It's only been a matter of days since "Black Monday" and the firing of Ken Whisenhunt, and almost the entirety of his offensive staff. In the days which have followed rumors have abounded about who will take responsibility for rebuilding the Arizona Cardinals. And while it remains early days, two candidates have quickly taken the front runner positions, former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid and current Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
While Reid quickly became reporters favorite to win the job following Whisenhunt's firing, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton was considered the sure-thing beforehand.
Many suggested that Whisenhunt would only be fired if it was to make way for Horton, and there was some surprise amongst fans that Horton was not announced as Whisenhunt's replacement immediately. Since then Horton has met with the Cardinals top decision makers twice, including a lengthy second meeting sandwiched between interviews with the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills.
But with two front runners, the obvious question becomes, which one is the better choice? Join me as we break down the pros and cons of the second candidate, Ray Horton.
Horton's defense was considered by many the sole high point for the Cardinals in 2012. In just two short years, Horton has turned the Cardinals defense into one of the NFL's defensive powerhouses. The Cardinals were amongst the top performers in multiple defensive categories, in spite of spending far more time on field and taking part in far more drives than most elite defenses would be expected to.
Horton knows the Cardinals system, organization and structure very well. His second interview covered a wide range of topics, far more detailed than most outsiders would be able to offer insight into. Horton had suggestions about improvements to the buildings and facilities, and answered questions about how team President Michael Bidwell could improve as an owner. Horton clearly has insight and understanding about the Cardinals that few other coaches could match.
Similarly, while Reid is an autocrat, Horton made no secret of the fact that he is a team player, and a delegator. He is under no illusions that he has all the answers, even on the defensive side of the ball. He spoke of his desire to find the best available coaches to support him on both offense and defense. For a team in rebuilding mode, this can be critical. The Cardinals would be wise not to pin all of their hopes on a single man, and Horton appears ready to bring the right people alongside him.
Horton is known to work well with Steve Keim, whom the Cardinals wish to promote to general manager. In the past two years, Horton and Keim have shown a great knack for identifying top-tier defensive talent all throughout the draft, a major reason for the Cardinals recent defensive successes.
Furthermore, Horton appears to have the support of most of the Cardinals locker room. He is well liked by practically all of the Cardinals key players. The team have multiple core players with expiring contracts which they need to retain, and would hope extend or rework the deals of several others as well.
The Cardinals players have a relationship with Horton and Keim and are likely to trust them more than they would most outsiders. This is a major bargaining chip for the team as they hope to build on their successes and work through the failures of 2012. This is especially true for Kevin Kolb, whom Horton was very complementary of during his post-interview Q and A session. Horton wants to give Kolb the chance to succeed, but is also aware of the need to do so organically, and not force the issue.
In addition to this, Horton has the support of the majority of the Cardinals fan base. In spite of two less than impressive seasons, the Cardinals have continued to sell out every home game, a feat few other cities could easily match during such a poor run of results. This will not last forever, though.
Though other coaches may be more high profile the fan base are unlikely to be forgiving unless they are able to quickly turn around the teams fortunes. Horton, on the other hand, has proven himself over recent years, the fans are much more likely to be trusting and understanding as he takes the time to rebuild the team. The Cardinals need to rebuild, which will take time, and hiring a fan favorite is a great way to keep the base loyal and motivated during that process.
In addition, Horton has already assembled an offensive staff which many consider includes Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Turner and Horton have a long history, and the two clearly have a great mutual respect and good working relationship with one another. Their relationship started when Horton was a player in Dallas, and Turner the offensive coordinator. During that time, Turner identified Horton as a great future coaching candidate, and tapped him up to join his staff, offering him an assistant's position when Turner was made head coach in Washington.
Similarly, Horton is expected to promote his defensive coordinator from within, most likely appointing Louie Cioffi as his replacement.
Horton intimated that he expected to keep the same 3-4 zone blitz defense using the same plays and terminology the players have become familiar with. At the same time, he stated that he would not retain the DC job himself, and would delegate the position to someone else. These two things are not both possible unless Horton planned on hiring someone who already knows the system. Cioffi has clearly been groomed to take over the Cardinals defense, but it is very unclear whether anyone but Horton would give him that job.
Furthermore, Horton is a coach eager to prove himself. Unlike Reid—who will be paid a multi-million dollar salary by the Eagles in 2013 regardless of where he lands—Horton is unlikely have the financial safety net which would allow him to fail. Failure to impress in Arizona would effectively end his head coaching career before it begins, and few other candidates are likely to be as motivated to succeed as a first time head coach with limited experience.
If his desire and motivation to prove himself is a positives, it is only because his inexperience at the higher echelons necessitates this. Horton has been around the league for a long time as both player and coach. However, he has without a doubt been fast tracked down the head-coaching path in recent years.
Given the interest teams are showing him, it is easy to forget that Horton is just a two-year coordinator. Prior to that, Horton was a position coach, and only second or third in line to replace Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. Horton was considered less prepared than others like linebackers coach Keith Butler. Indeed, Horton was considered the consolation prize by many in Arizona, after the Steelers refused to allow Butler to interview with the Cardinals for the job.
Though he has more than enough knowledge and expertise to succeed as a head coach on paper, no-one has any idea if he is actually ready to make the jump yet. While Horton has lot of upside for the Cardinals, the team is in need of stability now. The team may want someone with experience which Horton simply doesn't have.
Another issue stemming from his inexperience is who will fill out the remainder of his coaching staff. With the exception of tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, the team do not currently have any other offensive coaches under contract.
Horton apparently has a staff already picked out, but as a defensive coach, with limited experience, it is hard to imagine who those coaches may be.
Horton claims that the coaching staff would come with him anywhere he lands, so one has to wonder what sort of pedigree we are talking about. Few top-tier coaches would be willing to handcuff themselves to a head coach with no experience, and with way of no knowing where he will end up. Though Norv Turner has no shortage of connections, and is likely to have helped Horton fill out his staff, even Turner is unlikely to have the draw of someone like Andy Reid.
What's more, the Cardinals have fully committed themselves to the biggest clear out of coaching and front office staff in recent memory. Though Horton has undoubtedly earned a shot at the top job, the fact remains that hiring from within somewhat flies in the face of your apparent goal of starting fresh. It is questionable whether a head coach with only two years experience as a coordinator would have the insight and vision to make the difficult choices necessary, and to avoid repeating the mistakes of his predecessor.
However, perhaps the biggest concern for the Cardinals regarding Horton may well be his desirability.
Numerous teams are hoping to interview Horton, but knowing when to pull the trigger is going to be very tough. The Cardinals would prefer to keep Horton as defensive coordinator, a role where he has proved himself, and where the Cardinals know he will continue to succeed. However judging the true level of interest in Horton is likely to be very tough for all involved.
As a black coordinator, Rooney's rule ensures that he will get calls. Horton is confident in his abilities, his plan, his interview technique and just about everything else he brings to the table, perhaps with good reason. And yet, the Cardinals clearly hope that those teams who have expressed an interest are merely doing so simply to abide by the letter of the law before hiring someone else. It's a guessing game as to whether or not the teams interest is for real, and Horton and the Cardinals are both going to have to take some gambles on how serious the other interviews are.
Act to soon, and the Cardinals risk promoting Horton unnecessarily, but guess wrongly about another teams intentions, however and the Cardinals risk losing Horton altogether. For Horton, on the other hand, wait too long, and keep stretching the process out with more and more interviews, and you risk forcing the Cardinals hand, making them hire a second choice just to ensure they have someone.
It's a cat and mouse game which, sadly, the Cardinals have not proven particularly adept at. In recent memory, the team have lost numerous players, and more than a few staff simply by letting them explore their options a little too long, or not jumping at the offers presented to the team.
Most recently, for example, the team allowed cornerback Richard Marshall to sign with the Miami Dolphins. Marshall was one of Ray Horton's defensive MVPs in 2011, but instead of extending his contract, they allowed him to interview elsewhere while they were waiting for Peyton Manning to make his decision. Marshall even gave the Cardinals multiple chances to match the Dolphins offer, but they simply didn't make the move. They guessed wrongly and paid the price.
Horton's biggest negative, may very well be the Cardinals themselves. It they are unwilling to move quickly enough, the chance to make Horton their head coach may just disappear before their eyes.
Horton represents an interesting dichotomy for the Cardinals. Well known to them in many ways, and simultaneously a complete unknown in others. Horton represents a high-risk, high-reward choice for the Cardinals, but following two disappointing seasons many wonder if the Cardinals can afford to risk another to find out.