- David Fleming, ESPN The Magazine
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On Sunday, thanks to eight turnovers and a 0.4 QBR score by John Skelton, the Cardinals were blown out 58-0 by Seattle in what was the fourth-worst shutout loss in the NFL in the past 72 years. It was the Cards' ninth loss in a row. Afterward Larry Fitzgerald’s dad accused the team of quitting and the situation was so dire under center even Vince Young believed he could help.
That’s bad. Even by Cardinals standards.
Afterward, when Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic asked Whisenhunt which QB would pilot this ship next, the disheveled coach, not looking the least bit like he was joking, replied: “Do you play?”
As a part of the Mag’s NEXT coverage, over the years I’ve argued with football fans in Egypt and debated proper milk/cereal ratios with last year’s winner Cam Newton -- so I understand the pressure that Whisenhunt is under.
It’s never easy deciding who’s NEXT.
So, dear Flem Filers, let's work this problem together. You go here and vote for who's NEXT in football and, in the meantime, I'll help Whisenhunt figure out who -- or what -- is going to be next under center in the desert.
START A ROOKIE, EVERYONE ELSE DOES
With as many as seven rookies starting at quarterback in the NFL these days and at least three of them -- Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson -- headed for the Pro Bowl, the playoffs or both, it's hard to imagine that before 2004 the commonly held wisdom in the NFL was that QBs needed three or four years to acclimate to the speed and complexity of the pro game.
(A time frame that now seems as quaint and old-fashioned as Ms. Pac Man in a league where a bad month can cost a coach his job.)
That all changed in 2004 when Ben Roethlisberger, at the age of 22, went 13-0 as a rookie starter for the Steelers and then won a Super Bowl the following season. And it was reaffirmed last year when Cam Newton rewrote the record books with 4,000 yards passing and 700 yards rushing.
But even heading into this season, scouts still thought of drafting a QB as a 50-50 coin flip. With more pure athletes playing the position, with the advent of year-round specialization in a single sport as early as middle school and, of course, with the proliferation of more pro-style offenses trickling down to college, the NEXT wave of fast-thinking quarterbacks weaned on "Madden," the Internet and iPhones no longer finds the jump to the pro game all that daunting.
When top-10 picks such as Roethlisberger and Newton excel as rookies, that’s an anomaly. When Wilson (taken 75th), Nick Foles (88) and Kirk Cousins (102) do it, that’s what’s NEXT, maybe even in Arizona.
KEEP KEVIN KOLB, CHANGE THE SNAP
The Cardinals' offensive line is so epically offensive -- 32nd in rushing and the most sacks (51) in the NFL -- that I’m not sure we can even properly judge the play of the quarterbacks.
So, if you can’t protect your quarterback under the current parameters, then I say change the parameters.
(After all, a big part of the whole NEXT thing is to think outside the box.)
Unless the NFL makes QBs untouchable in 2013, the Cardinals should permanently replace their center with their long-snapper, back up Kolb from 8 yards to 15 yards on passing downs and -- voila -- instantly double both the distance the defense has to travel to get to him as well as the time he has to throw from the pocket.
Protection doubled, QB problem solved.
USE MULTIPLE QBS
Third-down running backs. Speed-rushing defensive ends. Kick return aces. The NFL is full of specialized players at every position, except one -- QB.
All trends in the NFL are determined by one thing: money.
(Did you think it was winning? Aw. That’s so cute. Seriously.)
And what the new rookie salary cap has done is make it economically feasible to draft and develop several specialized QBs all at once. Before the new CBA, if you took a risk on drafting or signing a QB and failed, the exorbitant investment of $25 million and up would cripple your salary cap as well as your team for several years to come.
Now you can take a flier on a $1-to-$5 million specialized QB and if it doesn’t work out, you cut him and move on, no big deal.
So what many experts (including California QB guru Steve Clarkson) believe is the NEXT big trend in the NFL is teams carrying five or more specialized QBs at $10 million apiece rather than investing $50 million into one fragile, fallible franchise QB.
Forget the money. Imagine how far ahead of the curve the 2013 Cardinals would be (for a change) if they were able to rotate in a deep-ball specialist on first down; a quick-thinking tactician who specialized in audibles based on what the defense was showing on second down; a big, punishing run-option QB (yes, like Tim Tebow) on third down and a guy who could punt, QB sneak or lead block on fourth down.
My god, they would be so good they wouldn’t have to steal their NFL titles from the 1925 Pottsville Maroons.
MICHAEL VICK, TAKE I
It’s agreed, the Cardinals' line is so bad it can’t be fixed in just one offseason. But with this plan, that works in Arizona’s favor.
When the Eagles cut Vick and the remainder of his $100 million contract, Arizona should sign him on one condition: They promise to let chaos reign in the trenches and, for once, let VICK be VICK.
Love him or hate him you have to respect the way Vick plays QB: like Allen Iverson in shoulder pads, 100 MPH, take your best shot, with reckless disregard for his own physical safety and the idea that -- hey! -- there’s actually another game in seven days.
This is his natural state. It’s what he knows. It’s a style he invented (part QB, part point guard), it’s what he’s great at and, in a weird way, where he feels safest.
But, instead, everyone has tried hard to make him into a statuesque, stationary pocket passer.
Maybe all Vick has needed to fulfill his, well, NEXT-ness, is a team smart, bold and desperate enough to just leave him alone.
MICHAEL VICK, TAKE II
Same basic plan as above with one roster-loophole-exploiting twist. Vick can’t stay healthy, you say. He misses, on average, about four games a season.
So this time the Cards sign Vick and keep him on the active roster as their third QB while managing the first six weeks of the season as best they can with Kolb & Co. under center.
And then, in Week 7, with a healthy, rested and angry Vick, and the rest of the NFC West expecting and preparing for a more pure pocket passer, we unleash the original VbV (Vick be Vick) plan.
In all seriousness, if injuries continue to overshadow talent, preparation and execution in the NFL, holding back a handful of players to keep them healthy for the second half of the season could actually become the NEXT big trend in roster and depth management.
Not Tom Brady you knuckleheads, Brady Quinn.
Although one should never assume when it comes to the Chiefs' front office, I’m guessing Kansas City might take West Virginia’s explosive and talented QB Geno Smith with the NEXT (see what I did there?) No. 1 pick in the draft.
The good news for Cards fans is that might tempt the always shortsighted Chiefs into letting go of Quinn, who might just have the most upside of any available veteran QB on the market this spring.
Seattle’s Matt Flynn could be around. Same with Alex Smith and Matt Cassel. But as my friend and renowned draft guru Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post has pointed out, Quinn’s potential is still largely unknown thanks to getting drafted by the woeful Browns and then Tebow’ed by Josh McDaniels in Denver.
What Andre Johnson has done for Matt Schaub, what Calvin Johnson has done for Matthew Stafford and what A.J. Green has done for Andy Dalton, I think a happy, excited and motivated Larry Fitzgerald would do for Quinn.
(Not to mention Larry’s pop.)
It takes a lot of poise and leadership to survive in Arizona and after watching how Quinn conducted himself in the wake of Jovan Belcher’s murder/suicide in K.C. he deserves a full chance to become the league’s NEXT (seven-year) overnight star.
I hate to say that the NFL lacks imagination on offense, but the last great innovation in the pro game (the West Coast offense) is almost 40 years old.
For the Magazine’s Interview Issue I spoke to John McKissick, 86, the legendary coach at Summerville (S.C.) High, who has more wins (600-plus) than anyone in this sport.
When I brought up the crazy, wacky new Wildcat offense, he laughed and rocked back in his chair and waved me off. “A few years back,” he said, “someone said, ‘Uh-oh, our opponent is running that new Wildcat offense. I looked at it and said, ‘That's the single wing. I ran that in high school.’”
For all the attention the Pistol offense is getting (short, shotgun snap with back lined up behind the QB), it too is essentially little more than a smart combination of the 60-year-old I-formation with the 50-year-old shotgun formation in a way that, perhaps, better facilitates the more modern spread and read-options attacks.
Slowly but surely the NFL’s lack of innovation seems to be causing the sport to “evolve” back into rugby.
So why wait, Cards?
If what’s ANCIENT is what’s NEXT in the NFL then the Cards need to quit fooling around, get rid of their QBs all together and fully devolve forward all the way back to 1906 and run the single wing the way Pop Warner intended -- with no QBs, just the center snapping the ball directly to either Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams or Javarris James.
Or, better yet, stay with the rugby trend and snap the ball directly back to a few players on loan from New Zealand’s All Blacks.
OK, sure, that sounds a bit outlandish.
Maybe all these NEXT theories do.
Until you consider the alternative:
John Skelton, Ryan Lindley or Brian Hoyer.