ST. LOUIS — Kevin Kolb trudged toward the locker room, his gray hat flipped backward and his lips pursed, his once-unbeaten Arizona Cardinals unhinged and his offense a mangled wreck. The roar at the Edward Jones Dome was muffled behind him as he mumbled words to wide receiver Andre Roberts in a dimmed corridor. The siege that scrambled the harried quarterback was over, the results messy, and another spotless NFL record became stained.
Where to start with the Cardinals’ offensive implosion during a 17-3 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Thursday, a crater that grew larger each time Kolb tumbled to the turf?
He was sacked nine times. Arizona’s running game produced a scant 45 yards. The Cardinals, now 4-1, were held to 282 yards of total offense; they have failed to produce 300 yards in a game yet this season.
“That’s something that we’re probably going to have to discuss in the locker room,” said Arizona running back Ryan Williams, who was held to 33 yards on 14 carries.
He chuckled. Perhaps more from embarrassment than humor.
“Yeah, I think that’s just something we’re going to have to discuss in the locker room. There are a lot of things; there’s not just one specific area. There are a lot of areas where we can step it up and become a better team.”
Protecting Kolb would be a fine place to start. Arizona stood on shaky stilts when rubbing shoulders with the NFL’s tallest anyway. The Houston Texas and Atlanta Falcons, the league’s other two unbeatens, combined for 250 points in the season’s first month.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals squeezed out 91 points while limping with the No. 31 offense (271 yards per game), No. 29 rushing offense (68 ypg) and No. 25 passing offense (203 ypg).
On Thursday, Arizona’s aluminum foil offensive line unraveled. Kolb ran for his life against St. Louis’ skilled defensive front, looking like a rabbit against starved wolves. Twice he scraped himself off the ground without his helmet. The Cardinals’ stumble ended late in the fourth quarter, fittingly, with defensive end Robert Quinn streaking around the corner and popping the ball loose from Kolb’s palm near midfield.
“We got ourselves in a situation where they could pin their ears back a little bit,” said Kolb, who finished 28 of 50 for 289 yards. “It’s not ideal. We need to get our running game going; it’s not secret. That could slow them down.”
Both offenses brought pillows to a street fight. There was more smoke from Arizona’s tire fire, but this was no “Greatest Show on Turf” rerun from St. Louis.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was serviceable, and that’s where the compliments should stop. His highlight came when he found wide receiver Chris Givens for a 51-yard touchdown along the sideline, giving St. Louis its decisive margin of victory early in the fourth quarter.
But the fact that Bradford led the Rams to their first record above .500 since November 2006 is a reflection of how weak the Cardinals were. He completed 7 of 21 passes for a season-low 141 yards. He never looked confident after an impressive five-play, 69-yard touchdown drive on his first series. He never looked composed once his favorite target, wide receiver Danny Amendola, left with a collarbone injury in the second quarter.
But none of it mattered, because Arizona was so much of a mess that you wondered how the Cards were 4-0 at all. It seemed appropriate when, late in the fourth quarter, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was tackled 3 yards short of the end zone on fourth down during the Cardinals’ best drive of the second half.
Not pretty. Pretty pathetic.
“We’ve got to get better,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We’ve got to get back to the protection that we had in the first couple games. I know we can do it. We’ll work on our technique. We’ll work on what we’re doing scheme-wise. We’ll get better. … We’ve got to work on technique and our sets. We’ve got to do some things to help those guys out.”
For Whisenhunt, the good news is that he has time. Kolb, despite being battered against a relentless rush, seems to be the best option for now. And the Cardinals proved in close victories over the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins that they can win in harrowing ways.
But as Kolb and others moved toward the locker room, they were reminded how far the offense must go. Arizona’s undefeated start seemed surprising for a reason.
They left humbled. They left as another team introduced to the ranks of the beaten.