Blocked FG, punt return began Arizona’s turnaround

The Arizona Cardinals’ season turned around on a blocked field

goal and a 99-yard punt return.

On Nov. 6, Calais Campbell knocked down what would have been the

winning field goal for St. Louis, then rookie Patrick Peterson

returned a punt from a step outside his goal line for the winning

score in overtime. The Cardinals’ six-game skid was history.

Three more overtime victories followed, capped by the 23-20 win

over Seattle on Sunday. Arizona finished with a 7-2 spurt – a

record only surpassed in that span by Green Bay, New Orleans and

New England -and wound up 8-8 overall. Not great, not enough to

make the playoffs, but enough to provide momentum and optimism

heading into 2012.

For all the success, a large question looms. Just who will be

the quarterback when the Cardinals take the field next season?

Kevin Kolb, brought to the desert in a big trade and signed to a

huge contract, knows he will have to earn the job from fledgling

John Skelton, the strong but raw second-year pro who was 5-2 as a

starter when Kolb was injured – 6-2 if you count the victory over

San Francisco, when Kolb was knocked out of the game on the third

play with a season-ending concussion.

”That’s the only way that you approach anything,” Kolb said as

he sat in front of his locker on Monday. ”That’s what this league

is built on. It don’t matter who you are, I think any quarterback

can attest, any player can attest, as soon as you get comfortable

in your shoes, that’s whenever you’re out of here. So I’ll push

harder in this offseason than I’ve ever pushed before in this

offseason and come back ready to roll.”

Skelton said he hopes to have a fair shot at winning the

starting job, but he knows there are many aspects of his game that

need improvement.

”I know I’ve got to get better,” he said. ”I know that

there’s some plays I made, but at the same time there are a lot of

plays I didn’t make and a lot of stupid mistakes. But it’s a

starting point, something to build on for next year.”

Coach Ken Whisenhunt, who with the team’s strong finish has had

only one losing season in five years in Arizona, would only repeat

his longstanding mantra that ”we’re always going to play the best

player, the player that gives us the best chance to win.”

Regardless of who the quarterback is, he can count on Larry

Fitzgerald, who despite coughing up blood on the sideline – the

result of what eventually was diagnosed as a bruised lung – made a

pair of magnificent catches to set up the winning field goal on

Sunday.

Fitzgerald finished with 80 receptions for 1,411 yards. In his

eighth year, he joined Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison

as the only players to top 1,400 yards receiving in four

seasons.

”That’s my job, to catch the ball,” said Fitzgerald, who

signed an eight-year, $120 million contract – nearly $50 million

guaranteed – before the season began, ”and it doesn’t matter how I

catch it, just get it done.”

Fitzgerald traced the season’s turnaround to a team meeting

after Arizona lost at Baltimore 30-27, blowing a 24-6 halftime

lead, to fall to 1-6.

”Usually I’m not a big fan of team meetings,” he said. ”I

think it’s just a lot of talk, but I think that meeting was

different. Coaches were there, players were there. Everything that

was bothering us, everything that was on guys’ minds, we cleared

the air about it. I think as a team we just came together at that

point.”

Still, it seemed Arizona was headed for another loss before

Campbell knocked down that field goal try the following Sunday at

home against the Rams. It was one of three blocked field goals for

the 6-foot-8 defensive end, who had a breakout season and will be

the No. 1 target of the Arizona front office for a new contract.

Peterson had two blocks as well, the last in Sunday’s win over

Seattle.

The Cardinals’ first-round draft pick, the No. 5 choice overall,

tied an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns. He almost

had a fifth on Sunday, a 42-yard return that ended when Seahawks

punter Jon Ryan tripped him up. Peterson, slowed by a strained

Achilles tendon, insisted his legs got tangled, that there is no

way a punter, for heaven’s sake, would tackle him.

”I tackled myself,” he said.

Peterson had 699 yards in punt returns, second most in NFL

history behind Desmond Howard’s 875 in 1996.

Thrust into the lead cornerback role when Greg Toler was injured

in the preseason, Peterson made the Pro Bowl as a special teams

player. He showed rapid improvement as a pass defender in the final

half of the season.

The Cardinals had an awful time adjusting to the new defensive

scheme of first-year coordinator Ray Horton. But they were vastly

better in the second half, getting outstanding play from rookie

outside linebacker Sam Acho and second-year inside linebacker Daryl

Washington. Fellow inside linebacker Paris Lenon led the team with

102 tackles, his fourth 100-tackle season in the last five

years.

Running back Beanie Wells gained the respect of his coaches and

quieted critics with a 1,000-yard rushing season despite having to

play most of the year with a sore left knee. He said he might have

to have surgery in the offseason.

”Man,” he said, looking at the knee brace in his locker on

Monday, ”I hope I never have to wear that thing again.”

When Wells returns next season, he will have the help of Ryan

Williams, Arizona’s second-round draft pick whose broken right leg

in the preseason knocked him out for the year.

A main area that needs improvement, Whisenhunt said, is the

offense’s penchant for slow starts. The Cardinals trailed at

halftime in seven of their eight victories.

The Cardinals may be in the market for a new starting left

tackle. Next season would be the final year of Levi Brown’s

contract, and the structure of the deal would count $16.9 million

on the team’s salary cap. Arizona may try to restructure that

contract or simply look elsewhere.

Other than that, Whisenhunt said, ”I don’t anticipate a whole

lot of change” in personnel.

The Cardinals will need all the momentum they can get to become

a playoff contender again, considering the schedule for next

season. Opponents for each team were revealed Monday, and Arizona

will have road games against Green Bay, Atlanta and New England as

well as home games against Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.