Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Search: Where Do Cardinals Stand Heading Into Second Weekend?

on January 12 2013 1:04 PM
Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Search: Where Do Cardinals Stand Heading Into Second Weekend?

The Arizona Cardinals have entered their second weekend since the firing of former head coach Ken Whisenhunt and virtually all of his offensive staff. Since then, there has been no shortage of speculation about who will take over as head coach, several confirmed interviews and multiple others reported, but the team, it would seem, remain no closer to making their final decision. Many fans have praised the team for not rushing headlong into a poor decision, and taking their time to do what team president Michael Bidwell would call his "due diligence".

Nonetheless, as time drags on, fans have been forced to watch as potential head coach targets have been snapped up, and assistants rumored to  fill out the Cardinals staff have been signed elsewhere. Some are now starting to hope that maybe the team is close to making a final decision, and ready to get on with the tough task of filling out the remainder of the offensive coaching staff. Certainly, the team have no shortage of qualified candidates available, so today, we look at each of those who remain in the running.

Ray Horton - Defensive Coordinator. Arizona Cardinals 

Horton was the first candidate interviewed by the team almost immediately following Whisenhunt's firing. This was followed this up with a lengthy second interview before any other candidate had been met. This lead many to believe that the Cardinals had already found their man, and all else was formalities.

Horton was hotly pursued by multiple other teams, including interviews with the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills where he was considered one of their final candidates. Early rumors indicated that the team would continue to do their "due diligence" interviewing other candidates but were confident enough in Horton, and the plan that he had put together for the team to offer him the job the moment they got wind of another teams intentions to hire him.

However, as the days have ticked by, and the Bills and Browns have both filled their head coaching positions, some have begun to wonder if the Cardinals are not now ready to merely keep Horton as their defensive coordinator and hire a more offensively minded head coach.

Indeed, in recent days Norv Turner, whom Horton had reportedly reached out and asked to fill his offensive coordinators role, has been hired by the Cleveland Browns, according to reports. This perhaps indicates that Horton has informed Turner that he knows he is no longer in the running for a head coaching job, and encouraged him to look elsewhere.

Worse still, much of the groundwork laid by Horton on defense in advance of his promotion to head coach also appears to be unraveling. This may be yet another sign that those in the know seem resigned to the fact that Horton will not be getting the promotion.

When Horton was hired as defensive coordinator, he brought with him two outside coaches; Louie Cioffi as defensive backs coach, and Deshea Townsend as assistant DB coach. The logic was clear. If Horton was promoted, Cioffi could be named defensive coordinator with Townsend taking over as defensive backs coach. Instead, however, Townsend has chosen to accept a position as cornerback coach for MSU, a promotion from his current position, but significant step down from the DB coach of an NFL team, if he was confident of Horton and Cioffi getting promotions. The writing may, it seems, be on the wall for Horton, in terms of a head coaching gig in 2013.

That said, it is still far too early for anyone to rule out his promotion yet. Rumors that Turner was Horton's named offensive coordinator remain just that, as are any suggestions that Cioffi was Horton's automatic successor at defensive coordinator. Several other tantalizing prospects at either position remain in play, both internally and externally. These include Ron Aiken or Matt Raich, both of whom have been instrumental in implementing the most successful parts of Horton's defensive plan—as defensive line and linebacker coaches respectively—being promoted to DC and recently fired Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Mile Murlarkey as a possible offensive coordinator, who like Horton, cut his teeth in Pittsburgh's system. Arizona, often sarcastically called Pittsburgh west, would certainly be a logical landing spot for the former Steeler.

Similarly, while some expect that others may now be leading candidates ahead of Horton, the fact remains that multiple teams remain without head coaches, and may beat the Cardinals to their other candidates, or indeed express an interest in Horton himself. If the Cardinals were confident enough to promote Horton in before, there is no reason to expect that they would not be willing to do the same now. Horton to my mind, remains in their back pocket, ready to play if and when it becomes required, and still stands a very good chance of landing the job.

Mike McCoy - Offensive Coordinator. Denver Broncos

McCoy was the second candidate interviewed by the Cardinals during his teams Bye week in the playoffs. It's easy to see why the team would be interested in McCoy, who is known as a quarterback wizard. In 2011 McCoy helped lead the Denver Broncos to the playoffs with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow under center.

In 2012, he helped bring Peyton Manning to Mile High, and helped build a successful offense around a quarterback who didn't take a single snap the previous year; A quarterback who had been called "noodle armed" and "past it" by several who observed him during the off season. The Bronco's are amongst the favorites to win the Super Bowl this year, and that is in no small part due to McCoy.

However, while McCoy is known as a QB guy, the performance he gets out of running backs is largely overlooked. Nonetheless, in 2011 the Broncos were the best rushing team in the NFL with Tebow and Willis McGahee, who had previously been languishing as a backup in Baltimore behind Ray Rice. Even with Manning's areal game, the Bronco's running game has been a key part of their success in 2012 as well.

With consistency at quarterback and a reliable running game the Cardinals biggest weaknesses on offense, it is impossible not to be a little excited by the prospect that McCoy brings to the table.

McCoy is a student of successful coaches like George Seifert and John Fox, and is known for his flexible approach.

A student of John Fox's power run offense, McCoy's preference is well known. However, while recent Cardinals coaches have struggled to force their quarterbacks and running backs into their scheme, McCoy has shown a recent propensity towards adjusting his scheme to match the skill set of his players. Orton's Broncos had a very different feel to Tebow's, which in turn bares almost no resemblance to Manning's. Yet, all three have had a measure of success beyond that which was expected of them, and in two cases, beyond anything that other coaches have been able to coax out of them.

Perhaps the biggest concern about McCoy, of course, is his success. Until the Broncos are eliminated from contention in the playoffs, McCoy is strictly off limits for the Cardinals, and any other teams who may be interested in him.

Multiple teams remain interested in McCoy's services. He interviewed with the Cardinals, Chicago Bears, and Philadelphia Eagles, none of which have appointed a head coach yet. He is reportedly on the list of possible candidates for the San Diego Chargers vacant position, and may come into play for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who entered the race for a new head coach on Friday.

Though the Cardinals may believe that they have Horton as a fallback plan no matter what else may happen, but if the Broncos playoff run stretches into February, as many believe it may, the team may not be willing to wait. As other teams appoint head coaches, they will in turn begin to fill out their coaching staff. The Cardinals could be forced to watch as they lose viable offensive coordinator and assistant coaching targets, and still run the risk of not winning McCoy.

Depending on the Broncos success in the playoffs, don't be surprised to see the Cardinals cut their losses with McCoy sooner than later, and move onto other candidates, especially if it seems likely that multiple other teams have tagged him as their number one target. The Miami Dolphins tried a similar tack with Jeff Fisher following the 2011 season, with largely disappointing results.

Todd Haley - Offensive Coordinator. Pittsburgh Steelers 

Todd Haley occupies a unique position in this race; though he is clearly a front runner at present, officially, at least, he is not even actually running.

Haley is the only current candidate with NFL head coaching experience. He has strong links to the Bidwell family and many of the Cardinals current players, and finds himself in the tough position of not really being wanted by most of the fan base of his current team. What's more, in spite of not working for the Cardinals since 2008, when he helped lead the team to a Super Bowl appearance, Haley still maintains a home in the Phoenix area.

That Haley would be a leading, if not the leading candidate for the Cardinals head coaching job seems like a no brainer.

Haley was one of the first coaches the Cardinals approached about the job. They requested, and were granted permission to interview Haley back on January 3, but since then the news has been nothing but conflicting and unclear.

Some reliable sources said that Haley was very interested in the Cardinals job, while almost simultaneously, other equally trustworthy sources claimed that he was very happy with the Steelers and had no interest in being a head coach.

Later, NFL.com quoted reliable sources which said that Haley had declined to interview the Cardinals, and his agent confirmed twice and on the record that no interview was scheduled, which seemed to settle the matter. Except at the same time, reliable sources of well respected local news men, indicated that Haley was, in fact, in Arizona to interview for the job. This was quickly confirmed by Steelers president Art Rooney II. And so it continued. Dependable sources flat-out contradicting one another.

Whether Haley has interviewed or not remains a mystery. But assuming for a moment that he has—as I am inclined to believe, along which most local Cardinals reporters—then Haley is in with a very good shot at the job.

Haley was successful in his first year in Kansas City, taking sub-par offensive weapons like Matt Cassel to the Pro Bowl following his 2010 season, and helped establish Jamaal Charles as one of the most productive rushers in the NFL.

A disciplinarian, he is almost the polar opposite of outgoing head coach Ken Whisenhunt in many ways. Yet this is often the way things go in the NFL. Dictators are brought in to whip teams into shape, and may have a level of success, until the players revolt. Likable players coaches (like Whisenhunt) are brought in to steady the ship, and achieve success because of the fun atmosphere, until the players become complacent, at which point they are replaced, generally by disciplinarians.

Drill sergeant though he may be, Haley has more than his fair share of admirers on the Cardinals roster. Chief amongst them is Larry Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald quickly points people towards Haley when asked about those coaches who helped him most. Haley, in return, was there to introduce Larry Fitzgerald into the NFL top 100 players in 2011. When the Cardinals met Haley's Kansas City Chiefs in 2010, Fitzgerald had the following to say about his former coordinator. "I think Todd is a great coach. He’s fun to play for. Everybody says he’s a hard ass and this, that and the third, but at the end of the day when Todd came in the locker room he’d give you the biggest hug."

Fitzgerald's career has struggled in recent years, along with the Cardinals entire offense and the chance of reuniting with a coach like Haley may be just what the doctor ordered.

If—and it's a big one, I'll grant you—that is, Haley is interested in the job at all. After all, the Cardinals have generally been quite open about their process so far, and this confusion seems quite out of place in many ways.

Jay Gruden - Offensive Coordinator. Cincinnati Bengals

Many had hoped that the Cardinals would land a Gruden in 2013, but most expected it to be Jon, not his younger brother Jay.

Jon has not coached at any level or in any capacity since being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008—with the possible exception of a voluntary position at the tiny Carrollwood Day High School. Since 2009, he has served as the color commentator for ESPN's Monday Night Football, and clearly still knows his stuff. Many expected him to return to head coaching in 2013, and for the Arizona Cardinals to be a logical landing spot.

Yet while Jon appears set to remain in the broadcasting booth, there is undeniably something about his brother Jay which is just as appealing to the team, if not more so.

While Jay has been a head coach before, it has only been at an Arena Football level. And though the Cardinals have some success with former lower league stand-outs—Kurt Warner got his break in the AFL and Paris Lenon started in the XFL for example—this is unlikely to be what got the team buzzing about Gruden.

No, that would be his recent success as offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. In recent years, Gruden's approach to quarterback development has helped turn the Bengals into a legitimate offensive threat. While the Cardinals have started no fewer than four quarterbacks since 2011, the Bengals have shown much more patience, and had much more success riding rookie Andy Dalton.

To be clear, Dalton is not really a franchise quarterback. In spite of some good performances, he has had some unbelievably poor games and has, at times, single handedly cost his team wins, including in both of the playoff games in his career. 

Yet while the Cardinals were changing quarterbacks at the drop of a hat, Gruden's Bengals have stuck with Dalton no matter what, and reaped the rewards. Dalton was a second round rookie pick who most considered would take at least a year on the sidelines to learn the ropes and develop into an NFL caliber player, but Gruden managed to turn him into a day one starter. Most questioned his arm strength and ability to stretch the field, yet, alongside AJ Green, this has been one of his greatest strengths.

To be fair, Gruden was not considered by many to be a front runner for the Cardinals head coach position, and yet, following his post-interview media briefing may have a better chance than most would have believed.

Horton's briefing was very positive and up beat, but was completely informal, taking place in the car park after his second interview. McCoy, who still has a job to do in Denver, was understandably coy about his prospects, spoke as a man unconvinced about whether he would make the jump to head coach at all, and has seemed thoroughly apathetic about some of the interviews he had to that point. As for Haley, to this point neither Haley or the Cardinals has even admitted to an interview, let alone spoken formally to the press about it. In comparison, Gruden was paraded before local media, Arizona Cardinals insignia draped behind him, in a taped interview since published on the Arizona Cardinals website.

While not unheard of for an unannounced head coach to be introduced to the local media in this way, it is certainly uncommon for a candidate not even in serious consideration. The Cardinals are clearly much more interested in Gruden than many initially assumed. He is, however, a hotly pursued candidate with meetings scheduled in Philadelphia and San Diego, and like McCoy, the Cardinals could face an extended waiting game which they have no guarantee of coming out on top of, if they are not careful.

Other Considerations.

Though only thee interviews have been confirmed by the team, with a fourth apparently confirmed by the Steelers owner, anyone hoping for insights into the Cardinals decision making process faces a difficult problem.

Specifically, the issue for onlookers is that team president Michael Bidwell is a trained lawyer, has a private pilots license and owns a private jet. This allows him to operate very much under the radar if he wants or needs to. Many meetings could have been scheduled with coaches, with Bidwell and newly announced general manager Steve Keim flying out, meeting with the candidate and returning to Arizona with virtually no paper trail for anyone to follow.

If he likes someone, his legal training would allow him to hammer out much of the specific language of the contract, and agree to a deal in principal right there and then. It's impossible to know how many informal meetings have taken place like this, nor how many have grown to become full interviews and serious candidates.

Many current college coaches or assistants may be hesitant to announce their interviews until they are confident that they have the job for fear of alienating their current employers, especially as the Cardinals are still viewed by many as a second-tier franchise. 

Still others—like Jon Gruden—who have moved on from coaching positions, may be willing to interview privately for selected positions, but would prefer not to put themselves back on the open market.

Furthermore, the Cardinals may wish to keep certain things quiet for fear of tipping off other teams to certain candidates availability. Several teams seem to be looking for very similar things to the Cardinals in their head coaching candidates. If the Cardinals have found someone unexpected, it may be in their best interests to keep that under wraps to increase their chances of landing them.

While Horton, Haley, Gruden and McCoy seem to be the favorites right now, don't be surprised if someone else comes out of the woodworks, and is announced as head coach in very quick succession.