Former Jet Ken Whisenhunt Had the Arizona Cardinals on the Threshold of History
If you had told someone back in Week One that the Arizona Cardinals would be one stop away from winning the Super Bowl, they would have called out the straightjacket and ambulance for you.
Even if you made that same statement at the start of the NFL playoffs, you may have avoided the sanitarium but would not have had much company. We now know better, so there's nothing else to do but shrug your shoulders and say, 'That's sports for you.'
By not only reaching Super Bowl XLIII but coming as close as you can to winning it, the Cards showed the world what head coach Ken Whisenhunt felt all along - even after the team lost four of their last five regular season games - that peaking at the right time can send a team far. "Well, I felt like we had a good team," he said on Media Day. "There were a lot of people who didn't think we did, but there were some reasons why we had that swoon late in the season.
"We felt like we were going to come out of it," continued Whisenhunt. "We were fortunate that we had a number of games between when we clinched the division and when we actually got into the playoffs so we were able to (overcome) that."
Whisenhunt had a mostly non-descript career as a player with three organizations over nine NFL seasons. The H-back/tight was selected in the 12th round of the 1985 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech by the Atlanta Falcons and played in all 16 games in three out of his first four seasons. He moved on to the Washington Redskins in 1990 season and joined the New York Jets a year later, playing under Bruce Coslet and making one playoff appearance.
He began the second part of his career on the sidelines in the collegiate ranks with Vanderbilt in 1995 (tight ends, H-backs and special teams coach) before becoming an NFL assistant with the Baltimore Ravens (1997-98), Cleveland Browns (1999) and Jets (2000). In 2001, Whisenhunt was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as their tight ends coach and took over as offensive coordinator three seasons later.
He earned a ring when Pittsburgh defeated the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL and was lauded for his work with young quarterback Ben Roesthlisberger, who led the team to the title in only his second professional season.
Taking over for the fired Dennis Green in Arizona in 2007, Whisenhunt inherited a team that had talent in certain areas but had been the laughingstock of the league since the late 1940s. By going 8-8 in his inaugural campaign in the desert, Whisenhunt erased some of the bad memories from the previous two 5-11 marks to end the Green era.
Two big differences when Whisenhunt came in were the unveiling of the University of Phoenix Stadium and veteran quarterback Kurt Warner. The Cardinals were already a tough sell to the people of Arizona, having been a nomadic bunch that have also called Chicago and St. Louis home before going west. Playing at Sun Devil Stadium with its metal bleachers made every Sunday afternoon a scorcher. Double that with a lousy product on the field and it is no surprise that it took so long for the fans to come around.
With a new stadium and exciting young players, the Cardinals were no longer the doormats that they had been, but that transformation would not totally take place until Whisenhunt had to make a difficult decision that was viewed as being short-sighted at the time.
Matt Leinart, the darling southpaw first round pick out of USC, had been anointed the starter after the 2007 season ended. Heading into training camp, the 37-year-old Warner needed to prove that he was the right man for the job. By the time the exhibition season came to a close, Whisenhunt made the right decision in going with experience over promise.
Warner threw for more than 3,000 yards and led the Cardinals to division and conference titles. Even though Pittsburgh prevailed in the Super Bowl by a score of 27-23, that does not take away the progress that Arizona has made in just two short seasons with Whisenhunt at the helm.
Wrapping things up with his team in the locker room at Raymond James Stadium following the fight of their lives, Whisenhunt was not looking for any silver linings. "There's nothing really that you can say to your team at that time that's going to make them feel better," he said. "You just have to say how proud you are of what they did."
And that goes for the head coach, as well.