For Kevin Kolb, it was Blade Bassler. John Skelton faced off with Derrick Daniels.
Both quarterbacks, now in an open competition for the Cardinals’ starting job, have been through it before. Just once for each, and for both, it was as freshmen in college. Both won their battles on their roads to the NFL.
Usually, though, that’s not how it works for the most crucial position on a team. Unlike back-and-forths for outside linebacker or tight end, competitions at quarterback are rare. Like Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said last week, his preference would have been to have solidified the position two years ago rather than trying to sort it out. It’s the one spot every team wishes was locked down.
“(Hall of Fame coach) Vince Lombardi once said ‘The only flaw with football is that the quarterback is too important,’ ” Skelton said, quoting a fellow Fordham graduate. “It’s hard to ignore that fact. It is different than other positions. The players in the locker room see that, the media sees it and everyone sees it.
“You have to play the cards you are dealt and make the most out of the situation.”
Said Kolb, “That’s why it’s so odd to have (the competition) because a lot of times you don’t have it that way. Everyone has handled it well so far. The biggest thing is you just concentrate on doing your job.”
That’s not always simple. Every player likes to feel like he is considered the best at his spot, but the quarterback usually takes that to another level. Anyone watching the Cardinals since Whisenhunt arrived, however, knows the quarterback spot isn’t immune to open looks.
Neither Matt Leinart nor Kurt Warner was particularly thrilled to have to fight for the job in 2008, the last time Whisenhunt did declare things wide-open in the offseason. Leinart felt he had lost his job in 2007 only because he got hurt; Warner always felt he was the better quarterback regardless of who he was up against.
Warner won the job and took the Cards to a Super Bowl, making him the unquestioned starter in 2009. After his retirement, Leinart was in place to take over, and when Derek Anderson was signed in 2010, it was only to be a backup – the spot wasn’t open until Leinart struggled in training camp and the preseason, eventually leading to his release. Kolb was signed to be the starter last year, but his own struggles – and Skelton’s victory total – led the Cards to where they are today.
“It’s natural for any of us to want to be embraced, to be sort of handed a position from the standpoint it comes with the confidence that the coach has in me, the team has in me,” general manager Rod Graves said. “But I don’t know if there is any player out there that doesn’t respect the need to earn that right.”
Quarterback is different. The biggest difference is basic – at any other position, even a non-starter can find ways to play and contribute. A quarterback who doesn’t start sits on the bench, period.
“As a quarterback, in that competition, it is difficult,” Whisenhunt said. “They are extremely competitive by nature – that’s why they are quarterbacks, and they want to be ‘The Guy’ – and it’s tough. That’s why there is a lot of drama and attention. But these guys have a solid friendship and respect for each other, they support each other, at least on the surface, that they understand what’s coming.”
Kolb was at the University of Houston when he won his spot before his freshman season and went on to start all four years. “That experience is something to lean on for sure,” Kolb said. Skelton’s one and only fight was a little more complicated, echoing the Leinart/Anderson battle a bit. Skelton was supposed to sit and watch his freshman year at Fordham, but a new coaching staff quickly tired of the sophomore holdover.
A couple of weeks into the season, Skelton and Daniels were actually rotating series during games in an effort to win the job.
“It wasn’t conducive to winning,” Skelton said.
“If (competition) means five reps in practice, you make the most of it. If you are working with the second unit, or the first team, you have to make the most out of it. Everyone recognizes the urgency we have to play at that position after recent years. I think we will rally around it, and once someone prevails out of this, we will see what happens.”
A quarterback wants to take all the reps in practice. It’s one thing to mentally digest a play from behind the huddle as the other guy actually takes the snap, Whisenhunt said, but there is something about actually climbing into the huddle and looking at your teammates as you call the play. In a competition, that can’t happen enough for Kolb or Skelton.
But for a second time for both, that’s how they will lead their lives into training camp. Until one asserts himself over the other.
“As soon as the season was over, that’s what we told them would happen,” Whisenhunt said. “They knew what was coming. There are merits to both these guys’ cases to be ‘The Guy.’ That’s why you do it this way.
“Do you want to have a quarterback competition? No you don’t. But I have seen, having played and coached it, when there is competition, you get the best out of your players.”