The Arizona Cardinals just beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road.
It’s time to celebrate. Break out the pom-poms.
When was the last time the Cards could celebrate being 1-0 and atop their division?
But this team is like no other team that the Cardinals have had since moving to the desert.
This team is loaded and loaded on both sides of the ball. Surely we can expect big things from such a talented team playing in an absurdly weak division.
But it seems almost as if the only thing that can stop this team is its head coach, Ken Whisenhunt.
Ken Whisenhunt is a conservative coach, with a ball-control, play-it-safe style. It’s a style he has seen work first hand as an assistant coach on many great Pittsburgh Steeler teams. Those teams had dominating offensive and defensive lines.
But Ken Whisenhunt is no longer in Pittsburgh. He’s in Arizona.
The best players on his team are no longer found in the trenches. They are quarterbacks, receivers, linebackers, and safeties.
The Cardinals, unlike the Steelers, cannot simply out-smash their opponents. With his current personnel, that would be a recipe for disaster. But, fear not, the Cards are not without a few tricks of their own.
Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast uses an attacking, gambling style.
Few would argue that Pendergast is not using the right style for the Cardinals' defensive personnel. The defense features fast, aggressive playmakers. Adrian Wilson, Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett, and others are given the chance to fly around the field and hawk the ball.
And it seems obvious that the defensive players love this style.
This style is, at best, a high-risk, high-reward style. Look no further than the recent game against the San Francisco 49ers, where the Cardinals' defense was occasionally gashed for big plays, yet also managed to come up big with four forced turnovers.
This risky sort of defense may not be what Ken Whisenhunt would have designed, but this defense certainly fits well with the personnel that the Cards have. And barring a plague of injuries like the Cards experienced last season, this will be an effective unit.
So wouldn’t it also make sense for Ken Whisenhunt to similarly mesh his offensive playing style with his offensive personnel?
Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald is arguably the best wide-receiver tandem in the NFL. Kurt Warner, who twice led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl, seems to have regained his MVP form. The offensive line has been much improved and finally has player continuity.
In fact, it’s clear that Whisenhunt has the players lined up and ready to throw the ball all over opposing defenses. They’re just waiting for the coach to call their numbers.
But Whisenhunt seems to prefer a strong running game to what he sees as the more high-risk, high-reward passing game.
That, in my view, is the problem. The Cardinals' running game is anything but strong and certainly plays at a level well below its passing game.
The Cardinals are a team whose top running back, Edgerrin James, is now 30-years old and lacks any type of breakaway speed. And his backup, Tim Hightower, is an unproven fifth-round draft pick out of Richmond.
Put another way, why give superstar Larry Fitzgerald $40M and then promise to redo Anquan Boldin's contract if the head coach simply intends to employ a run-first gameplan?
Why not spend that money on a couple of run-blocking linemen and fill the backfield with quality depth instead? That would seem to make more sense, given Whisenhunt’s preferences.
Make no mistake. I do not advocate total abandonment of the running game. That would be unwise.
But let’s be honest in our assessments.
The Cardinals struggled against San Francisco last week while playing Whisenhunt’s power-running style. If not for the third-down heroics of Kurt Warner et al, this game may have been lost. In the second half against San Francisco, Warner went six-for-six, passing on third down.
Sure, the Cardinals did win their game, and wins are precious in the NFL.
But there is no way that this team can beat the likes of the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants with the current gameplan. The Cardinals cannot win against good teams by overusing a running game that averages a mere 3.3 yards per carry, and then asking the passing game to repeatedly bail the team out of trouble.
Heck, if the passing attack is that good, one might suggest that coach Whiz give it more chances when the downs and distances are more favorable.
And one might even convince the coach that such a gameplan is actually less risky than the one he is implementing right now. The current gameplan is full of third-down-and-long situations—plays with the highest risk of sack, fumble, or interception.
Against San Francisco, Warner dropped back nine times facing 3rd-and-six yards or more.
Ken Whisenhunt needs get with it and adapt to his team. This team has some of the best passing weapons in the NFL. They have the potential to be an offensive juggernaut.
As a head coach, Ken Whisenhunt brings some great things to the table. He has been unbending in his demands that players develop a great work ethic and become disciplined. They are playing harder and smarter than we have seen in years.
But if the coach refuses to bend on his run-first mentality, then he will fail. And the Cardinals will waste some of the best talent they have ever assembled.