The Evolution Of A Coach And His Quarterback

By PFC Cardinals Writer Laura Healy

January 14, 2007 a new era began in the desert as Ken Whisenhunt was named Head Coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He left the Offensive Coordinator spot at Pittsburgh, after helping “mold” Ben Roethlisberger (Big Ben) into a quality starting quarterback. The plan was he would do the same for Matt Leinart. Though he had not seen much of the Cardinals, he believed that Leinart was their QB of the franchise.

When Whisenhunt got to the desert, he preached a power running game and smash-mouth football. Big Ben reportedly was happy Whisenhunt left Pittsburgh, because he felt Whisenhunt restricted him in the passing game. Frankly, Big Ben’s reaction left me cautious. In the 2006 draft, then-coach Dennis Green got the Cardinals to draft Leinart at #10. They paid him as if he were a top three pick. Five games into his rookie season Leinart was the starter. Additionally, the organization placed Leinart in the center of there marketing. Whisenhunt came in with a mantra; “We’re going to play smart, tough football.” Leinart would carry out the strategy.

After training camp began, Whisenhunt said of Leinart, “He doesn’t have his footwork down right.” Starting in the third game, Whisenhunt sent backup QB Kurt Warner in for an ineffective Leinart. Warner could run the no huddle offense. This continued for weeks 3-4. In week 5, Arizona traveled to face the Rams in St. Louis. Again, Leinart couldn’t get anything done. So in came Warner. He immediately received a standing ovation from the St. Louis fans, many wearing their blue #13 jersey. After leading the team to a TD, Warner gave way to Leinart again. Then came a crucial hit that broke Leinart’s collarbone, knocking him out for the rest of the season. Warner came in permanently. He led the Cardinals to a 34-31 win over the Rams.

I don’t know what effect the standing ovation had on Whisenhunt, but I’m guessing it made him look twice at Warner. Perhaps the number two QB was actually better than the number one QB? The following week Carolina came into Arizona to play the Cardinals. Early in the game DE Julius Peppers crushed Warner on a fumbled ball. Warner tore two ligaments in his left, non-throwing elbow. Tim Rattay came in, literally having been signed the week before. He tossed three interceptions and the Cardinals lost the game.

Whisenhunt feared having to play Rattay because there was no way Warner could return the next week against the Washington Redskins. Whisenhunt was wrong. Working with the trainers, Warner found a brace that would hold the elbow and not allow further damage. Warner started the Washington game. Arizona suffered a two-point loss. Neil Rackers missed a 55-yard field goal, and Whisenhunt used WR Anquan Boldin at quarterback for the two-point conversion that failed. That was the topic for around the water cooler talks.

Whisenhunt changed the way he coached the games. He moved more toward the passing game that Warner felt comfortable with. Warner, on his part, responded, putting up numbers for the last eight games that rivaled only New England’s Tom Brady. Of course, I must mention Arizona suffered injuries on defense, where they had no backups. They slipped to 28th in the league against the pass. After losing in Tampa, they came home and crushed a Detroit team, derailing their season, and ultimately leading to the firing of Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz.

Kurt Warner played through the pain for two reasons. The first is obvious; he’s a competitor. Second, and more importantly, Warner needed to make the most of the chance he got. This was his last chance to prove he could still play at a high level. Seeing Warner gut it out had to affect Whisenhunt’s opinion of him. The Coach gradually opened up the offense, until the last game playing at home against St. Louis they passed first. Then they established the run, and never stopped until the final whistle blew. Arizona won 48-19, the largest number of points they had scored in twenty years.

For most teams, Warner’s performance would earn him the starting job heading into the next season. But Coach Whisenhunt announced Matt Leinart had the starting nod going into Training Camp because, “he couldn’t lose his job because of injury.” Honestly, I was disappointed. Warner threw 27 TD’s in 12 games, 1 shy of the Cardinals record. But Whisenhunt told Warner, “The best quarterback will get the starting job.”

In the offseason, Coach Whisenhunt definitely impressed me by signing free agents that weren’t on anybody’s list, and ignoring the opportunity to get a Pro Bowl Offensive Lineman. In fact, one of the ‘most publicized’ Free Agent acquisition was Travis LaBoy, a defensive lineman no one had heard of. But something in him stood out to Coach Whisenhunt that caused his signing. Now, LaBoy is a starter on the defensive line and putting up numbers that show he is a starter in the NFL. I was ecstatic after the draft, especially as I listened to the conference calls with four players, 1st round cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, 2nd round defensive end Calais Campbell, 3rd round wide receiver Early Doucet, and 5th round running back Tim Hightower.

They all had a common theme. They were either overlooked by NFL scouts, lost status because of a poor junior year, after which they entered the draft, dropped because of injury, or were not even invited to the NFL combines. They all had something to prove. That creates hunger that can only be quenched by what they do when on the field. I submit that Coach Whisenhunt experienced a similar situation coming out of Georgia Tech as a Tight End. He struggled to make it, but did and played eight years.

One thing left me with a question mark. Would Ken Whisenhunt keep his word and start the better QB?
Pressure came from management, who had invested heavily in Leinart. After the last preseason game, Coach Whisenhunt set up a press conference to name the starting QB. Many people, media and fans alike, expected Leinart to get the nod over Warner, not necessarily because he was a better QB, but because of where the Cardinals were. In the press conference, Whisenhunt upset the traditional thinking. He named Warner the starter. Later, listening to Warner talk it was clear he had the job, and would not have to worry about being pulled for Leinart. Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, “We’re a passing team.”

Could it be the Coach who spoke about being tough and physical had found someone in Kurt Warner, a self-described “gunslinging” QB, who had everything Whisenhunt only looked for in a power runner or an aggressive defender? That is exactly what happened. If Whisenhunt challenged Warner to a variety of sports, neither one would quit before he dropped from utter exhaustion. That’s how competitive they both are. Ron Wolfley interviewed Whisenhunt after the Miami game. He pointed to the statistic that Arizona had only gained 55 yards on rushing. Whisenhunt looked at Wolfley and said with a grin, “We put up 445 total yards of offense.” At first surprised, Wolfley acknowledged the truth in that.

Kurt Warner proved that he could receive coaching, specifically him not fumbling the ball. This year Warner is not even in the top ten of quarterbacks in fumbling.

Now the Arizona Cardinals are poised to take on the same Carolina Panthers, who started a Coach and his Quarterback on this journey. Warner put up numbers in the top 3 of quarterbacks in the NFL, thus justifying Whisenhunt’s decision to start him instead of Leinart. Arizona entered their bye after soundly defeating the Buffalo Bills, and winning in Overtime against the Dallas Cowboys. But to understand the Cardinals performance the last three games, you must go back to the game against the New York Jets, where Arizona lost 56-35. The score at halftime was 34-0, NY Jets. Most other teams in the league would have mailed it in and gone home.

The Cardinals didn’t do that. They put up 35 points in the second half. With time running out, Warner tossed a ball to Boldin in the end zone. He lost it when a defensive back speared him helmet to helmet. Warner later said he had never experienced that kind of play in football until now. Thankfully, Boldin was okay. On that day, they stood and drew a line in the sand, saying, “We’re not giving up.” When this season ends, the Cardinals will point back to the Jets game and say they learned not to quit.

If you had a choice of a team loaded with stars or a team loaded with players who play together, you would pick the second one. That’s the Arizona Cardinals. The team’s motto this year is, “We do this together.” No matter how many honors individual players receive, they’ve done it together. Sure, Coach Whisenhunt changed his play calling but had his philosophy confirmed by a QB, Kurt Warner, who is one of the top five NFL passers in every category except long term statistics.  (He’s reached 25,000 yards faster than any other QB except Dan Marino). Wherever the Cardinals go this year, it will be with a Coach and his QB leading the way.