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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Now for your email:
LUCK IMMUNE TO CRITICISM? I understand that everyone believes Andrew Luck is the future of the NFL, but does that make him immune from criticism? Dalton throws three picks in his past two playoff games and every website is flooded with commentary. Luck throws seven picks in his past two playoff games and there isn’t an article about it, or even a negative comment in yours. I understand Luck might turn out to be the greatest of all-time, but what has he done to earn the kid gloves treatment? A bunch of fourth-quarter wins signify a quarterback who doesn’t give up, but they also signify a quarterback who didn’t play well in the first three quarters.
You bring up some good points. We probably tend to give highly drafted, multiple-tool players more of the benefit of the doubt than players who entered the draft with some deficiencies. In my opinion, Luck doesn’t get killed this postseason because of the adjustments he had to make with a group of lesser receivers. He was missing his top tight end, Dwayne Allen, for all of this year, and his top wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, for much of this year. Towards the end of the season, he was prospering with a group of receivers who, with the exception of T.Y. Hilton, were all new to the team this year. I’m not sure Andy Dalton, even with a solid set of weapons, would have put up 45 points on Kansas City in a playoff game.
ON CALMER COACHING. Are we sure Jim Harbaugh was flagged for complaining about the call on the Vernon Davis catch or the clock? I ask because he immediately ran onto the field pointing at the scoreboard and it would seem that the replay hadn’t been played yet. As for the clock, it ran for two to three seconds after the whistle blew, which would have limited San Fran’s options had the call not been reversed. My take is he was upset the clock continued to run after the play, something he would immediately need to bring to the attention of the refs.
You are right. I was wrong to criticize Harbaugh for being angry about an official’s call. However, if a coach asks his players to keep their composure in times of adversity, I think it’s a bad example for the coach to set to have a meltdown in a playoff game and run on the field. So I was wrong in why Harbaugh flipped out. But my criticism of him for flipping out still holds.
THE MANNING MOVEMENTS. Four 49ers fans were watching the Denver-San Diego game. On at least two of the encroachment penalties called against the Chargers, all four of us were in agreement that a false start should have been called on Peyton Manning. He bobbed his head vigorously and at the same time thrust his hands forward in a sharp manner. We looked it up in the rule book and it sure seems that he got away with at least two false starts. And don’t say that is Manning’s normal way to receive the ball, because it is not. When he is actually getting the snap, he does not bob his head and jerk his hands forward. I imagine both Mike McCoy and Bill Belichick will be asking the NFL to take a look at this.
I think you have a very good point. The Manning motions, I am sure, will be addressed by the Competition Committee this offseason. I would say it’s likely that whoever officiates that game this weekend will be reminded to watch for overt movement by Manning. Thanks for writing such an intelligent email.
LEAGUE HELP FOR STRUGGLING FRANCHISES. With the turmoil in Cleveland, the lack of interest by the Jacksonville fan base and Oakland’s never ending front-office issues, does the league office offer any guidance to these organizations, to help get them on the right track, as a business? Being that the owners hire the commissioner, would it be considered unethical for the NFL to offer a team of executives and experts to dig into the issues that keep these teams as perennial losers? I would think that the lack of fans in the stands, as the season winds down, would be incentive enough to build winners, to ensure a steady profit. However, it would seem that these teams losing year after year hurts the bottom line of the entire league, and therefore would want to offer solutions to struggling franchises.
The NFL does offer assistance of various kinds to struggling franchises. One example is the eight-person head hunting group that was set up this year to help teams in their coaching searches. But these organizations have to want the help. I don’t think Jimmy Haslam in Cleveland, after hiring Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi to run his football side, is eager to call the NFL and ask, “Who should we hire as coach?” Also, I’m not sure how much help the league office can be to a place like Jacksonville in selling tickets.
GATES-GATE. I love your column, but I thoroughly disagree with your criticism of Secretary Robert Gates. I am not exactly in favor of throwing your former boss under the bus, but Gates—like every cabinet member, as well as any elected official for that matter—owes his loyalty to the people of this nation, not any one individual, no matter which office they hold. While I think it is more than fair to question his motives (financial?) in writing the book, I think you should take one fact into consideration before you question his loyalty: Robert Gates is the only Secretary of Defense in our nation’s history to hold the post under two presidents from two different parties. That means he is probably as apolitical and non-partisan as Washington D.C. gets, and therefore his criticisms of the presidents he worked for should be taken into careful consideration. If you have not yet read his memoir then you should refrain from offering any opinion on the matter.
Good email, Reed. I picked yours out of scores of similar emails excoriating me for criticizing Gates. Here’s how I look at it: Suppose the Indianapolis Colts hired me tomorrow to work in the front office. Suppose I work with them through the draft, and I am exposed to all sorts of inside information about players and contracts and future strategy and the basic inner workings of the team. Let’s say I’d know everything from owner Jim Irsay’s real feelings about Andrew Luck, whatever they might be, to the players GM Ryan Grigson plans to make salary cap casualties in the coming season. And then let’s say I have a strong difference of opinion with Irsay, or Grigson, or coach Chuck Pagano, and we decide to part ways in October. I’d be an unemployed American citizen. And suppose a media company came to me and said, “We’d like you to write a long article about your experiences working for the Colts and what you found out about the inside working of the Colts.” If I agreed to do it, and I spilled the beans on things about the football team and personal opinions and the franchise’s strategic future, I would be within my rights—unless I signed a confidentiality agreement with the team—to write whatever I wanted to write. But would it be the right thing? Part of me thinks it would be a great story. But part of me thinks it would be the morally wrong thing to do.
It’s the same thing with Gates. I have no problem once President Obama leaves office for any employee in his administration to write anything he or she wants. And you’re right—I haven’t read the book. I have only read news reports. I have great admiration for Gates, from everything I have read or heard about him. I hope I am wrong about this, but the book strikes me as a kiss-and-tell book.