Behind Enemy Lines, 49ers/Cardinals, Part II

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and AZRedReport's Brad Wilbricht go Behind Enemy Lines to take an inside look at 49ers/Cardinals. How did Arizona's season disintegrate after a 4-0 start? Will any of the Cards' four starting QBs this year be back in 2013? Why hasn't the NFL's 12th-ranked defense made the Cards a better team? Is Ken Whisenhunt on his way out as Arizona coach? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, publisher, After a 4-0 start that left them alone in first place atop the NFC West and seemed to mark them as a legitimate contender, and included impressive wins over Seattle and at New England, Arizona's season disintegrated into a nine-game losing streak. What in the heck happened to the Cardinals to have their season crumble so quickly after such a promising start? Was it a few things in particular or a combination of factors that ruined their season?

Brad Wilbricht, publisher, First, the injury to QB Kevin Kolb certainly didn't help matters. The Cardinals were 4-1 with Kolb as the starter and on the verge of going 5-1 until kicker Jay Feely missed a 38-yard field goal to win the game in overtime against the Buffalo Bills. Since then, Arizona has dropped 10 of its last 11 outings, in large part due to a truly anemic offense. The Cardinals rank at the bottom of the NFL in both passing (28th) and rushing (32th) and are second to last in the NFC committing 32 turnovers. The biggest detriment for this team has been abysmal play at quarterback. John Skelton, who was actually named the starter at the beginning of the year, probably won't be back in 2013 while Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer have no business taking snaps on an NFL team. Arizona's poor performance at quarterback has been compounded with inauspicious play along offensive line and the inability to run the ball consistently, leading to what's been a complete tailspin over the past 11 weeks.

Craig Massei: Give us an overview of how the Cardinals' quarterback carousel has evolved this season for a team that will start its fourth different QB this year on Sunday. Has it really gotten so bad for the Cards that Brian Hoyer will get his first NFL start at the position Sunday against the league's second-ranked defense? Why is Hoyer the choice to start against the 49ers, and what does Arizona look like at the position in the near future? How many of these four QBs will even be back with the Cards next season?

Brad Wilbricht: As mentioned above, the rib injury to Kolb – that ended up sidelining him for the season – really set the Cardinals back. Kolb wasn't great but he at least gave Arizona a chance to win games. At this point, Hoyer is the starting quarterback by default as Skelton and Lindley have both failed miserably. Coach Ken Whisenhunt apparently has seen enough of Skelton and he's unlikely to return in 2013. Lindley was never ready to see the field and the blame can't be put on the sixth-round draft pick. As for the future at quarterback, that remains the million dollar question, and what could ultimately lead to Whisenhunt and several others being out of a job. Obviously, something needs to be done as Kolb can't be depended on to stay healthy and probably isn't a franchise quarterback even when he is. Arizona could look to someone like Alex Smith to provide some stability while drafting a quarterback to develop down the line.

Craig Massei: Is the quarterback play/situation the primary reason the Cardinals have dropped from the middle of the pack in total offense last season to dead last in the league in that category this year? What have been the factors involved in Arizona being so unproductive on offense despite having such an elite weapon in receiver Larry Fitzgerald? And how is Fitzgerald's psyche taking this development?

Brad Wilbricht: Yes, the quarterback situation has certainly played a large role but isn't the only thing to blame. Poor play along the offensive line and an inconsistent running game has also contributed to Arizona's offensive struggles. It could also be argued that Whisenhunt's offensive scheme hasn't materialized since names like Kurt Warner and Todd Haley left the desert. One has to feel sorry for Fitzgerald as his talents are clearly being wasted on this team. When Fitzgerald has a decent quarterback he's one of the top wideouts in the game, but that hasn't been the case in recent years. From 2010-2012, the likes of Derek Anderson, Max Hall, Richard Bartell, Kolb, Skelton, Lindley and now Hoyer have been throwing him the ball. Despite all of the negatives, Fitzgerald always takes the high road and never points the finger. His development won't be affected as Fitzgerald remains one of the hardest working players around and it wouldn't be surprising to see him request a trade following this season.

Craig Massei: Ken Whisenhunt is the winningest coach in Arizona history and has taken the Cards to the Super Bowl in his six seasons with the team. But is he on the hot seat now after this 2012 collapse? Will the Cardinals move forward with Whisenhunt, or do you expect them to chart a different course in 2013 with a new coach? Are sweeping changes at the top needed for the Cardinals to get back on track? Is Whisenhunt still the right man for the job?

Brad Wilbricht: There has been a lot of chatter that general manager Rod Graves will be gone and that will severely hurt Whisenhunt's chances of sticking around. Given the mishaps in personnel – especially at quarterback – it's hard to vouch for either Graves or Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt has more input on personnel that most other coaches so his hands are all over this roster and its deficiencies. The Super Bowl berth certainly bought Whisenhunt time to bounce back from a few down years but that hasn't panned out. Three consecutive non-winning seasons lead many to believe that a coaching change is in order. Last year, the Cardinals finished strong after a slow start but it's been the opposite turn of fortunes this year. The recent tailspin could easily cost Whisenhunt his job as it's looking more and more unlikely that he'll be able to turn things around.

Craig Massei: Despite Arizona's struggles this season, the defense appears to have built on its strong finish last year and has been particularly tough in stopping the pass. What have been the major factors and who have been the leading performers that have turned Arizona into the NFL's 12th-ranked defense this season? Why has that seemingly solid performance on that side of the ball not been enough to make the Cardinals a better team overall?

Brad Wilbricht: The Cardinals defense has been one of the few bright spots this year as it's been relatively consistent all season long. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton, now in his second year in Arizona, has really turned things around and is even being mentioned as a possible head coaching candidate to replace Whisenhunt. Horton has been able to develop players such as CB Patrick Peterson in the secondary and a host of others that's resulted in one of the league's better pass defenses. That said, the defense hasn't been given a fair shot due to the ineptitude on offense. Not only has the defense been put in bad spots from turnovers by the offense, several of those turnovers have been returned for touchdowns by the opposition. The Arizona offense has also failed to control the ball and sustain drives leading to uneven numbers in regards to time of possession. It's just been too much to overcome for the Cardinals defense and they certainly deserved better this year.

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