Cards can’t win without better quarterback play

For those who wrote and opined at the beginning of the season that the Cardinals have a better chance of winning with John Skelton at quarterback than Kevin Kolb, we just don’t see it.

When you sift through the detritus of Sunday’s 21-14 loss in Minnesota, you will notice a quarterback who completed 69.4 percent of his passes (25 of 36) for 266 yards and a touchdown. You will see he was sacked seven times and conclude, “Ah, if Skelton had just had more help up front from that shaky offensive line, he might have been able to engineer another fourth-quarter comeback.”

And you would be wrong.

More than half of Skelton’s passing yards came in the fourth quarter after the Vikings had grabbed a stranglehold on the game with a 21-7 lead — and yes, 21-7 is a stranglehold against the Cardinals, who average 17.7 points a game. More than half of Skelton’s yards came against a defense that was content to allow him the underneath completion as the clock wound down on Minnesota’s fifth win of the season.

Three of those sacks also came in the fourth quarter, when the Cardinals were forced into a one-dimensional offense. Two more of those sacks came because Skelton held the ball far too long when he should have just thrown it away. And when you look at the defense the Vikings played most of the game, with two-deep coverage that allowed the short passes underneath, you understand that good completion percentages mean nothing if you can’t produce points.

“It’s definitely about the Cardinals,” running back LaRod Stephens-Howling said. “We are not finishing drives. We are not capitalizing when we have opportunities.”

Give the Cardinals coaches credit: They put Skelton in position to succeed on Sunday. The running game was terrific (albeit against a seven-man front), with Stephens-Howling rushing for a career-high 104 yards and the team rushing for 126.

The protection was good enough through most of the first three quarters. Repeat, the protection from the offensive line was good enough until the game got lopsided. Yet three times, the Cardinals started a first-half possession in Vikings territory and came away with zero points, the final one of those being a missed 47-yard field-goal attempt by kicker Jay Feely on the last play of the first half.

On the Cards’ most sustained drive of the first half, Skelton committed two costly errors. First, he held the ball way too long when there was backside pressure from Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, who had beaten right tackle Bobby Massie off the edge. Second, Skelton failed to secure the football. His fumble was recovered by Minnesota’s Kevin Williams at the Vikings’ 19-yard line, snuffing out another chance at points.

The final nail came on the first drive of the second half, when Skelton gave Minnesota all the cushion it would need, making a poor decision and poor throw that turned into a pick-six for Vikings safety Harrison Smith and a 21-7 Minnesota lead.

“It was a poor decision and a forced ball,” Skelton said. “I stepped up in the pocket. In that situation, it’s better to run and get what you can. Our defense plays lights out, and when we put them on a short field, it’s on our offense when they score.”

More accurately, that one’s on you, John.

“We’ve got to quit making mistakes,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “Just too many missed opportunities. You can’t have a turnover. You can’t have a missed kick.”

Give Skelton credit for continuing to fight. His late TD pass to Andre Roberts pulled the Cards within a score, but it was too late to matter for anything other than the cosmetics of his stat line.

Playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. It’s the hardest position on the field, because everything runs through you on offense. Take a look around the NFL and you’ll see many teams struggling with similar issues. But that’s the job. It’s a quarterback-driven league. With the big marquee comes the big spotlight — and big criticism.

Skelton didn’t do nearly enough to give his team a chance to win on Sunday. And when you factor in the contributions Arizona received elsewhere – the run game, the offensive line for three quarters and an ever-stiff defense that held Vikings QB Christian Ponder to high school numbers – quarterback was the single biggest factor in the Cards dropping their third straight game.

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