Could the three-year honeymoon of Cardinals fans and their so far adored coach, Ken Whisenhunt, be coming to an end? Not everyone is completely sold on the Whiz. This will be his first season as a head coach without the other whiz, the now retired quarterback Kurt Warner.
No Cardinals coach has endeared himself out here in the arid lands of Arizona as Whisenhunt has. True, former coaches Joe Bugel and Dave McGinnis were loved for their upbeat spirits as they toiled and failed under long odds to produce a winner. But it was Whisenhunt who brought meaning at last to the laughable boast of another former coach, Buddy Ryan, who said at his first press conference in 1995, “You’ve got a winner in town.” A winner he wasn’t, and Ryan didn’t stay long. Two years and a 12-20 record sent him back to Kentucky to breed his race horses.
Whisenhunt, unlike the unpopular Ryan, was the real deal. Or so it seemed. No Cardinals coach in the franchise’s long history had ever posted .500 records or better in their first three seasons. The Whiz went 8-8, 9-7 and 10-6 for a 27-21 regular-season record. Better yet, the Cardinals reached the playoffs the last two seasons and came within an eyelash of winning the 2009 Super Bowl, no thanks to a meltdown by the defense.
Impressed fans refer to Whisenhunt as the Wiz and the Whiz. Some have rallied around the motto, “In Whiz We Trust.” Many say he changed the old “Cardinals culture” for the good. But in 2010 reality sets in and the question arises: Was it Whisenhunt that led the Cardinals out of their 19-year doldrums in the desert? Or was it the rejuvenated Warner whose career was all but decked after a miserable season here in 2006?
It was Whisenhunt who was not immediately sold on Warner’s considerable talents that lay dormant waiting for his last hurrah. Whisenhunt went into the third preseason game of 2008 with Matt Leinart as his No. 1 quarterback, and it was probably Leinart’s complete flop in the third game of August that changed his mind rather than any great insight of his own.
For Whisenhunt, this season is his time to shine. No more Warner shadows to take the heat off. This for the first time is really the Whiz’s team. Not the savvy Warner’s. And the Whiz has already stamped himself as a bold coach, shocking the Cardinals Nation by choosing as his quarterback the newcomer Derek Anderson and rejecting the assumed new leader on offense, Leinart. That and Leinart’s release less than a week ago led to the first big chinks in the coach’s armor. Some fans railed against Leinart’s unfair treatment and Whiz’s messy handling of the situation and began for the first time to seriously question the coach’s decision-making.
Those who closely watch the team have concerns about the Whiz’s program, though those concerns have been held in check for the most part, the critics willing to give a winning coach the benefit of any doubt.
First, Whisenhunt has created what seems a bewildering hierarchy of three coaches on offense. While Whisenhunt has indicated he will continue to call the plays, there is no offensive coordinator per se. Mike Miller is the passing game coordinator and Russ Grimm is the assistant head coach, run game coordinator and line coach. Same as last year when it seemed to deter Warner not at all. This was the year, it seemed, with Warner gone, to hire a coordinator. But no.
Second, Whisenhunt and staff seem to be slow in developing their No. 1 picks on offense. Tackle Levi Brown still is far from what the Cardinals apparently thought he would be. But most noticeable has been the regression of running back Beanie Wells. That now, after an entire season and a second preseason, Wells is still playing second cello to Tim Hightower, seems strange. Just as the regression of Leinart seemed strange.
The defense has made changes and had to do so considering the unit’s inconsistency the last two seasons. It was the defense that let the Cardinals down, not only in the Super Bowl. In an unbelievable finish last year in Tennessee, the defense allowed Vince Young and the Titans to go 99-yards in the last moments for the winning TD.
But the stars are aligned for another successful season. The Cardinals play in still the worst NFL division, the West, and should roll in with a 5-1 record there, losing only one meeting in two with the 49ers, a team some “experts” believe will actually win the West. Then there are three games with weak sisters Kansas City, Oakland and Tampa Bay. Just following form and not counting other very winnable games, that is an 8-8 record.
If the Cardinals stumble on their way to what appears another playoff season, the honeymoon between fan and coach will begin to unravel. You can take that to the bank. Warner or Whisenhunt, or both together, take your pick, have created a monster of high expectations for a team that once was the butt of almost every joke.