Whisenhunt picks Skelton to start opener

TEMPE, Ariz. — John Skelton never wavered in his belief that the Cardinals quarterback battle was being waged on a level playing field.

On Friday, Skelton was rewarded for that faith when coach Ken Whisenhunt named him the starter for the Cardinals’ regular season opener Sept. 9 against Seattle.

“It’s kind of a weight off my shoulders, in a sense because the speculating and waiting is over,” Skelton said. “At the same time, I think there’s another weight placed on there. Now you have to move forward as a starter and think of it that way.”

Speaking of speculating, that’s about all we have when deciding what tipped the scales in Skelton’s favor in this close but unspectacular duel.

“I’m not going to get into a point-by-point analysis of what was involved,” said Whisenhunt of choosing Skelton over Kevin Kolb. “The way we judge it is based on who gives us the best chance to win, and that was the main criterion in this situation.”

There is little doubt among analysts that this was Kolb’s job to lose when the club reported for training camp in Flagstaff in late July. The Cardinals invested a lot in Kolb. They dealt 2009 Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire a guy who some — including Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald — believed was an up-and-coming, franchise-caliber quarterback.

The Cardinals signed Kolb to a five-year extension worth as much as $63 million, paid him an offseason roster bonus of $7 million in 2012 then said a silent prayer that his 2011 injuries, interceptions and anxiousness in the pocket were behind him – a product of a wiped out offseason and his lack of familiarity with the offense.

Those prayers went unanswered in the preseason when Kolb completed 22 of 37 passes for 203 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and six sacks. He led the Cardinals on two impressive drives in his final showing of the preseason in Tennessee, but he also threw two head-scratching interceptions that probably sealed his immediate fate.

“He was disappointed,” said Whisenhunt of breaking the news to Kolb. “He handled it like a pro, but I don’t think anybody likes to hear that news.”

It should be clear to anyone who watched the preseason that Skelton didn’t win this job so much as Kolb lost it. Skelton completed 14 of 25 passes for 131 yards, a TD and two interceptions in the preseason. He played poorly in his final outing against the Titans, and he displayed a maddening penchant for overthrowing receivers and missing reads in training camp.

“At times, he’s shown he could make plays,” Whisenhunt said. “At times, he’s looked like a young quarterback.”

But Skelton is not being paid an inflated salary, so he has not been judged through the same lens as Kolb.

“This business is a tough business, and it’s a production-oriented business. If you’re not getting the job done, then you’re going to get replaced,” said Whisenhunt, who could just as easily have been talking about himself as Kolb. “We had an opportunity to try to make our team better, and that’s what we tried to do.

“It’s not an exact science. You’ve got to do your best job in evaluating them based on the criteria that you see at any position and work to get them ready to play.”

The temptation now will be to label the Kolb deal a failure, and there is plenty of evidence to support that claim. But Whisenhunt made it clear this competition isn’t over. Skelton will be given the first crack because he was the lesser of two evils, but that could change in a heartbeat if he struggles or is injured. The guess is Kolb will have his opportunity at some point early this season.

“Kevin’s got to be ready,” Whisenhunt said. “The days of making it through an NFL season with one quarterback certainly don’t happen as frequently as they did at one time.

“There’s no guarantee going forward that Kevin won’t be playing for us or won’t be the starter at some point.”

Whether either can succeed based on their current track record and the concerns at both offensive tackle spots is a question that will dominate everyone’s thoughts in the coming weeks. But Skelton’s unlikely rise from 2010, fifth-round draft pick to NFL starter will dominate the local headlines over the next week.  

“It’s kind of just hard work paying off, having the right opportunity and being ready for that opportunity,” Skelton said. “I have experience now. I don’t think I can use that as a crutch any more.”

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