Pittsburgh's Tomlin and Arizona's Whisenhunt: A Super Coach Showdown

Mackenzie KraemerSenior Analyst IJanuary 18, 2009

Isn't it great when a football season can finally end in finality?

And this year, not only do we get to watch a Super Bowl that will end in some sense of closure to the year, especially if Pittsburgh wins.

If Arizona wins, it will be hard to imagine them as the real champions; if non-playoff teams like the New York Jets and New England Patriots can slaughter them, it's a little awkward.

But at least they would have won it on the field. Something, you can't say about a certain other level of football.

However, the real story of the Super Bowl isn't about the eventual champion. It's not about Kurt Warner cementing himself as a Hall of Famer, nor is it about the historical implications that either a Steelers or a Cardinals victory would mean.

It is about a man, well, two men really, and their quest for redemption from the team that passed them over.

After Bill Cowher retired in 2006, the Steelers narrowed their head coaching search to three men: two from their own staff in offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Russ Grimm, as well as Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.

Though many believed Whisenhunt would get the job, Tomlin blew Pittsburgh brass away in his interviews and earned the job. Spurned by their former organization, Whisenhunt and Grimm went to Arizona to try to build a winner from near-scratch.

Tomlin looked to be the right choice after he led the Steelers back to the playoffs after an 8-8 season in Cowher's final year. His 2007 team went 10-6, winning the AFC North, but they lost a close battle to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the playoffs.

One of those six losses was to Whisenhunt's Cardinals. Arizona had been coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, and even though the game was on the road, most believed Pittsburgh would handle the Cards.

But Whisenhunt's team came out extra motivated that week, and they handled the Steelers 21-14 on their home turf.

After the game, here's what Whisenhunt had to say.

“It’s obviously a special win for me to beat the Steelers, but I don’t have any animosity toward that football team…The thing that I’m the proudest about is that our football team beat a good football team that nobody gave us a chance to do.”

The Cardinals finished just 8-8 in 2007, but they had made vast improvements on both sides of the ball.

Heading into 2008, they believed they could overtake Seattle in the NFC West, a task eventually made much easier due to an assortment of Seahawk injuries.

However, Arizona had not hosted a playoff game since 1947, when they played in Chicago. As much as people believed in the Cardinals, that statistic was very sobering.

On the other hand, Pittsburgh just hoped to take another step forward closer to the Super Bowl in Tomlin's second season. Success is a way of life for the Steelers, and a first round playoff loss left a bad taste in many fans' mouths.

Both Tomlin and Whisenhunt had successful first seasons, but there was still plenty of work to be done for both of them.

When the season started, both teams jumped out to hot starts, and before the season was halfway done, it was obvious that both teams were going to win their divisions.

Pittsburgh eventually faced a scare from Baltimore, but just like they did Sunday, they were able to dispose of the Ravens.

But at the start of the playoffs, there were severe differences of expectations from outsiders. Pittsburgh was the favorite in the AFC, despite being the No. 2 seed, and anything short of the Super Bowl would have been a disappointment.

Meanwhile, Arizona just seemed happy to be there. They took their foot off the gas pedal in November, and basically backed into the playoffs.

To show how much they were being disrespected, Atlanta, with a rookie head coach and quarterback, opened as a road favorite in the playoffs!

Despite the difference in each team's outlook, both teams eventually made it to the ultimate game. Tomlin's Steelers, favorites in both of their games, took care of business against teams they were probably supposed to beat.

Whisenhunt's Cardinals shocked the world by beating Atlanta, Carolina, and Philadelphia in successive weeks.

Now the ultimate goal is staring both men in the face. Not only will the winning coach have won the NFL's highest honor, but one of them gets to show the Rooney family and the Pittsburgh front office that he was the man to lead the black and gold and not the other.

Tomlin and Whisenhunt have a mutual respect for one another. And it is doubtful Whisenhunt will say anything publicly about how he truly feels about not getting the job.

But make no mistake. This is personal for Whisenhunt. It's personal for Grimm, who was also passed over and joined his friend in Arizona.

This game does not prove who is the better coach, and who was the right man to hire. No single game can do that. This is as close as it gets, though.

Tomlin has an advantage with what seems to be a better all-around football  team, but it's impossible to count out Arizona as well as Whisenhunt has them playing.

Now, we just have to wait two weeks for the conclusion. May the best man win.

Reach the author via e-mail or through his blog about the New York Jets. Mackenzie also hopes that the Ravens don't make a frantic comeback because he posted this before the game ended, since his laptop was about to run out of battery power.