Quarterback quandary not all Cardinals’ doing

TEMPE, Ariz. – With coach Ken Whisenhunt’s announcement Wednesday that rookie Ryan Lindley will start Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, we asked a veteran Cardinals reporter if it was time to craft a Lindley opus for his audience.

“Not yet,” he said, smiling.

The response wasn’t intended as a slight on Lindley. Rather, it was born of wisdom and experience. Lindley will be the fifth starting QB Whisenhunt has named – and the sixth who has taken a significant number of snaps — in the two-plus seasons since Kurt Warner retired.

If recent history is a guide, Lindley won’t be the last.

“That’s this business,” Whisenhunt said. “Quarterbacks are hard to find.

“You can ask Chicago. You can ask Miami. You can ask a lot of teams. There are a lot of teams in the league who are still looking for that guy.”

Whisenhunt, general manager Rod Graves and the Cards coaching and scouting staffs have taken plenty of heat the past three seasons for either not finding or not developing Arizona’s franchise quarterback of the future.

It’s an easy criticism in hindsight. Kevin Kolb hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to prove his worth. Lindley hasn’t played enough to judge his worth. John Skelton looks like little more than a career backup, and both Derek Anderson and Max Hall were unmitigated disasters who probably never should have happened in the first place.

But is the criticism warranted? Was there a quarterback available via trade, free agency or the draft that the Cards should have pursued and did not?

There’s no easy answer because, as Whisenhunt correctly points out, “there is no set formula that guarantees success.”

Quarterback is the hardest position to play in the NFL. For proof, take a look at every NFL team today. How many teams (including their fans) would say they’re happy with their quarterback play? If you stretch it to simply include teams that are satisfied,  you could probably get to 15 teams — almost half the league — by naming Denver, Green Bay, San Francisco, New England, Atlanta, Washington, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Houston, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Seattle, Baltimore, the New York Giants and Indianapolis.

Now ask yourself how many of those clubs have a backup with whom you’d feel confident in your ability to win games? Other than the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, who just shredded the Bears’ vaunted defense on Monday Night Football and now appears to be the starter, who makes the list?

That’s 16 guys. Think about that for a minute and then use the year Peyton Manning entered the league as a starting point since he is the oldest of the effective QBs. Despite 15 years worth of drafts, development and free agency, we can only find enough effective guys to populate half of the NFL’s teams.

Even if a couple of the young guys like Cam Newton and Ryan Tannehill pan out (we already included Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson on the list above), and even if you throw backups like Kyle Orton, Matt Hasselbeck  and Matt Flynn in the mix, there is clearly a supply shortage for the most important position on the field.

Now ask yourself this: What could the Cardinals have done that they didn’t to address this need? When Kolb was made available via trade, he was the hottest QB commodity on the market, and the Cards went and got him. When Peyton Manning was made available, the Cards pursued him hard, even though it meant ruffling Kolb’s feathers and probably would have required other roster moves. They understood what a game-changer he could be.

Were there others they should have pursued? It’s hard to make that argument when you judge the crop of free-agent QBs over the past three seasons. Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Shaun Hill re-signed with their longtime clubs. So would you have wanted Donovan McNabb, Kerry Collins, Jason Campbell, Marc Bulger or Tarvaris Jackson? Really? Are you serious? If you are, you’ve lost all credibility.

Maybe the best argument here at the time was for Orton, the classic game manager who makes few mistakes but never screams “game-changer” and still hasn’t managed to supplant turnover machine Tony Romo with the Cowboys.

How about the draft? Should the Cards have traded up to get one of the leagues’ young guns? It’s hard to make that argument for the 2010 NFL Draft when you look at the names that followed top pick Sam Bradford. Anybody have a burning desire for Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy or Mike Kafka, who can’t even call himself the best-known Kafka in the world?

The Cards chose Skelton in the fifth round that year. Have any of the aforementioned guys really been better?

The best argument comes in 2011. If you skip a first round filled with (thus far) middling-to-poor selections (Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder), the second round offered up Andy Dalton (whom the Cards weren’t high on) and Kaepernick, who went at picks 35 and 36 to the Bengals and 49ers, respectively. Two players later, the Cards selected running back Ryan Williams.

Should they have tried to move up to get Kaepernick? Maybe.

Despite signing free agent Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million deal this spring, the Seahawks still drafted Russell Wilson, who is now the starting quarterback and has played well.
“We’re looking for quarterbacks every year,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said earlier this season when asked about adding a QB through the draft and one via trade in the same season. “We really believe that you have to continue to upgrade that position.”

It’s an interesting belief that is buoyed by reality. Warner has said time and again that this is a quarterback-driven league. That point is underscored when you look back at the list of teams we mentioned above. What do they all have in common other than solid-to-strong QB play? They’re all in contention for playoff spots. The others? Not so much.

Should the Cards have moved up to select Wilson, whom the Seahawks took in the third round at No. 75, five picks before the Cards selected cornerback Jamell Fleming? Should they have taken a chance on Arizona State product Brock Osweiler, who is now Manning’s backup? Maybe, but remember that the year the Cards picked up Kolb was the lockout year, so free agency came after the draft instead of before it.

The Cards hadn’t had a chance to see Kolb throw enough in person, and based on his rookie season, they had seen enough promise from Skelton to believe that he could be an adequate backup. In fact, they — and almost everyone else — still held that belief entering this season.

Beyond those points, there is no certainty how things would turned out if the Cards had been able to draft one of those other guys.

“Just because you’re successful in college doesn’t guarantee success in the NFL,” Whisenhunt said.

More to the point, there’s no guarantee that Dalton, Kaepernick or Wilson would have meshed with the Cardinals’ personnel and system. Sometimes a player fits one place and doesn’t another. Kaepernick might end up being a great example of this – and it helps that he is playing behind what is arguably the NFL’s best offensive line (don’t get us started on that Arizona weakness).

The Cardinals believed they had addressed their quarterback needs – as did most observers – when they acquired Kolb via trade in the summer of 2011. It hasn’t panned out that way, but much to fans’ chagrin and contrary to widespread belief, there haven’t been a whole lot of options the Cardinals didn’t pursue.

“You can’t just take somebody because he’s there. If you don’t think he’s going to be able to play for you, then you have to go to other avenues,” said Whisenhunt, before turning his attention to the acquisition of Kolb. “It was a very atypical year because of the lockout and the free agency period coming after the draft, so that changed the dynamic.”

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, it hasn’t changed the three-year dynamic at quarterback. And it hasn’t stopped the impossible fantasies of fans that Warner might still return.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter