Desperate times in the desert

Posted Dec. 17, 2012 @ 11:43 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

Despite a season that has turned into Cardinals Nation’s worst nightmare — an embarrassing campaign if there ever was one that was recently lowlighted by a 58-0 dismantling in Seattle that was the worst loss in franchise history — we continue to hear the departure of beleaguered head coach Ken Whisenhunt remains far from a given.

At the same time, though, with heat from a frustrated fan base also steadily on the rise after nine losses in the last 10 weeks — following a 4-0 start that it turns out could not have been more of a mirage — we also continue to hear that major changes for the Cardinals are most definitely a given.

Just how major those changes really are, though, remains to be seen.

One popular school of thought is that Whisenhunt will remain the head coach but be forced to endure a greatly reduced role in personnel input and/or significant changes to his staff, especially on offense. That Whisenhunt might find those kinds of edicts too offensive is a strong possibility, which might lead to a mutual buyout of a contract that is currently guaranteed to pay him $5.5 million in 2013. In this scenario, current GM Rod Graves likely would be reassigned to another position and highly regarded defensive coordinator Ray Horton and vice president of player personnel Steve Keim would be promoted to head coach and general manager, respectively.

A much more radical scenario being bandied about is that team president Michael Bidwill, who had been laying noticeably low before declaring the day after the debacle in Seattle that Whisenhunt would definitely keep his job the rest of the season, will opt for a full-scale housecleaning and bring in a heavyweight GM to run the organization and decide on the head coach.

“It’s a tough call,” one veteran team insider told PFW. “You could make a strong case for either one of those scenarios. There are some people who want everybody’s head right now, right down to the interns and the towel boys. Then there are others who still show their support for Whisenhunt.

“If forced to make a prediction, I’d probably lean toward Whisenhunt staying and being forced to make huge changes on the offensive side. Then again, when you lose nine in a row the way they have, you have to wonder (about a complete housecleaning).”

The ball, we hear, is solely in Bidwill’s court.

While there are many who maintain a franchise with a reputation for being frugal would have a very hard time in effect eating Whisenhunt’s salary in 2013, Bidwill already has stated that his head coach’s contract terms will not be a factor in his final decision.

He’s a pretty proud guy,” the insider said of the Cardinals’ top organizational figure. "He’s very fiery and competitive, very much unlike his laid-back dad (chairman/owner Bill Bidwill). I know what has happened can’t be sitting well with him at all. The one thing he doesn’t like is when he starts hearing people complaining about the ‘same old Cardinals.’ He really hates that.

“But he also realizes that the Cardinals have had only six non-losing seasons in the desert, and that Whisenhunt is responsible for four of them. You can’t discount what the guy has done. And really, who could they get who could realistically do any better?”

According to one pro personnel director that PFW contacted, the answer is nobody.

“Ken Whisenhunt is one of the best football coaches in the league,” the pro personnel director said, the Cardinals’ monumental collapse this season notwithstanding. “You put any coach in his situation without a quarterback or an offensive line and I don’t think they would have done any better.

“The talent is not close to where it was when they went to the Super Bowl. You can’t put their struggles this year on the head coach. If (management) feels like it needs a culture change because the players are tuning this group out, then they make the move. But I will say this — if they think they are going to find a better coach than what they have now, they are wrong. They need to make the roster a priority in the offseason — not the coaching staff.”

Close team observers agree that quarterback and offensive line are at the top of the list — not necessarily in that order.

“It does not matter who is at quarterback if they cannot protect him,” one league talent evaluator said. “That has been their biggest shortcoming. They need to invest heavily in the offensive line in the draft and free agency. The reason (rookie QB Ryan) Lindley is in there — they have to figure out the QB position now. I don’t expect (Kevin) Kolb to be back — that one decision set back the franchise more than any other. He has been an utter disappointment. If they can stabilize the QB position, they have a chance to make a run at it.”

As for Graves, PFW sources maintain that he isn’t going anywhere.

“He’s the cap and contracts guy. He’s not picking the players,” the pro personnel director said. “If anything, maybe they need to pull back some of the power of the coaches to pick the players.

“The guy who I can see assuming a bigger role in this all is Keim. He interviewed for the Rams’ gig last year. From what I understand, he wanted Jay Cutler over Matt Leinart. He wanted Adrian Peterson over Levi Brown. You need to add (elite) players to the roster. That’s where Keim can help them. He’s not a sophisticated guy that you want handling the cap. He can improve the roster and help fix the O-line.”

There is one more character in the Cardinals’ conundrum also worth delving into — Todd Haley, the Steelers offensive coordinator who excelled in the same capacity under Whisenhunt during the Cardinals’ unlikely Super Bowl run in 2008 with Kurt Warner running the show under center.

Could Haley return to the desert to replace Whisenhunt?

“I guess that could happen,” the team insider said of Haley. “Mike (Bidwill) has always liked Todd, but he also knows that Todd’s personality isn’t for everybody. There would probably be some drama if they went that route. There’s a feeling from some that Haley strung the team along this offseason when they wanted him to be the QB coach.

“But I could see him definitely at least being a candidate.”

Added the pro personnel director: “Todd Haley is cleaning up his résumé, if you ask me, if you look at what he did with the 38-year-old quarterback (Charlie Batch) on the road against Baltimore.

“(Cardinals star WR) Larry Fitzgerald is the person who matters most to the organization. He’s the highest-paid employee. Look at his production under Haley — he had his two best years of his career. He wants his coach back who brought him the most success. From what I am being told, (Haley) still has a house in Arizona. Right now, it’s the quiet before the storm. It’s fairly quiet.

“A lot of it has to do with the absolute — where do you go? Who are the better candidates?”

There is one other factor sources believe should be taken into account in any evaluation of Whisenhunt — the improved state of the NFC West.

“This division improved more than any other the last few years,” the talent evaluator told PFW. “It went from the worst division in football to the best with the addition of heavyweights like (Jim) Harbaugh, (Jeff) Fisher and (Pete) Carroll. That has not made life any easier (for the Cardinals).

“You have to put the situation in context.”