Whisenhunt sacrificed ego to hide bag of tricks

Follow Michael Silver at Mogotxt and Twitter.

Unlike some of his egomaniacal peers, Ken Whisenhunt doesn’t seem to possess a desperate need to receive credit for his team’s success. But the Cardinals’ third-year coach – and the only one to have taken the franchise to a Super Bowl – is as intensely competitive as anyone in the business, and his shrewd approach to preparing for the Green Bay Packers is a major reason his team is headed to New Orleans for Saturday’s divisional-round playoff game against the Saints.

Whisenhunt is now 4-1 in the postseason with the Cards.
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

As brilliant as quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) was in Sunday’s epic, 51-45 overtime victory over the Packers, Arizona’s offensive outpouring had Whisenhunt’s fingerprints all over it. And the great thing was, he set it up by shutting down his team’s attack in the previous week’s regular-season finale against Green Bay, resisting the urge to follow the increasingly popular notion that momentum is essential to a team’s playoff prosperity.

“I think we kind of shot that theory down,” Whisenhunt declared as he stood in the locker room long after Sunday’s game.

Whereas Packers coach Mike McCarthy felt it was important for his team to keep its edge going into the playoffs regardless of the circumstances – and that may, in fact, have been the right approach for Green Bay – retaining a strategic advantage for a potential rematch with the Pack was a priority for Whisenhunt. As a result he crafted two very different game plans for the Jan. 3 game against McCarthy’s team, one relatively bold and the other incredibly bland, and waited to see how things would play out.

Shortly before kickoff, Whisenhunt determined that the Vikings were headed for a victory over the Giants, eliminating the Cardinals from contention for a first-round bye and ensuring that there’d be a rematch with the Pack the following Sunday. He thus settled on the bland blueprint, which was designed to a) reveal as little as possible to the Packers and b) on select occasions, flash some formations the team planned to use in the rematch as a means of confirming how Green Bay was likely to defend them. Specifically, Whisenhunt wanted to see how the Packers, who would finish the regular season as the NFL’s second-ranked defense, would try to match up against Arizona’s three-receiver sets, some of which would include tight end Ben Patrick(notes) split wide as a de facto slot receiver.

The result was that the Cards, who also rested Warner and other starters for part of the game, were essentially impotent in a 33-7 Packers victory, provoking a lot of criticism about Whisenhunt’s approach and creating the perception that the Cards were headed for a fall. A lot of bettors certainly believed so: After opening as 2 ½-point favorites for Sunday’s rematch, Arizona – with the injury-related absence of star wideout Anquan Boldin(notes) likely playing a role – was a 2½-point underdog by kickoff.

Whisenhunt, however, was supremely confident that the Cardinals would move the ball on the ground and through the air.

“We had a very good plan,” he said Sunday. “We mixed things up and were able to have some success with the run game, and there’s no question that helped open up the passing game.”

The Cardinals gashed the league’s top-ranked run defense for 156 yards – the most the Packers had given up on the ground all season – on 23 carries, with rookie halfback Beanie Wells(notes) gaining 91 and wideout Steve Breaston(notes) picking up 28 on a reverse. Massive defensive linemen Darnell Dockett(notes) and Gabe Watson(notes) lined up as blocking backs on Tim Hightower’s(notes) 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, a wrinkle that no one saw coming. (“Let’s keep that on the hush,” Dockett said.)

Breaston caught seven passes for 125 yards and one touchdown against the Packers.
(Matt York/AP Photo)

Meanwhile, Patrick caught three passes for 42 yards, while Breaston (seven for 125, one TD), Larry Fitzgerald(notes) (six for 82, two TDs) and Early Doucet(notes) (six for 77, two TDs) thrived in two- and three-receiver formations.

By game’s end the Cardinals had gained 531 total yards and scored touchdowns on six of 10 possessions, punting just once. The most amazing stat of all: Arizona ran 57 offensive plays but only faced third down on five occasions, converting on three of them.

“I don’t think enough credit was given to Coach Whisenhunt, [run game coordinator] Russ Grimm and [passing game coordinator] Mike Miller,” Fitzgerald said afterward. “We saw some things we could capitalize on, and they put in a great game plan during the week. Great coaching trickles down to great players.”

Now all Whisenhunt has to do is turn around and come up with a similarly brainy plan for attacking the top-seeded Saints, whose coaches had 14 days to prepare to only six for Whisenhunt and his assistants. Suffice it to say that he’s not daunted by the challenge.

“When you’ve got a guy pulling the trigger like No. 13,” Whisenhunt said of Warner, “it’s a lot easier to come up with things that work.”

It’s also easier to come up with a weighted list of high-quality queries when only eight Super Bowl contenders remain, though it’s hard to keep putting a team that’s playing as well as the Jets at the bottom:

1. San Diego Chargers: Doesn’t Sunday’s clash against the Jets seem like a Darren Sproles(notes) kind of game – and if it turns out I’m right, will he come out with a slick dance video like his more celebrated running mate?

2. Indianapolis Colts: Does any NFL player take as many ferocious hits as Dallas Clark(notes), and with the Ravens coming to Indy, how insanely sore will the Pro Bowl tight end be when he wakes up on Sunday morning?

3. New Orleans Saints: Will Reggie Bush(notes) hoist the Lombardi Trophy and be forced to return his Heisman in the same calendar year?

4. Dallas Cowboys: How much does Anthony Spencer(notes) benefit from the attention offenses must pay fellow linebacker DeMarcus Ware(notes) – or is his success simply a function of his own excellence?

5. Arizona Cardinals: How much money did Karlos Dansby(notes) make off his performance against the Packers – and, though it’s not fair, did the opposite happen to Boldin?

6. Minnesota Vikings: When Percy Harvin(notes) watches recent film of the Cowboys’ defense, what are the odds the rookie standout will feel a migraine coming on?

7. Baltimore Ravens: Can the most feared defensive player of his era outduel the most prolific offensive player of his era – and if so, will Ray Lewis(notes) be even more valuable than Peyton Manning(notes)?

8. New York Jets: Is exploiting the absence of Chargers nose tackle Jamal Williams(notes) (the way previous San Diego opponents should have) included in Rex Ryan’s ambitious playoff itinerary?

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 12, 2010