Half of a second can mean everything for a quarterback when an All-Pro defensive lineman is bearing down on him.
Kevin Kolb appeared to do little wrong on the play that ended his first season with the Arizona Cardinals. He dropped back to pass on third-and-6 and hesitated briefly before attempting to target tight end Todd Heap in the right flat.
Only 2.5 seconds elapsed between the snap and the blindside hit from San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith. Smith hit Kolb from behind and knocked the ball free. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks turned to chase the loose ball and, in the process, whacked Kolb in the helmet with a churning knee.
The diagnosis: concussion.
The treatment: lots of rest, followed by an offseason focusing on the little things a quarterback can do to avoid undue punishment and keep an offense moving efficiently.
In some ways, that play against the 49ers typified Kolb's first season. He never had much of a chance. Acquired from Philadelphia as the lockout was giving way to training camps, Kolb was on the field for his first exhibition game after less than 12 hours of camp practices. He struggled to make the transition. Kolb took 30 sacks in nine regular-season starts, missing seven games to injury and opening the door for backup John Skelton to challenge him for the starting job this summer.
The first-year reviews for Kolb were resoundingly negative.
"Kolb's play was disturbing and uneven in Year 1, but like the rookie QBs from a year ago, judging him just off of that is probably too harsh," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Still, he is a limited passer and takes way too many sacks. Of course, his offensive line didn’t help that. He isn't extremely accurate in terms of ball placement, either, which is something you must have if your arm is average."
On the positive side?
"He did do very well against the blitz, which shocked me, honestly, when I heard Jaws doing his Kolb breakdown, because I wouldn't have said that Kolb is the type of QB to stand firm in the pocket, take a big hit and deliver the football," Williamson said.
Even the praise was qualified, in other words.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't like to anoint players as starters based on their salaries, but he had little choice last offseason.
The lockout left little time for a true quarterback competition. Division-rival Seattle, another team big on competition at all spots, forced into its lineup the newly acquired Tarvaris Jackson, also in the interests of expediency.
But with Kolb, there was another factor. Arizona, desperate for a quarterback, paid a financial price high enough to identify Kolb as its man right away. Their agreement averages $12.6 million per year and included a $7 million payment this offseason.
"Sometimes when you want something really bad, you press a little bit too hard," Kolb said after a recent minicamp practice. "I'm trying to make sure that doesn't happen. I'm trying to make sure I stay relaxed, stay calm, because when I play like that, I usually play pretty good football. ... Hopefully try to make that last for 16 weeks."
A new approach
The Cardinals fired quarterbacks coach Chris Miller and replaced him with receivers coach John McNulty. The move came after Arizona denied McNulty a chance to pursue the offensive coordinator's job with Tampa Bay. It also came with a mandate to re-emphasize the basics.
Arizona wants Kolb adhering more closely to the offensive script. That means methodically moving from one receiver to the next on schedule. It means throwing away the ball instead of inviting trouble with unscripted scrambles. Less creating, more executing.
"In Philadelphia, I think there was a lot of movement stuff they did," McNulty said. "They moved the pocket a lot. You can do that for a while and you can do that, I think, when a guy is playing on a limited basis. But when you want to operate the whole game and the whole season, there's a high percentage of the plays you're going to have to be in the pocket and operate in the pocket.
"He hadn't had as much experience, and he didn't have experience in our system of being just a pure pocket guy that hangs in there and doesn't rely on moving to get things a chance to get open."
Whisenhunt has alluded to the Cardinals having receivers running open frequently without getting the ball last season. That was the case specifically with Andre Roberts, a player Whisenhunt thought enjoyed a strong season without sufficient statistical rewards. Evidence collected over a four-game stretch suggested that might have been a problem for Kolb in particular.
A firmer grasp of the playbook should make it easier for Kolb to trust that his secondary receivers will be available. McNulty is working with Kolb on shortening the quarterback's movements in the pocket to keep plays on rhythm. Nothing too fancy, in other words.
"Just being around for a long time in some different systems now and being around some really good coaches, the ones that simplify it are the ones that really grasp it," Kolb said. "He's really good at that."
What Kolb can become
The Cardinals went 3-6 when Kolb started, but Skelton was the primary quarterback for the Dec. 12 game against San Francisco, the one in which Kolb suffered the concussion.
The burden of proof lies with Kolb after Skelton, who is receiving less than $500,000 per year, played a role in five game-winning drives last season. There is no way around that reality, not with Whisenhunt insisting on an honest competition.
Still, the Cardinals invested $12 million a year in Kolb because they liked his potential, not just because they needed a quarterback and that was the price.
"He's an athletic guy who is very smart," McNulty said. "He's a football guy. He's really done a lot of work to master the system in the last few months, and if he can get the ball out quickly, he's got a whip arm, he's accurate with it when he's working in rhythm. He can present problems as a guy who can move enough to get out of the way if he needs to, but he's capable of taking the snap and getting the ball out quickly and accurately and really diminishing what the rush can do to him."
Less than 11 months have passed since Arizona acquired Kolb. The vision McNulty described is still there for Kolb to salvage.
Just as Kolb must learn to avoid the rush, there's risk for his team if it rushes to judgment.
"I've really got a good hunch, a good instinct about this year," Kolb said. "I really think things are going to go well. That helps. When I have that feeling, that helps relax me and play better ball."