For a long time Sunday in San Francisco, the Cardinals looked like a scrub team on the practice field. You almost expected coaches running out on the field, whistling plays dead, shouting instructions to John Skelton, once the third-string quarterback and now the starter. And to his backup, somebody named Bartel. This was the NFL?
Then suddenly you awoke from this bad dream and realized it was supposed to be the real thing. Reality set in. The Cardinals had folded up their tents in the second half and had gone through the motions of playing out their last football game of this bitter season. The final score: 49ers 38, Cardinals 7. The ultimate score: A 5-11 record that was a shining mark from where it could easily have been.
It didn’t have to end this way. Even with ownership sand-bagging its money in the off-season, it didn’t need to be this ugly.
No one held a gun to the head of coach Ken Whisenhunt and told him he had to run the same old offense of the glory days with quarterback Kurt Warner. Glory days, by the way, whose ashes are still warm and not quite a year old.
The sadness is that Whisenhunt was either too stubborn or too overwhelmed by the workload of being both head coach and de facto offensive coordinator. Too busy to change an offense ill-suited for any of the four quarterbacks used this season: In order, Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton and what’s his name. That offense is a short passing game that requires the pinpoint accuracy that none of his quarterbacks came close to mastering.
As the season began to bumble along back in September, you prayed Whisenhunt would switch to a more open-style passing game, throwing deep, throwing less, running more. And the real insanity was this. Whisenhunt, in the overwhelming face of his “errant” quarterbacks, kept passing and finished the season by throwing 60 percent of 931 plays. That was a crazy burden to put on Derek Anderson et al.
Beside not changing his offense and the infatuation with a passing game that obviously was flawed, perhaps Whisenhunt failed most by panicking in mid-season when a chance still existed to win the sorry NFC West and reach the playoffs again. That’s when he embarrassingly bowed to mounting media and public pressure to play backup Max Hall, an undrafted free agent. Hall’s three games were not pretty and led to two losses that Anderson likely would’ve reversed. Two more wins and the Cardinals could’ve been playoff contenders. Instead they were doormats.
The Whiz told us and his players to believe in the system. But the system was what failed. Even on defense, the Cardinals did not have the big pass rusher to play the 3-4 defense. That the team went back to the 4-3 in San Fran was a step north. Hopefully, Whisenhunt will evaluate his offensive system in the important months ahead and, if not, that the owning Bidwill family, will cut loose some money for a quarterback that can play with Warner’s finesse.
I wrote a piece as the season started, “Honeymoon at an end for the Whiz?” It was based on a mirage. Whisenhunt and the entire organization was presented an illusion of themselves during the Warner years. Warner’s magic disguised everything. It seems even the coaches thought they had more talent than they did. Now, all the goodwill Whisenhunt built up during the previous three seasons that included a near-victory in the Super Bowl, all that is gone. Many fans clamor for his neck. They want him fired, but that will not happen anytime soon. Next season, if there is one in the face of the looming labor negotiations and possible lockout, Whisenhunt must show he can stand on his own two feet and field a respectable team without the late great Kurt Warner.
And someday, it is hoped, that Derek Anderson will be seen for what he really was, a scapegoat for a coaching staff and an organization gone bad.