January 14, 2007: The Day That Changed the Fortunes and Futures of the Steelers and Cardinals

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On January 14, 2007 the first “domino” fell in the determination of the future fates and now the current states of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals.  The Steelers’ then-Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had grown tired of the “waiting game” to see whether or not he would be named the Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers after Bill Cowher’s retirement during the 2006 offseason.  That very day Whisenhunt said yes to the Arizona Cardinals’ offer and became their Head Coach instead of holding out for the same position in Pittsburgh.  Because the Steelers are playing the Cardinals tomorrow, I have really gotten down to thinking of the ramifications of Whisenhunt’s momentous decision to leave the Steel City for Phoenix.  So for my Saturday article I will be sharing my thoughts regarding how Whisenhunt’s choice to leave Pittsburgh for Arizona has directly and indirectly affected both franchises since that mid-January day over four years ago.

Whisenhunt Began Changing the Culture of Losing in Arizona

For a guy with no Head Coaching experience, Whisenhunt sure had a tall-order when it came to building a winner for a franchise that has never been used to winning.  This was a franchise that had won exactly 1 playoff game since 1947, and had been to the playoffs once since they had moved to the Grand Canyon State in 1988.  This isn’t to say that Whisenhunt had the cupboard completely bare when he got to Phoenix though.  Ken had Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, and Edgerrin James already there, and from his years in Pittsburgh he had experience in watching a team being built the “correct way” by guys like Kevin Colbert.  Ken also had the luxury of surrounding himself with familiar yet terrific coaches.  The most notable of course is one of the other former Steeler assistants that was spurned by the franchise as well, Russ Grimm.  With Ken’s guidance the Cardinals got their acts together and have attained a measure of success during Whisenhunt’s tenure.

The proof is in the pudding when it comes to Whisenhunt’s success over the last 4+ seasons:  Whisenhunt by year two had taken one of the League’s most moribund franchises in its history to a Super Bowl, and by year three he had won back to back division titles (a feat not done by the Cardinals since 1974-1975).  Sure the Cardinals may have been on some tough times as of late, but Whisenhunt should be at least responsible for a majority of his team’s success and has done as well as any Cardinals coach since Don Coryell was in St. Louis in the 1970’s.

Made Cardinals Success Contingent Upon Kurt Warner

Unlike his predecessor Dennis Green, Whisenhunt saw potential in a veteran Hall of Fame QB that Green left rotting on the bench behind a young yet oft-injured QB from the University of Spoiled Children named Matt Leinart.  Whisenhunt could have easily started the former 1st Round pick Leinart with his large contract, but his poor play on the field, his injury-prone nature, and Warner’s overall play in shared duty enticed Whisenhunt to make an executive decision and bench the guy that Whisenhunt had not drafted and had no loyalty to.

In doing so,  Whisenhunt and his Offensive Coordinator Tood Haley were able to help revive the aging Kurt Warner’s career in Arizona and reinvigorate the gray-beard into putting up some of the best statistics of his career.  Sure Haley’s pass happy scheme may have been not as conservative as Whisenhunt would usually like to call a game, but Coach Ken at least understood his personnel (Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Anquan Boldin, etc.) and allowed Haley and Warner to properly utilize their weapons largely unencumbered.  In the 3 seasons that Warner started extensively (2007-2009), he threw 27, 30, and 26 TD passes.  In each season he threw for over 3,400 yards, and he put up an impressive 4,538 yards in their Super Bowl season of 2008.

But with all of Warner’s success, one could argue that Ken, his staff, and the franchise in general really put all their eggs into the Kurt Warner basket.  Don’t get me wrong, placing your bets on a future Hall of Famer is not stupid, it’s just when the guy is on the verge of retirement and pushing 40 where it becomes a gamble.  It has been clearly evident as to how much Warner meant to this team over the last two seasons, and how desperate the Front Office and Whisenhunt were to find a Franchise QB when the team went after Kevin Kolb in F.A..  Regardless, without Whisenhunt and his staff’s faith, Warner may never have gotten his 2nd/3rd chance to shine and lead the team to the type of success it had experienced from 2007-2009.

Grimm Leaves, Steelers’ O-Line Goes Down the Toilet, Bad Things Keep Happening

What’s lost in Whisenhunt’s leaving to Arizona and Tomlin’s hiring in Pittsburgh is the fact that another Steeler Assistant was snubbed for the Head Coaching job.  And one could argue that it was his departure that the Steelers are still feeling the effects of today.  When Hall of Fame OG and former Steelers’ Assistant Coach/O-Line Coach Russ Grimm was denied the Head Coaching job in Pittsburgh, Whisenhunt jumped at the chance and hired him to work the same positions in Arizona.  While his O-Lines have never been anything that one would call stellar, Grimm has at least molded what he has had  into a unit that most O-Line Coaches would fail with.

One the other hand, Grimm’s departure forced the Steelers to find another O-Line Coach and for lack of a better phrase, it was all downhill from there.  The F.O. ended up settling on veteran Larry Zierlein  who proved to be quite underwhelming as a coach.  Furthermore, his players and O-Line as a whole proved to be quite underachieving during his tenure (2007-2009) in Pittsburgh as well.  Sure they may have won the Super Bowl in 2008, but the Steelers’ O-Line that season was nothing short of atrocious, and how Ben during those three seasons even survived without a serious injury is nothing short of a miracle.  Moreover, Zierlein’s guys had nowhere the measure of success as they did under Grimm, and after two years of watching Sean Kugler work with Zierlein’s spare and underdeveloped parts it’s quite obvious that his 3 years in Pittsburgh coupled with Grimm’s departure could have set the Steelers’ O-Line as a unit back 5-7 years.

Add in future Hall of Famer Alan Faneca’s departure in F.A. in the 2007 offseason, Jeff Hartings’ retirement, Kendall Simmons’ career ending injury in 2008, the Sean Mahan and Justin Hartwig experiments, and the fact that Willie Colon has been allowed to start for seasons on end, it really has been a complete and total dumpster fire along the Steelers’ O-Line since Grimm left.  Thus, Grimm’s departure may not have had everything to do with the Steelers’ O-Line going down the tubes, but it sure as hell didn’t help and didn’t reap any positive rewards in terms of player development or overall performance that were almost non-existent during the Zierlein regime.