John Skelton (Streeter Lecka/Getty)
The Cardinals are forced to switch quarterbacks again after an injury to Kevin Kolb, but John Skelton has been in this position before and is looking to seize his opportunity.
John Skelton won a long, tight competition to become starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, only to go down with a sprained ankle in the final minutes of the season opener.
Five games and another quarterback injury later, Skelton is starting again.
Kevin Kolb, who replaced Skelton in the opener and helped the Cardinals get off to a 4-0 start, is out indefinitely with rib and chest injuries sustained last Sunday when Arizona was beaten at home by Buffalo 19-16 in overtime.
It was the Cardinals’ second straight loss.
Now Skelton steps in to lead the Cardinals to Minnesota to face the Vikings on Sunday — and try to figure out how to succeed behind an offensive line that allowed Kolb to be sacked 22 times in the last three games.
Switching quarterbacks is nothing new for the Cardinals. Through the preseason, Skelton and Kolb took turns as starters. Coach Ken Whisenhunt didn’t anoint Skelton until nine days before the regular-season opener.
“It’s too much of a big deal,” wide receiver Andre Roberts said after Wednesday’s practice. “You know we had John at the beginning of the year, we had him in camp, so it’s not like we’re bringing somebody in new that we haven’t played with.
“John’s been here for a while. We understand what he brings to the table, so it won’t be that big of an adjustment.”
Skelton, a fifth-round draft pick out of Fordham in 2010, is 8-4 as a starter. He stands 6-foot-6 and has a rocket for an arm, although he sometimes struggles with accuracy. Last Sunday was the first time Skelton had been active since the injury — and the rust showed.
After Kolb went down, Skelton completed 2 of 10 for 45 yards. He did complete a fourth-down pass to Larry Fitzgerald to set up a 38-yard field goal try by Jay Feely that would have given Arizona the victory. But the kick was deflected and careened off the left upright, sending the game into overtime.
In the overtime, the Bills punted on their first possession, but Skelton threw an interception that set up Buffalo’s winning field goal.
Skelton said that having a full week of practice with the starters will help him get back into the proper rhythm.
“Instead of just mentally repping everything like you do when you’re the backup or inactive or what have you, you get to run it,” he said. “You get to see against a defense. You get to experience it out there. It just makes the week go by that much easier because you are more comfortable with everything, and then come Sunday you are ready for everything that comes.”
He’d better be ready for Jared Allen and the rest of the Vikings’ pass rush. Kolb was pounded mercilessly in the last three games as the line struggled, particularly on the edge, where tackles D’Anthony Batiste and rookie Bobby Massie often seemed hopelessly outmatched.
Skelton said there are things he can do to mitigate the rush.
“A lot of it is getting the ball out of your hands quick,” he said. “There are times where you’re going to get sacked and there’s nothing you can do about it. There are other times when you can get the ball out of your hand quick. You can throw it away. You can flee the pocket sooner. Ultimately, everybody has to do their job.”
Skelton found it difficult to watch Kolb do the job he had fought for and, briefly, won.
“It’s frustrating more than anything,” Skelton said, “to put in all the hard work in the past years and offseason, getting named the starter the way I was, and then kind of have it disappear and taken away from you that early.”
Now it’s Kolb’s turn to be frustrated. Brought to Arizona as the supposed franchise quarterback, he struggled a year ago, then was sidelined twice by injury, first with turf toe, then with a concussion.
After all that, he lost the fight for the starting job.
When he relieved the injured Skelton late in the fourth quarter of the opener, he directed the winning touchdown drive. Three more victories gave him a measure of redemption. Surviving the onslaught of the pass rush erased any doubt of his toughness.
But he’s likely out for several weeks. That gives Skelton another chance.
“John has been in this role before,” Whisenhunt said. “John has played where he hasn’t gotten a lot of snaps and John did well, so we expect John to go in there and do a good job.”
If something happens to Skelton, the only option will be Ryan Lindley, a rookie drafted in the sixth round out of San Diego State. Lindley has never taken an NFL regular-season snap.