far this year, it is still possible to win football games the old-fashioned way, with a punishing defense, a reliable running game, and barely competent quarterbacking. This is the formula that’s been used for ages — Chuck Knox was famous for it with his “Ground Chuck” attack with the Rams and Seahawks in the ’70s and ’80s. Marty Schottenheimer used much the same mixture with the Browns of the ’80s and the Chiefs of the ’90s.
By necessity rather than design, the formula might be revived in the NFL this year. In Arizona, the Cardinals are on Year 3 of trying to replace Kurt Warner, and you don’t get a sense that they’ve found the definitive answer yet. They threw a whole lot of money at Kevin Kolb a couple of off-seasons ago, but he’s been profoundly disappointing, proving injury prone, jittery in the pocket and less than convincing as a leader. Kolb brought with him the tag of being the “high-priced gun” that is sometimes hard to live up to. One of the hardest things in evaluating a QB is separating his performance from that of the team.
Despite last year’s debacle, the Cardinals had invested tens of millions of dollars in Kolb, and heading into this season, they made it clear that they wanted him to win the starter’s job. Instead, he was outplayed in the preseason by John Skelton who, among other things, seemed to have established a better rapport with all-world wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Kolb was, in the minds of many, already a washout.
But in the first game of the season, Skelton went down with an injury and the much-maligned Kolb returned to action – and to a chorus of boos from the Cardinals crowd. He’s still erratic, still suffers inexplicable brain cramps and may never marshal the consistency that you want to see in an elite quarterback. But thus far this season, none of that has mattered. Behind breakout rush end Calais Campbell and a stellar, athletic secondary, the Cardinals defense has been terrific. And although the Cardinals’ running game has been disappointing and Kolb still hasn’t worked out all the kinks, he’s gained confidence as the Cardinals have won their first four games.
In fairness, Kolb has been adjusting to the new offense. He was not a natural fit coming from a true “West Coast” timing and read-progression offense in Philadelphia to Ken Whisenhunt’s philosophy, which owes a lot to the Steelers system and is a bit more rigid and less fluid than what Kolb was used to in Philadelphia. Everything from the dropback to the reads had to be re-learned. In the fourth quarter Sunday, we saw the worst of Kolb (an interception that he would describe as “maybe the worst of my career”) and the best of Kolb, a gritty 4th-and-10 touchdown laser to Andre Roberts that allowed Arizona to rally from a 13-0 halftime deficit against Miami and stay unbeaten.
Arizona is well coached by Whisenhunt, fundamentally sound, doesn’t often hurt itself with mistakes and is looking tough out in the suddenly formidable NFC West. Sunday’s heroics aside, Kolb’s not going to morph into Kurt Warner overnight. But there are enough other pieces around him — especially if running back Beanie Wells can return from the injured reserve list (under the league’s new eight-game designation, he’s eligible to return Nov. 25) — for the Cardinals to contend.
“We’re not the prettiest girl at the dance,” said Cardinals guard Daryn Colledge. “We’re like a four or a five, but we dance like an eight.”
Can you win that way? Yes, but it’s one thing to play sound football for 16 games, win the close ones and find yourself in playoff contention. It’s another thing entirely to have a legitimate shot to win the Super Bowl. And teams with this defense-first profile have an incredibly narrow margin of error. It’s always been that way — Knox and Schottenheimer were two of the best coaches of their eras, but their teams never made it to the Super Bowl — and it is, if anything, even harder to win with that kind of profile today.
I was fortunate. We won our Super Bowl in Baltimore in the 2000 season with the same kind of team. But our defense wasn’t merely good, it was historically great — a unit that gave up the fewest points in the history of the league. We also were the fifth-best rushing team in the NFL that year and led the league in turnover differential with 23. And yet, with an offense that lacked explosiveness, it was a weekly battle. We went through a period of three games in the middle of the season where we didn’t score an offensive touchdown. We weren’t talking about winning a Super Bowl at that point; we were merely focused on trying to score more than three points at a time.
Two years later the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, under first-year coach Jon Gruden, nearly duplicated the numbers with the top-ranked defense in the league, topping the NFL in both points allowed and turnover differential. They were 24th in the NFL in offense, but they won the Super Bowl as well.
It’s a tough path for Arizona, and they don’t look like they have the dominating defense that the Ravens in 2000 and the Bucs in 2002 had. They’ve also got another problem — they’re averaging only 2.7 yards per rush, and that may catch up with them sooner than anything.
Take a look at Seattle, another team that fits the Cardinals profile. The Seahawks are starting a charismatic, undersized rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, and through four games, just about getting away with it. They have relied on Marshawn Lynch’s running and a surprisingly stout defense (as well as, it has to be said, one heinously bad call from the replacement officials at the end of the Green Bay game) to fashion a 2-2 record. But when they are unable to convert drives into touchdowns, as was the problem Sunday (two long drives ended in field goals, three more were cut short by interceptions), they’re extremely vulnerable. They weren’t overpowered by the Rams so much as outkicked, as St. Louis’s Greg Zuerlein booted four field goals, two of them for 58 and 60 yards, to leave the Seahawks at 2-2. To try to win the way the Cardinals and Seahawks do it, nearly every Sunday is going to be close, and the margin of error is going to be razor thin.
For the Cardinals to be playing meaningful games in December, they’ll need to fill in a patchwork offensive line, hope for Wells’ healthy return around Thanksgiving, try to avoid the fumble-itis that befell Ryan Williams earlier this season, and somehow find a way for Kolb to gain a better rapport with Fitzgerald. Arguably, the Seahawks have more of the pieces already in place; their running game is better, and they just need for their rookie quarterback Wilson to get better fast. It’s no small task for either team.
But this way is also each team’s most reliable path to success. There simply aren’t enough elite quarterbacks to go around, so teams must find a way to compete. As Colledge says, it’s not pretty football. But everything looks better after a win.