Whisenhunt raising Arizona from NFL scrap heap
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There is no truth to the rumor that Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt took time from his busy, short-week preparations for the Philadelphia Eagles game tomorrow night to be measured for a statue outside University of Phoenix Stadium.
There are no plans for a Whisenhunt statue.
Not yet, anyway.
That could change soon if the Cardinals win in Philadelphia to wrap up their first division title in 33 years. At 7-4 with a four-game lead over San Francisco in the lame NFC West Division, the Cardinals -- long the NFL's version of the Pirates -- are headed to their first winning season in a decade and just their fifth in a full season since 1975.
Forget the statue.
Maybe they should think about naming the stadium after Whisenhunt.
"We're making progress," he said this week. "It's very rewarding to see some of our players who have never been in this position finally getting a chance to enjoy winning."
Some familiar names have figured in Whisenhunt's success. Kordell Stewart, Bill Cowher, the Rooneys ...
Whisenhunt spent six seasons as a Steelers assistant, the final three as offensive coordinator. He left for Arizona after the '06 season after losing out on the Steelers' job to Mike Tomlin.
"I learned so much from the Rooneys and coach Cowher, the biggest thing probably being that honesty and fairness are what players respect the most," Whisenhunt said. "I also learned you have to stay true to your plan. You have to get your players to believe that your plan can work. We're getting there."
The Cardinals are winning a little differently than Whisenhunt had imagined. With the Steelers, he believed in a power running game and a balanced offense. But the Cardinals rank 30th in the NFL in rushing and No. 2 in passing, thanks to a monstrous season from quarterback Kurt Warner. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin are a terrific set of wide receivers.
It hasn't always been a smooth ride. This month, Whisenhunt had to deal with a trade-or-release-me request from veteran running back Edgerrin James, who lost his job to rookie Tim Hightower. The Cardinals told James thanks but no thanks. In the exhibition season, there was a quarterback controversy and a nasty public contract spat with Boldin, who wasn't thrilled the team did a four-year, $40 million deal with Fitzgerald.
Whisenhunt picked Warner, 37, over Matt Leinart, the team's No. 1 pick in the '06 draft. That's where Kordell came in. Whisenhunt remembered how Cowher went with quarterback Tommy Maddox after a slow start in the '02 season instead of Stewart, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season.
"You could just see it change the team," Whisenhunt said. "We turned that season around and went to the playoffs ...
"You make a decision that you feel is best for your football team. Kurt responded. The team responded. And I think Matt is going to be a better quarterback because he's learning what we're doing and working hard at it."
The Boldin situation led Whisenhunt to call Cowher for advice. Cowher successfully navigated through Hines Ward's contract holdout before the '05 season.
"The biggest thing is keeping a consistent message with the player," Whisenhunt said. "We recognized what was going on with Anquan and we tried to get [a new contract] done. We couldn't do it, but we made it clear we thought he was a great player and we still wanted him on our team."
Boldin has an NFL-best 11 touchdown catches.
"And we're winning," Whisenhunt said. "That makes everything easier."
Maybe Whisenhunt hasn't reached the statue stage yet, but his popularity clearly is on the rise in the desert. It helps that his Cardinals have won 10 of their 13 home games, including one very special game for him last season against the Steelers. One of the losses was Sunday to the New York Giants, 37-29, a game the Cardinals might have won if not for two Warner turnovers and two long kickoff returns by the Giants' Domenik Hixon.
"I know the fans are still a little skeptical," Whisenhunt said. "I understand that. But I think they're seeing what we're doing on the field and buying in. They understand everything isn't perfect yet, but they can see we're making progress."
As for the Steelers, well, Whisenhunt said he still is a big fan. And, yes, he still thinks about what might have been.
"Sure, I do -- when someone asks me about it. I have nothing but great memories of my time there. But I'm excited to be in Arizona. I love what we're doing here."
Whisenhunt had to go to get ready for the Eagles.
Those statue measurements are just going to have to wait.
First Published November 26, 2008 12:00 am