Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt will be on the hot seat when he returns to the Valley for his normal Monday morning press conference. This time, the topic of conversation won’t be his job security. Not yet, anyway. The topic will be one controversial personnel decision that may or may not have cost the Cardinals in a 23-19 loss at Atlanta on Sunday.
First the particulars: The Falcons offense was in a giving mood all day at the Georgia Dome, and the Cardinals defense, after a two-week hiatus, looked like the Cardinals defense again despite the absence of starters O’Brien Schofield (ankle, IR) and Calais Campbell (calf).
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw three of his stunning five interceptions in the first quarter (Atlanta had a whopping six turnovers overall), and Arizona used those offerings to take a 13-0 lead and make the unthinkable plausible. But those 13 points were as problematic as they were promising, because they could have been so much more had quarterback John Skelton not done what he has done so often this season despite his garbage-time-inflated stats: miss plays.
Already staked to a 10-0 lead, the Cards got the ball at the Falcons 18-yard line thanks to a Kerry Rhodes interception. Skelton had Larry Fitzgerald wide open in the end zone on a curl route after Fitzgerald shed his defender. Skelton missed him wide and out of bounds, and the Cardinals settled for a Jay Feely field goal and the sickening feeling that this might come back to haunt them.
It did, but Whisenhunt had also seen enough missed opportunities over the club’s five-game losing streak that he couldn’t take any more. He gave Skelton the hook and, in a move that was as risky as it was gutsy, inserted rookie Ryan Lindley for his first NFL snaps. On the road. In the noisy Georgia Dome. Against the 8-1 Falcons.
“We had a play that was open, and you’ve got to make that throw,” Whisenhunt said. “We felt like at that point, we’d give Ryan a chance, see if he could make those throws.
“We’re in the business of winning games; that’s what you have to do,” Whisenhunt added. “We’re going to make changes if we felt like it gave us a better chance going forward. That’s what we said we were going to do, and we’re sticking to that. The quarterback is not exempt from that.”
Whisenhunt had indeed warned that change was coming following the team’s loss in Green Bay that preceded last week’s bye. And he made it clear that nobody was exempt if their performance was not up to snuff.
That was crystal clear on Sunday. Nate Potter made his first start at left tackle over D’Anthony Batiste. Michael Floyd got more reps at wide receiver, and safety Rashad Johnson started the game over defensive captain and team icon, Adrian Wilson, following some infamous missed tackles against the Packers and in previous games.
You have to admire Whisenhunt’s conviction. He stuck to his guns. He was a man of his word, as he usually is. But nobody expected to see Lindley this soon. Not in this setting. Almost everyone expected that opportunity to come if the Cardinals’ season was lost beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Instead, Whisenhunt took a gamble — and it backfired almost immediately. Leading 13-3, Lindley backed to throw, Potter was beaten off the edge and Lindley was stripped of the ball by Atlanta defensive end John Abraham as he started to throw. Officials ruled it a fumble because Lindley’s hand was not yet coming forward. The Falcons’ other end, Justin Babineaux, returned the fumble 15 yards to pull Atlanta within 13-10.
“We had guys running on the field, they had guys running on the field,” Whisenhunt said. “Everybody thought the play was over. You always tell them to play through, but what do you say to your players when they say, ‘We heard a whistle?’”
Lindley’s day didn’t get much better. Despite three more turnovers from his defense and some good starting field position, Lindley completed just 9 of 20 passes for 64 yards, leading the Cardinals to six points in three quarters. After Atlanta finally took a 23-19 lead midway through the final period, Arizona had a couple chances, but Lindley couldn’t lead the team to victory.
Could Skelton have produced more points and a win had he remained in the game? Would Skelton have fumbled on the same play Lindley did? Maybe. Those are questions Whisenhunt no doubt wondered himself on the plane ride home and during a long and sleep-deprived night of soul-searching.
This was a crucial loss for the Cards. They are 4-6 now, and their playoff hopes are all but dead. Was this the time to make such a drastic change? Is all change necessary, or do some changes defy logic? The Cardinals had a very winnable game Sunday that could have evened their record at 5-5 and put them back in the playoff hunt with running back Beanie Wells due to return next week and quarterback Kevin Kolb possibly returning from a rib injury soon.
A rookie quarterback could not close the deal Sunday and keep that hope alive. But he wasn’t alone.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein said. “If you would have told us yesterday we’d get the ball four or five times on their side of the 50, I’d have said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to beat them, and beat them by a large margin.'”
They didn’t because Potter couldn’t hold the edge on a crucial play. They didn’t because Lindley couldn’t make enough plays. And they didn’t because even their offensive stars were deficient at crucial points in the game.
Fitzgerald had a chance to jump on the loose ball after the fumble but thought the play was over and ran to the sidelines.
“That was an idiotic play on my part,” Fitzgerald told The Arizona Republic.
But it was no more costly than the potential first-down pass he dropped on fourth down at the Atlanta 24 with just over three minutes to play. It was a tough, leaping catch along the sidelines, and Fitzgerald couldn’t maintain possession as he fell to the ground out of bounds. It was a tough catch that your star player must make to help a struggling offense — and to help a coach avoid the chorus of second-guessing that will greet Whisenhunt on Monday.
The Cardinals season is all but gone, and many will no doubt wonder if Whisenhunt’s QB decision was the move that officially set it adrift.