The Tennessee Titans had their pick between their top choice on offense (San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt) and one of their top two choices on defense (Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer), and time was of the essence. The Detroit Lions were gaining on Whisenhunt, and were ready to send a plane to fetch him to San Diego for a second interview. If Whisenhunt got on that plane, it was over. The Lions were primed to win in 2014 (heck, they were primed to win in 2013, and 2012) with a far better quarterback situation than Tennessee had, and so if Titans GM Ruston Webster wanted Whisenhunt, he was going to have to make his move before Whisenhunt went to Detroit for that interview.
Webster made the commitment to Whisenhunt, and so he got his man—with maybe an hour to spare, I’m told. Had Webster tarried, there’s a good chance Whisenhunt would have convinced the Ford family (he already had GM Martin Mayhem in his camp) that he should be the next Detroit coach, and he’d have been named today or tomorrow. But that’s what happens in the business of finding a coach. Tennessee didn’t even interview Whisenhunt until last Friday, and today the Titans are introducing him as the their third coach since the franchise moved from Houston in 1997.
I want to tell you a story about why Ken Whisenhunt is so well regarded in NFL circles, and why owners and GMs can overlook his inability to develop a quarterback post-Kurt Warner while he was head coach of the Cardinals. Whisenhunt’s Cards went 18-30 from 2010 to 2012, after Warner’s retirement, with a succession of mediocrity, or worse, starting games in those three seasons: Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Lindley. One after the other, Whisenhunt gave each a chance—and not a short one, in any case but Hall—to win the job. None worked out. And that’s why Whisenhunt was coaching Philip Rivers in 2013, not coaching for the Bidwills in Arizona. Whisenhunt is going to have be much more successful with Jake Locker, who hasn’t been able to stay on the field long enough to see if he’s the long-term answer in Tennessee. He’s Whisenhunt’s project, and for at least 2014 Locker gets the shot at proving that Whisenhunt, who was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh during Ben Roethlisberger’s first three seasons in the league, can indeed be his quarterback-whisperer.
Now for that story:
In 2008, back when the NFC West stunk, Arizona started 7-3 and was in position to win the division easily. But then the Cards lost four of five and were teetering. Though they’d clinched the division entering Week 16 at New England, Whisenhunt was concerned that the team needed to play much better or the season would go up in flames. Then the Cards went out and lost embarrassingly and non-competitively, 47-7, to the Patriots. Then the team had plane trouble leaving Providence after the game. There was a three-hour delay. More time for Whisenhunt to stew. When the Cards finally arrived back in Phoenix in the early morning of Dec. 22, Whisenhunt decided what to do: boot camp. With a division clinched, he chose to practice hard that week. Whisenhunt is a calm man mostly; rarely does he get too fired up in front of the team. That week, he told them they were blowing their season, and he was not going to sit by and watch it happen.
Whisenhunt put the Cardinals in full pads on Christmas day, and they practiced for two and a quarter hours. Hard.
“That was a shock to all of us,” Larry Fitzgerald said a couple of weeks later. “But he had the pulse of the team. He knew what to do.”
Maybe a practice like that wakes players up, maybe not. But the Cardinals played better that week, beating a poor Seattle team, and got ready for the playoffs. The favored and hot Falcons were up in Round One; Arizona 30, Atlanta 24. Then a trip to Charlotte to play the two seed, Carolina; Arizona 33, Carolina 13. Now a gift home NFC title game, because the Eagles had upset the top-seeded Giants; Arizona 32, Philadelphia 25.
The rest of the story, of course, is that James Harrison had the miracle 100-yard interception return on the last play of the first half, and Ben Roethlisberger the miracle drive from the Arizona 12 in the last two minutes, and Pittsburgh held off the Cards to win the Super Bowl, 27-23. But coaches are paid to read their team and to lead their team. Whisenhunt did both in what turned out to be the most memorable Cardinals season since they moved west from St. Louis 25 years ago.
Postscript: The season after the Super Bowl, Arizona was on the way to a second straight division title. The Cards struggled to win at Detroit on the Sunday before Christmas, but the game did clinch the division. Christmas was on a Friday that year, and Whisenhunt had a decision to make about what to do seeing that Christmas came so close to game day. Teams just don’t get Fridays off customarily. But Whisenhunt gave the coaches and players the day off. The Cardinals went out and routed the Rams two days later, lost a meaningless season finale to Green Bay … and then beat the Packers in a wild Wild Card game, 51-45.
That was Whisenhunt’s last shining moment in Arizona. The Cards traveled to New Orleans in the divisional round and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champs in the Superdome. But it’s a good example of what buttons a coach must push each year depending on the situation. Whisenhunt knows the right ones to push, and he is a smart man with a good feel for his teams. Now he’ll have a deserved second head coaching shot, in Tennessee. As happens so many times in this business, success or failure will hinge as much on the care and development of the quarterback as on pushing the right buttons.
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