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Whisenhunt wins by playing the right Cards

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Ken Whisenhunt played parts of six seasons in the NFL. If the memory doesn't jump out at you, it's OK. He was a fairly anonymous tight end, blocking back and special teams guy; one of those hard-nosed, versatile players coaches love to have around.

He started 43 games. He scored five career touchdowns. He once returned a squib kick 14 yards. He had his moments, only for bad teams. Playing for the Falcons of the late 1980s and the Jets of the early 1990s, Whisenhunt's teams went a combined 31-63-1 and never posted a winning season.

He was, no doubt, around a lot of bad, failed coaches.

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Whisenhunt turned to Warner early and never wavered.
(Matt York/AP Photo)

Whip-smart – he has a civil engineering degree from Georgia Tech, where he played five positions, including quarterback – he put to practice the adage that you learn something from everyone, even if it's what not to do.

If nothing kills an NFL team like coaching indecisiveness, then Whisenhunt, now the head man of the out of nowhere Arizona Cardinals, was tutored well.

A season full of bold, if admittedly controversial decisions, has led to his improbable Cardinals hosting Sunday's NFC championship game against Philadelphia. Arizona, of all teams, is one game from the Super Bowl.

"Nobody believed this," said quarterback Kurt Warner, one of Whisenhunt's most stunning, and it turns out smart, moves. "Nobody expected this."

It may hinge on the coach being about winning and only winning. Every decision he makes is based on that and that alone. If he thinks something will work, he's doing it. This shouldn't be a novel management approach, but how many bosses actually do it? How many are willing to ignore outside opinions?

"Coach Whisenhunt listens to Coach Whisenhunt," said safety Adrian Wilson. "That's it. He's strong-minded and strong-willed."

Forget learning how to win as a player; Whisenhunt learned how not to lose. Combine that with creative play-calling he demonstrated as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl team three years ago, and he's proven the perfect anecdote for one of the NFL's most historically futile franchises.

He boldly chose an aged Warner over the supposed quarterback of the future, Matt Leinart. He started Edgerrin James, then demoted him, then benched him, then refused to release him, only to start him again. He's switched game plans seemingly on the fly.

He never cared if his current move contrasted a previous move.

"We've gone through a lot and we're playing pretty good football right now and that's what's important," he said.

What's important sometimes eludes coaches. There are plenty of stick-to-your-guns, listen-to-the-media-buzz, what-does-my-owner-want coaches who are now watching Whisenhunt on TV.

Whisenhunt's decisions may have been questioned, even within the organization, all year. At least there is someone making decisions though.

Whisenhunt declared Leinart, the 25-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner, the starter during training camp. After he struggled in the preseason though, the coach turned to Warner, the 37-year-old most figured was well past his prime.

"It came down to who I think gives us the best chance to win that first game," Whisenhunt said at the time.

Warner threw for 197 yards and a touchdown against San Francisco and Arizona indeed won 23-13. Whisenhunt never bailed on him the rest of the season.

"I'm just fortunate to be in this situation, to have Coach Whisenhunt's trust," Warner said. "I don't know if any other team [it'd be] the same thing."

Dealing with Edgerrin James was a different case. The NFL's leading active rusher, James lost his starting job to rookie Tim Hightower in October and against the wishes of many in the locker room where he's popular, he carried just 11 times in the next eight games. Three of those he sat out completely. That caused him to ask the team for a release.

"I didn't want to be a dark cloud," James said. "I'm not a guy who's gonna walk around like, 'Yeah, I'm fifth on the depth chart – let's go!' "

The Cardinals refused to deal James, unconcerned about his cheerleading ability. Then when Hightower (and the Cards) began to struggle late in the season, Whisenhunt unexpectedly gave Edge his starting job back in Week 17.

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Whisenhunt receives a Gatorade shower after the wild-card win over Atlanta.
(Paul Connors/AP Photo)

Who changes the lineup in the final week? Whisenhunt claimed the same reason as Week 1, "It gives us the best chance to win the game." James ran for 100 yards and the Cards broke a two-game losing streak and entered the playoffs with a little momentum.

While James' numbers aren't as high in the playoffs (he had 57 yards Saturday), he's helped keep defenses honest and rejuvenated the locker room. Plus, Hightower has gotten better in his role.

"You want a veteran quarterback and a veteran running back in the playoffs," Wilson said. "We knew what Kurt and Edge could do."

Whisenhunt either did too or was slower to come to the decision. Maybe he's lucky, maybe he's clairvoyant. What is clear is that he isn't worried about anyone else's idea on how to best set his club up for success at that very moment. This includes his previous ideas.

The Cards finished 9-7 and went just 2-4 down the stretch. The losses were by an average of over 26 points. The victories were against lowly St. Louis and Seattle. They only got into the playoffs because the NFL mandates someone from the NFC West must. Some pundits called Arizona the worst playoff team in NFL history.

"Not a lot of people have had very many nice things to say about us or given us a chance," Whisenhunt said.

He didn't care. The Super Bowl is won on the field, not on those cheesy pregame shows. He went with what he thought would work.

Hence bringing back Edge; or installing a special play for Larry Fitzgerald at Friday's walk-thru (it went for 41 yards against Carolina); or sticking with the passing attack despite an injury to Anquan Boldin.

The Cards' dream run may end Sunday, but one thing that's certain is they won't look like the same team Philly beat 48-20 back in November.

In Whisenhunt time, that's ancient history. No matter what, he isn't standing pat.

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