GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Cardinals training camp opened in Flagstaff in late July, coach Ken Whisenhunt did his best to diffuse the notion that he was on the hot seat after a pair of disappointing seasons.
By the time he addressed the media Sunday evening and Monday morning, he seemed resigned to this persistent storyline.
“That’s part of the business,” he said following the Cardinals’ seventh straight loss. “You’ve got to have a thick skin.”
It is clear that the Cardinals coach has pulled out all the stops and turned over every rock in an effort to save this season. In Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Rams, he started rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley and rookie tackles Bobby Massie and Nate Potter. He has agreed to shelve defensive captain Adrian Wilson to give the team more speed in its nickel packages. And he looked inward with the rest of his staff over the bye week to examine every facet of the operation for flaws and potentially hidden strengths.
Nothing has worked. So if it is fair to alter personnel in the search for a solution, it is also fair to consider changes among those making the personnel decisions. And that starts with Whisenhunt, who earned a great deal of respect and a great deal of power after the franchise’s first and only Super Bowl berth in 2009.
If the Cardinals can’t pull themselves out of this tailspin over the season’s final five games by winning two or three times, does Whisenhunt deserve to serve out the final year of his contract in 2013? Here are some of the bullet points working for and against him.
• Players’ coach: With the possible exception of Wilson, whose pride is currently bruised, Whisenhunt has the unquestioned respect of his players. He is fair, he is open to dialogue and he is consistent with his message that the best players will play, whether it’s ageless middle linebacker Paris Lenon over expensive free-agent Stewart Bradley; Rashad Johnson and James Sanders over Wilson in the aforementioned situations; or seventh-round pick Nate Potter over seven-year veteran D’Anthony Batiste. That means a lot in a locker room, and there are no outward signs of dissension despite the team’s struggles.
• Unmatched success: Despite the past three seasons, Whisenhunt must still be considered the club’s most successful coach since it moved to Arizona for the 1988 season. He has the franchise’s only Super Bowl berth, a 4-2 playoff record and just one losing record in his five prior seasons. In the Cardinals’ 19 previous seasons in Arizona, they made the playoffs just once.
• Injuries: Coaches are loath to use injuries as an excuse for their lack of success. Green Bay is the classic example of a team that has been able to withstand myriad injuries and still win. But the Packers have Aaron Rodgers (we’ll get to the QB thing later) to mask their deficiencies. It’s unrealistic to expect that the Cardinals could overcome the loss of their starting left tackle (Levi Brown) for the entire season, the loss of their top two running backs (Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams) and their once-top tight end for huge chunks of the season, and the loss of their starting quarterback (Kevin Kolb) for the past five-plus games and nearly half of last season. Every club suffers injuries; few experience such a plague of bad luck with key players. How, then, do you judge Whisenhunt’s coaching with that in mind?
• Many of the pieces are in place: Despite recent setbacks, the Cardinals appear to have one of the league’s better defenses, with most of the pieces (aside from aging safeties) set for several years. They appear to have a strong receiving corps (not that you’d know it with their inaccurate QBs), a good stable of running backs and some depth at tight end. So if the Cards can shore up that offensive line and get a much-deserved break by keeping Kolb healthy, they do appear capable of making the playoffs. That was apparent early in the season when they started 4-0.
• The NFL is too reactionary; maybe Michael Bidwill is not: Whisenhunt lost a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback when Kurt Warner retired a year earlier than expected. It takes time and luck (no pun intended) to recover from that. With all that he’s accomplished here — with all that he’s given this city and franchise — Whisenhunt at least deserves to serve out his contract and try to get this thing fixed. The belief here is that he’s a good coach who has suffered some bad breaks. And as former Cardinals linebacker Clark Haggans noted: “Look at the Giants. Before Tom Coughlin won the Super Bowl, they wanted to fire him. They wanted to fire him during the season they won the Super Bowl! This business is brutal.”
• The stadium’s still selling out: Sure there are empty seats, but fan support is still good. Phoenix hasn’t quit on the Cardinals.
• Long losing streaks: Following Sunday’s setback, the Cards have lost seven in a row for the second time in the past three seasons. They followed up their 2010 seven-game losing streak by losing six straight last season. You have to find a way to pull your team out of such epic tailspins. Three straight years of this habitual losing is a disturbing trend.
• Failure to address the O-line: Clearly, this does not fall solely on Whisenhunt. General manager Rod Graves, O-line coach Russ Grimm and the scouting staff deserve equal blame for neglecting this glaring deficiency. Since drafting Brown in the first round in 2007, the Cards have not selected an offensive lineman higher than the fourth round. There’s this belief in some NFL circles that you don’t need to expend high picks on linemen because there will be enough later. Tell that to the 49ers, who have arguably the best line in the league and have three former first-round picks starting.
• Mismanagement of QBs: You can rip the Cards if you want for not finding Kurt Warner’s replacement, but as we examined last week, it hasn’t been so simple. Of greater concern has been the mismanagement of the quarterbacks Whisenhunt has had. First it was the decision to cut the cord with Matt Leinart, who lost his job to Derek Anderson before the regular season began. We know Leinart hasn’t amounted to much, but he knew the system. Could the Cards have fared better than 5-11 with him? We think there’s an argument to be made, and we think he earned his shot, especially when you consider Whisenhunt’s alternatives. Anderson was inaccurate, turnover-prone and hyper-sensitive to criticism. Max Hall is a terrific, humble guy, but he never had an NFL arm and never belonged in an NFL game. Whisenhunt could not have foreseen Kolb’s injuries, but he did lobby hard to acquire him, and thus far, that has not panned out. And finally, there was Whisenhunt’s curious decision to switch to Ryan Lindley after one quarter in Atlanta last week. If he had truly seen enough of John Skelton’s inaccuracy, fine, but Whisenhunt said in a press conference following the loss that Skelton had played well the week before in Green Bay. If that was true, why the short leash? Who not give Skelton, known for improving as games wear on, a chance to play through his mistakes? And if he was simply protecting Skelton and knew all along he wanted to play Lindley, why not use the bye week to prepare Lindley and then just start him against the Falcons? The Cards have clearly been hamstrung by poor QB play for the better part of three seasons, but repeated missteps by the coaching staff at the position haven’t helped.
• The stadium’s still selling out: The fans deserve better, and the Cards shouldn’t take them for granted.
• Three straight seasons with no playoffs: This one needs no further explanation. Regardless of circumstances, the NFL is a performance-based business. If you miss the playoffs three straight years, your job is anything but secure.
• Spending without results: The Cards have shed their former frugal ways with big, early contract extensions for Wilson, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington. They spent big money on Kolb and gave Larry Fitzgerald a sultan’s fortune. What has it gotten Bidwill? How does that sit with the boss?
• A successor in house? Assuming his unit doesn’t continue a recent downward trend, defensive coordinator Ray Horton is going to get more head coaching interviews, likely as soon as this offseason. Horton is already an attractive candidate. Throw in the Rooney Rule and you can bet his interviewing skills will be polished by the end of the spring. Could he forge a seamless transition from Whisenhunt? If the Cards believe he’s head coach material, can they afford to wait on that decision? Remember, the Cards have gone this route before — they hired defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis after firing his boss, Vince Tobin.