SAN FRANCISCO — Larry Fitzgerald knows change is coming.
“It’s inevitable,” the Cardinals receiver said with resignation. “If it were up to me, I’d bring everybody back.”
It’s not up to Fitzgerald — at least not this time. When the debris had settled on Sunday’s 27-13 loss to the 49ers, the Cardinals had matched their worst record of the Ken Whisenhunt era at 5-11.
It would be foolish to place all the blame on Whisenhunt for that mark given the team’s poor QB play and myriad injuries. But the 2012 season cannot be judged in an isolation chamber. There were factors within the coach’s control that he did not manage. That is why he, as well as several other familiar faces in this organization, could get a jolt if/when Cardinals president Michael Bidwill addresses the media on Black Monday at the team’s Tempe complex.
Here’s a look at seven guys under the gun and an explanation of why they are under the gun.
COACH KEN WHISENHUNT
The hall pass many are giving Whisenhunt is based on the undeniable fact that his QB play has been horrid the past three seasons. It would be hard to find a coach who could win with these guys. There’s no denying that, but who was evaluating those quarterbacks the past few seasons? Who decided at the start of the season that John Skelton was a better option than Kevin Kolb? Who decided that Max Hall had any business in an NFL game? Who decided that Derek Anderson deserved another shot?
Whisenhunt has plenty of say in personnel decisions, so he deserves plenty of blame for the club’s shortcomings at the most important position.
There’s also a growing undercurrent in the locker room that Whisenhunt has become increasingly vindictive when a player crosses him, whether it be Matt Leinart, Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells or Darnell Dockett. For a guy whose public persona is that of a player’s coach with an open-door policy, some players privately grumble about a troubling lack of communication.
Finally, there’s the troubling reality that the Cards have posted losing streaks of seven, six and nine games the past three seasons. It sounds simplistic, but you’ve got to find a way to pull your team out of those tailspins before it’s too late. Whisenhunt didn’t, so the Cards will miss the playoffs for a third straight season. In a results-oriented business, that’s unacceptable.
Maybe Whisenhunt will survive a purge with some cosmetic changes to his staff and his power brokering. Maybe defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be given a shot before he gets one elsewhere. Or maybe the Cards will start an outside search for a coach this week. Regardless, something’s got to give. The current setup isn’t working.
GM ROD GRAVES
Speaking of guys with say over personnel decisions, why is so little attention paid to Graves? Is it because he’s so likeable or because he’s so slippery when it comes to criticism?
The most glaring example of poor personnel management — aside form the quarterback situation — is the Cardinals’ steadfast refusal to address the offensive line, which hasn’t produced a Pro Bowler in the Whisenhunt er and killed the Cards earlier this season before they added help on the edges to spare their beleaguered tackles more vitriol.
The coaching staff certainly has input on these matters, but at some point, Graves has to recognize a club’s needs and put his foot down. The Cards have a pair of front-office guys who could end up with GM posts in this league in Steve Keim and Jason Licht. Will Bidwill slide one of them into that post now? Will Graves be moved to another position — or even shown the door?
QUARTERBACK KEVIN KOLB
There was no arguing with the results when Kolb was on the field this season. He rallied the Cardinals to victory in the season opener in relief, then led them to a 4-1 record before he was injured late in the loss to Buffalo, throwing eight touchdowns to three interceptions in that time.
The problem is, Kolb hasn’t been able to stay on the field in his two seasons here. Yes, the offensive line play has been a factor, but Kolb is due about $10 million in 2013. That’s a lot for a guy whose reliability is in doubt. It would be hard to bring him back unless that price can be reduced, but it also would be hard to find a better option among a weak free-agent pool and a draft class that does not inspire.
QUARTERBACK JOHN SKELTON
At the beginning of the season, he was the starter. In the last two weeks of the season, he was a healthy scratch. Skelton has had enough time and enough opportunities to prove he is starting QB material in the NFL. He has not because he is not.
Skelton completed just 109 of 201 passes (54.1 percent) for 1,132 yards with two TDs and nine interceptions this season. He missed Larry Fitzgerald — and countless other receivers — with maddening inaccuracy. If the Cards bring Kolb back, they need a veteran to compete with him and serve as a suitable substitute given Kolb’s injury history. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Skelton returns.
RUNNING BACK BEANIE WELLS
Wells said numerous times over the past month that the final few weeks of the season would be about getting film out there for other teams to evaluate. It will be a short film. Wells didn’t carry the ball Sunday after carrying it just four times the previous week against Chicago.
When asked who would start this week against San Francisco, Whisenhunt said it would be package-oriented. Apparently, none of those packages included Wells.
It was a stunning turn of events for a player who topped the 1,000-yard barrier in 2011 and earned praise from Whisenhunt for playing through a painful knee injury. But Wells has largely been a disappointment since the Cards drafted him in the first round in 2009, and injuries limited him to about a half a season this year. With Ryan Williams and LaRod Stephens-Howling likely returning, the Cards will probably look elsewhere for a power runner.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN DARNELL DOCKETT
Dockett is an emotional guy who sometimes lets those emotions override common sense. In a well-publicized tiff with Whisenhunt, Dockett refused to back down when he and the defense were told to let the Jets score late in a Dec. 2 game so the Cards would have a chance to get the ball back and tie the game on offense.
Dockett later declined to apologize for his stance — or support his coach — when given multiple chances. Despite some talk that Dockett could be traded, it’s unlikely the Cards would release an elite defensive tackle, no matter who’s coaching the team next year. Cooler heads will eventually prevail and Dockett will likely return. He’s too valuable.
SAFETY ADRIAN WILSON
Wilson played far less in passing situations when defensive coordinator Ray Horton had both James Sanders and Rashad Johnson healthy. Horton is fond of saying “it’s a young man’s game,” and Wilson, 33, is not young in NFL years. You had to wonder if Wilson’s tears at the media podium after a win over Detroit were a realization that his Cardinals tenure could be drawing to a close.
On the flip side, he took a pay cut last offseason to extend his time with the club, he’s been nothing but loyal and complimentary of the organization, and he can still make game-changing plays near the line of scrimmage. Wilson said it would be hard to accept a lesser role with this organization, but he also said he couldn’t imagine playing for another one. This situation will bear watching, because no player has given more or meant more to this franchise than Wilson.