Rookie quarterback John Skelton is congratulated by nose tackle Gabe Watson after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass Saturday night.
The nerves didn't kick in right away, not when coach Ken Whisenhunt told John Skelton he was about to play in his first NFL game.
But they were there a few seconds later, when the rookie quarterback was ready to go and was forced to wait out the inevitable TV timeout in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's preseason opener against the Texans.
"Those 45 seconds I was waiting got to me," Skelton admitted.
They couldn't have bothered him that much.
The Cardinals traded away starting cornerback Bryant McFadden during April's draft just to move up and make sure they could draft Skelton in the fifth round. It was a pick of potential, with Skelton spending his college years at small school Fordham in a spread offense. But at 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds with a rocket arm, it was hard not to fall in love with his tools.
Then Skelton played against Houston, and everyone else could see what the Cardinals saw.
He moved easily in the pocket. He completed five of six passes (and it can be argued his incompletion could have been caught by fellow rookie Andre Roberts). He showed ease getting the ball downfield, and most importantly, he led the Cards to two touchdown drives in two possessions as Arizona rallied for a victory.
"I just wanted to get out there," said Skelton, whose 84 yards and game-winning touchdown pass to running back Jason Wright gave him a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. "We've gone through our minicamps and OTAs. We've had endless meetings, endless film. To finally play a game against someone else is a good feeling."
It had to be a good feeling to have his parents in the stands. It had to feel good to beat the Texans, since Skelton's uncle, Javier Loya, is a minority owner in that franchise and Skelton – an El Paso native -- had been attending Houston games since he was a boy.
It also had to be a good feeling since Skelton has struggled in practice in Flagstaff – during one practice last week, he threw interceptions on back-to-back plays – and was clearly outplayed by fellow rookie QB Max Hall.
"This eases the transition for the rest of preseason," Skelton said. "I knew what the coaches wanted to see from me, poise in the huddle and controlling the offense."
The Cardinals made things easier with a simplified playbook – "That really helped my reads," Skelton said – but there is little question Skelton played well. He had a nice chemistry with some of the rookie receivers with whom he has been working all summer, like Stephen Williams and Max Komar.
"I am excited about some of our young players," Whisenhunt said. "There's going to be some adjustments and some corrections with some of them because they are just learning the system. (But) I think we got a lot accomplished."
That includes Skelton. He is still in a battle with Hall, although his showing Saturday underscores the need to let Skelton develop. It's unlikely Skelton can crush the learning curve fast enough to challenge for a starting spot in 2010, but the plan all along was to start his preparation for that opportunity down the road.
His first game is a good place to start.
"To get my first completion, my first touchdown all in one game," Skelton said, "it was great."
EXTRA POINT: Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's MRI revealed a sprain of the MCL in the right knee. After a discussion with Whisenhunt, Fitzgerald said the Cards will treat the injury conservatively. He'll likely miss preseason games, perhaps the final three.
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