As a second-year NFL head coach attending a convention of the NFL's biggest powerbrokers, this was not the way Ken Whisenhunt wanted to spend his Monday morning. Yet last week in Palm Beach, Fla., the Arizona Cardinals' coach snuck away from official business at the league's owners meetings to log onto his laptop and check out a link to thedirty.com.
The sight of his franchise quarterback snuggling up to four young women in a hot tub – and, in another photo, holding up a beer bong while a female companion crouches and chugs – isn't something Whisenhunt wants to relive.
"It's safe to say that it's not my screensaver," Whisenhunt said Monday evening, responding to a public relations crisis of the sort Tom Landry never had to face. "Obviously, it's something that has generated a lot of interest. But it's not the type of interest you want."
Even before third-year quarterback Matt Leinart gave the critics who call his maturity into question a serious supply of cyber-ammunition, Whisenhunt was faced with what is probably the NFL's most loaded quarterback situation heading into the 2008 campaign.
Leinart, coming off an abbreviated season in which he struggled before incurring a year-ending collarbone injury in October, has been declared the team's unquestioned starter, but soon-to-be-37-year-old backup Kurt Warner is viewed by many players and others in the organization as the man who gives the team the best chance to win. The rejuvenated two-time league MVP fought through a painful left arm injury last season to put up impressive numbers (27 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, 3,417 yards) and lead the Cardinals to their first non-losing season in nine years.
"I feel like everyone in the organization appreciates what I did last year," Warner says. "It will be interesting to see how this plays out."
Translation: Just give me the damn ball. (Or, as the deeply religious Warner would prefer, the darn ball.)
Understand that this is not your classic, spite-filled quarterback controversy. Warner and Leinart, who couldn’t be more different socially, get along well and genuinely respect one another. Whisenhunt, while appropriately tough on his players, has no emotional investment in the outcome and isn't prone to head games.
Besides, trying to gift-wrap the job for Leinart is an easy call. The former USC star, who the team drafted 10th overall the year before Whisenhunt arrived, is young and marketable and brimming with potential, and the franchise has much invested in him, financially and psychically. As good as Warner looked in '07, the father of seven contemplated retirement the previous winter and obviously isn't a long-term solution.
Yet Whisenhunt showed early last season, when he began pulling Leinart from games and inserting Warner (ostensibly to run the team's no-huddle package), that conventional wisdom would be trumped by an aversion to losing in the short term.
"We proved last year that we're going to do whatever it takes to win football games," Whisenhunt says. "Matt and Kurt both respect that sometimes you have to make decisions based on what you see. Matt is excited about his opportunity, but Matt understands that based on the way Kurt played last year, he's going to have to step up and work hard to keep that job. Competition always makes you better, and that's the bottom line."
Speaking of the bottom line, Warner was encouraged by the franchise's recent overtures about a contract extension, especially in the context of the $500,000 he felt he was denied on a technicality last winter. The passer's incentive-laden contract called for Warner to get a half-million-dollar bonus if he finished with a passer rating of 90 or above, and he just missed at 89.8.
However, Warner contended that because he was removed from several goal-line situations while playing with a painful brace on his dislocated left elbow that impacted his handoffs, he deserved the money. "(Backup) Tim Rattay threw three touchdowns in those situations," Warner says. "Give me any one of those and I'd have hit the number. If the circumstances had been normal and I'd fallen two-tenths of a point short, I'd have understood that I shouldn't get the bonus. But I felt like I'd earned it."
When Warner asked the notoriously cheap Cardinals to give him the bonus as a show of good faith, they surprised him by saying they were receptive. However, general manager Rod Graves was told by an NFL official that league rules prevented the team from doing so.
The solution suggested by the team was to negotiate a contract extension that would essentially make up for the missing $500,000 – assuming the parties can work out a deal that's mutually beneficial.
"It's tricky," Warner says. "I played at a Pro Bowl level last year, but how do they pay me? Right now (with a $4 million base, plus incentives) I'm underpaid as a starter and overpaid as a backup. I think (negotiations) might give me a little better indication of where they stand on everything."
For now, Whisenhunt is standing firmly behind Leinart, whose work ethic, attitude and, yes, maturity have impressed the coach. Leinart understandably bristled after being yanked in and out of games early last season, but he sucked it up after his injury and dove into his new role as an advance scout. Each week, Leinart would sit in a room at the team's training facility watching tape of the immediate opponent, eventually presenting notes and suggestions to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
"I think he took pride in it, especially after he started seeing the value in it," Whisenhunt says of Leinart. "That really helped him get in touch with the mental part of the game. Being injured was no fun, but it was an invaluable experience for him. He made the best of a bad situation."
Arizona, at least on paper, is one of the league's better quarterbacking situations, with the NFL's top wideout tandem in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and a creative and innovative play-caller in Whisenhunt. The guy behind center has the potential to be a fantasy-football darling – the kind of fantasy with which Leinart's coach would prefer the QB is associated, rather than the four-babes-in-the-hot-tub visual.
To his credit, when the photos hit the web, Leinart was the one who broke the news to his coach via an early morning phone call.
"We've talked a lot about communication, and that (calling) was a good step," Whisenhunt says. "We discussed it, and of course I wasn't thrilled. It's disappointing because of the standard we expect all of our players to live up to, and the quarterbacks even more so. You have to be aware enough to know that in this day and age those kind of things may happen, and as unfair as it may seem you have to live your life accordingly.
"But it doesn't for a moment change my opinion about Matt's commitment or alter my conviction that he can lead our football team."
Come September, however, it's a whole new ballgame. If Leinart didn't know that before his unwanted turn as the NFL's most famous beer-bong spotter, he certainly does now.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"I just had to write you for your article, 'Rules the NFL should 'Tuck' away. My question to you is: Why didn't you ask about the tuck rule first? If I had the chance to talk to (Jeff) Fisher, that would have been my first question. I admire your work and I don't understand why so many people get so mad at you. Is this not the USA? Don't you have a right to voice your opinion? Is that not your job? I also wanted to say that you are my favorite sports writer, ever! When I first read your article after the Super Bowl, I thought you were good. You were the first to write about that Pats coach walking off the field before the final whistle. Now that you wrote this article, you should be named to the NFL's competition committee. Now can you tell us how to fix the Raiders? Thanks for the good writing, and keep it up!"
Thanks for the kind words and the nomination, though I have as much chance of being named to the competition committee as Formula One chief Max Mosley does of being named to the Anti-Defamation League's board of directors. As for how to fix the Raiders, that's easy – overthrow Al Davis.
"I'd be happy to see the NFL adopt your suggestion on allowing end-zone celebrations – on one condition; ban (or curtail) the excessive celebrations made after routine plays. It's ridiculous watching a player make a simple tackle go into the showboat routine, especially considering what they're paid to do. I don't think this is simple exuberance, or showing love to the fans. They usually head toward the end-zone camera, so they can watch themselves on the Jumbotron (and later, on ESPN). It's like a salesman doing a victory dance for placing a phone call – save it for closing the sale."
Wilkes Barre, Pa.
"The ball can cross the goal line and be swatted back. Please leave crappy college rules and crappy college football out of NFL discussions."
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Gotcha. Upon further review, I was mistaken in stating that if a punted ball breaks the plane of the goal line, it cannot be batted back into the playing field and downed. And yes, I also meant to suggest that the ball could be downed by a player from the kicking team (rather than the receiving team) as long as it doesn't touch the end zone and that player isn't touching the ground beyond the goal line. However, those of you who thought I wrote NBA when I meant NFL were wrong – I did in fact mean that the National Basketball Association rule on saving balls going out of bounds should apply to NFL-punt situations.
"I can never remember another instance that the 'Tuck' rule was ever applied in a game except for the playoff game with New England and Oakland. Of course I am a young 'Buck' and the 'Tuck' rule does 'Suck' but with any 'Luck' we won't get 'Stuck' with a rule that's a 'Lame Duck' that made Raider nation say … 'Yuck' (or enter or own expletive here)! I never understood that rule until you clarified it just now. Thank you, Mr. Silver. If you keep this up, I might just think you have the ability to walk on water."
"What was the point of this artical? Absolutly none of these rules take anything away from the game or give the advantage to any one player, except maybe the Tuck Rule. But we've only see it once and we probaly wont see it again for another 10 years. And the ground can cause a fumble? Thats just plain stupid. Next time you write an article, write about something that has some meaning or dont write at all."
Sounds like a plan. However, the next time I write an article, I'll do whatever I think is best, while you can go on defining (and redefining) stupid. .
"'The ground can not cause a fumble. Why? Because I said so.' WTF? That's it? Because I said so? That's your argument? Who do you think you are? Daddy. Your not daddy. You had best come up with a better argument or you need to change the number in your 'Five rules to be changed' article down to four."
Actually, I am Daddy. Now go do your English homework, son, or I'll take away your computer privileges.
"Another writer who can't understand NFL rules so therefore feels they should be changed. Another writer who has no idea how hard officiating this game can be. All the refs suck, right? Teach your kids that too and they'll forever be as ignorant as you are. Keep up the below-average work."
You disagree with my proposed rule changes, and now you're calling my kids ignorant? Daddy is very disappointed in you.
"Wow, you treated your kids to Black Sabbath! That's cool. Was it before Ozzie's show or did that spark their interest? Either way, still cool."
I turned them on to Sabbath awhile back, lest they be accused of being ignorant.
"Tell the kids nice work on the ode to the 'Iron Ref' in the Cal game. I might have suggested 'You Give Love A Bad Name' by Bon Jovi, as that ref certainly was to blame and gives the small percent of good refs a bad name. Either way, there are probably no words to make up for that kind of robbery. Hopefully, my Lady Tigers can avoid a similar fate and finally win it all. Geaux Tigers! (That was an intentional misspelling, in case you aren't familiar with Louisiana's love of 'cajun' spelling)."
Thanks for allowing me and my family to continue to harp on the worst call ever by official Amy Bonner, and sorry about that last-second defeat to Tennessee in the semis by your Bengal Tigers.
"The call against the Cal women was atrocious. Also, Gump was a huge waste of money and celluloid. Keep the great columns coming."
This is a safe haven for anyone who wants to rip that call and the official who made it, and will remain so until Joanne Boyle takes the Bears to the Final Four next year. Besides, this has been a very, very, very, very, very good week for Cal basketball.
"I would trade all the comprehensive athletic program success for one Rose Bowl, or even a Final Four. Any idea why James Montgomery decided to transfer when he appeared to have the advantage on the top spot on the depth chart going into spring due to the (Jahvid) Best injury? Any idea where he plans on going? If I was (Jeff Tedford), I would only release him from his scholarship conditional on Montgomery not enrolling in a Pac-10 school – or Stanfurd."
Santa Cruz, Calif.
I disagree. In light of recent events, specifically this one on which I've been asked to comment, why don't we deliver our former backup halfback on a red carpet to our esteemed rival and call it a swap of Montgomerys?
"I didn't even go to Cal (though about 20 of my high school friends did) and I love seeing your comments ragging on Stanford. I've loathed Stanford ever since I visited it during my freshman year of college. I hated the smugness and self-satisfaction of the students I encountered there and the campus looked like a ten-thousand acre Taco Bell. Give me the chaos and vibrance of Berkeley over the stultifying confines of Palo Alto any day."
Hey, stop insulting Taco Bell.
"Drats! I had hope that your absence was due to your being fired … alas … the egotistical and crass writing will still eminate from your acid thoughts. Oh well … many of us had such high hopes."
Tarpon Springs, Fla.
And yet you continue to check the site regularly and read my columns (rather than, say, look up the proper spelling of "emanate.") Fascinating.
"Your article about the NFL ignoring Jason Taylor and Dancing with the Stars is right on. I'm a 55-year-old cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, retired military man. I am a football, hunting and fishing fan. I get practically every sports channel offered by satellite. I also get a kick out of sitting with my wife and watching Dancing with the Stars. I think dancing may help Taylor be an even better football player. Didn't Lynn Swann take ballet lessons? Look what dancing did for him. If anything, the NFL should be encouraging the players to do anything they can to improve their footwork and agility."
Thanks for the feedback – and for defying just about every stereotype imaginable in one jam-packed paragraph. For what it's worth, I should acknowledge that the good folks over at Sirius Satellite Radio, who are among the NFL's broadcast partners, are actively promoting Taylor.
"The NFL is wise in avoid entanglements with Dancing with the Stars. I suspect the program offends the sensibilities of the average fan. Connections to it will not bring new viewers to the NFL product and alienate existing ones. If I were the NFL, I would disavow any knowledge of said program and emphasize that similar to editorials, the opinions expressed there are solely those of the participant and not representative of the NFL. I would also emphasize that the NFL does not endorse nor participate in this programming. In other words, I put this at arms length as it is likely to foment more disdain than admiration. After an 1-15 season, one would think the team and its members have more pressing issues. Although I am not a religious or vengeful man, I hope there is a special place in hell for people that promote television programs such as Dancing with the Stars and American Idol."
San Jose, Calif.
It's a good thing you didn't say 'The Bachelor,' or I'd have had to teach you about vengeance.
"Why did you waste your time with an editorial like this? The Tuna (Bill Parcells) is right! Of course he'd rather have his players in the weight room, and doing football-related activities rather than doing the Mambo. Last year's Dolphins looked like the whole team was going to dance lessons rather then preparing to win. Ha-ha. The NFL is popular enough, as you know, and it doesn't have to dedicate much more PR than it already has to stupid fly by night dance shows that appeal to soccer moms. I mean, do you think if a woman likes his dancing, and good looks, that they are going to suddenly get interested in watching the NFL regularly? Ha- ha. Come on! Stick to sports columns and let Dance Week Magazine cover dancing. Have a nice day!"
If you went through my emails, I promise you'd have a different perspective.
"Bravo! Very well written. Up until 'Dancing with the Stars' I had no clue who JT was. I am now a fan and will be watching to see if his moves on the field are as good as on the dance floor. Maybe this just needed to be brought to the attention of the NFL."
Thanks to you – and to Anita Broady from Downingtown, Pa., Judy Presley from Charleston, S.C., Kim Smith from Huntington, Ind., Ashley from Rochester, Minn., Diane from Doylestown, Pa., Maria from Hialeah, Fla., Lillian Clagett from Whittier, Calif., Ms. Ann from Missouri City, Texas, Karen from Horn Lake, Miss., Anna Robinson from North Carolina, Katie from the Midwest, Arlena from Arlington, Va., and the many other women who voiced similar sentiments. I'll leave you with one final thought from the feminine fan base …
"Your insight into the NFL not showing any acknowledgement or recognition to Jason Taylor is right on the mark. Jason has done an outstanding job on 'Dancing With the Stars' and the NFL should encourage football fans to vote for Jason. For his height and strength, he has shown that he has agility, grace, and the ability to perform not only on the football field but in other areas of life. Bill Parcells is a jackass to put it mildly. Maybe he should be a regular on 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.' That would get the attention of the NFL very quickly Go Jason … beautiful man, beautiful family also."
Coal Township, Pa.
It would get good ratings, no doubt.
- Ken Whisenhunt