In fixing the offensive problems with the Cardinals, what comes first: Better QB play, or better offensive line play?
It sounds like an old joke.
What came first, the quarterback or the offensive line?
Like its chicken or the egg brethren, it's a discussion that can go on, in circles, for hours.
When the riddle is solved, any team, not just the Cardinals, can make a major stride toward success in the NFL. But it's a hard puzzle for teams to answer.
A struggling offensive line can make a quarterback run for his life. A subpar quarterback can make an offensive line play out longer snaps which induces fatigue and poorer protection. It's a vicious cycle, one the Cardinals – who allowed 58 sacks in 2012 – lived through last season in both areas.
But a good offensive line buys its quarterback time and keeps him healthy. A good quarterback can mask deficiencies in a line with quick throws, and by recognizing coverages and schemes that could exploit an offense.
So, what comes first? A good offensive line or a good quarterback?
"Well obviously you can argue the fact that if the guy doesn't have time to get the ball off, it really doesn't matter how
accurate he is," Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. "But I would think it comes down to protection. You have to be able to protect the quarterback."
It's been a debate for years and it heats up around the draft. Front offices debate the merits of each. A good quarterback can translate into short-term wins, but a good line can lead to long-term success. Guard Adam Snyder has seen the good quarterback vs. good line debate up close when he played for San Francisco. The 49ers had a line that had spent years playing together in their system, and it paid off with back-to-back trips to the NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl. Even while it takes years to gel and form those bonds, Snyder is seeing it start with the Cardinals. But for teams who don't have a veteran group protecting the quarterback, the questions are same in every draft room.
The Cardinals found their quarterbacks already this offseason. Starter Carson Palmer was acquired in a trade. Likely backup Drew Stanton was signed as a free agent. Not surprisingly, as the Cardinals head into the draft Thursday, most anticipate offensive line to be a focus.
Bigger picture though, how should teams approach it? A quarterback to build around or a lineman to anchor the protection?
The answer around the Cardinals was unanimous.
"Offensive line," Palmer said. "The more opportunities a quarterback can have to step into throws and move in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield … a good offensive line can make a really good quarterback."
Snyder agreed with Keim and Palmer, but said a good quarterback can also make a good offensive line.
"Anytime you have a guy that can get the ball out of his hands quick, anytime you got a guy that steps into a leadership role and demands a lot from his players, that's going to help the whole team be better, the whole offensive unit be better," Snyder said.
Last season, the Cardinals couldn't find an answer to the riddle.
Their offensive line, riddled with injuries, was a patchwork effort. It helped lead to quarterback injuries. The Cardinals were never able to truly sort it out.
"When you look at a total number of sacks, there are a lot of people involved in sacks," coach Bruce Arians said. "The offensive line might've blocked everybody and there was still a sack, so who's to blame?
"I think they go hand-in-hand. Receivers that miss sight adjustments could cause a sack. A running back missing his blitz pickup causes a sack. A tight end missing a hot read can cause a sack. Anytime there's a sack there's 11 guys involved."
The Cardinals answered half the riddle when they signed Palmer last month. It's time to solve the other half. Except for the addition of the rehabbing Levi Brown, the line is the same as last year. Support could be waiting in the draft, which starts Thursday. And everyone can't be wrong, right?
"First and foremost you have to start with the snap," Keim said, "and you have to start with the ability to protect."
Well, there you have it. Riddle solved.