There is no question that it was a bad day at the office for Arizona Cardinals Ken Whisenhunt during his teams humiliating 7-loss to the New York Jets Sunday afternoon. It's certainly not the first time that the Cardinals have struggled under Whisenhunt. The question remains, however, whether it will be his last.
Without a doubt, in recent years, Whisenhunt has brought a level of credibility to a Cardinals franchise which has traditionally been the perennial laughing stock of the NFL. But their now eight game losing streak may just be the proverbial straw which breaks the camels back. History often counts for a lot in the NFL but the sad reality is that when it comes to continuing employment for head coaches, current form is all that matters.
The Cardinals playoff hopes are now effectively nonexistent, and continuing improvements in St. Louis and Seattle mean a last place NFC West finish seems more assured with each passing week.
Against the Jets, Whisenhunt looked like a man who knew he was beat, who's was no longer playing for the good of the team, but instead despirately clinging to his own job, staking his own future on a fools bet he just couldn't walk away from.
It was as if he had pinned his entire future on the miraculous emergence of Ryan Lindlay, and couldn't back down from that position. The reality is, John Skelton could—though, to be fair, not necessarily would—have won against that Jets defense, but wasn't given the chance.
Lindlay, whatever his future may hold, was having a no success, and it became apparent, even before the close of the first half that he was never going to get the job done. Yet Whisenhunt seemed to believe that replacing him with Skelton would be like admitting his own defeat, even if it resulted in a win for the team, and defiantly refused to do so.
Against the Jets, Whisenhunt crossed a line, putting his own career ahead of the success—both long and short term—of the team, and any coach who does that simply has to go.
Now, don't misunderstand me here. I'm not opposed to riding a young QB with upside and allowing him to prove himself when the season is out of reach. Nor am I opposed to acknowledging your season is over, and committing to future growth, even if that means effectively tanking the season to increase your draft position—not necessarily deliberately losing games, but having fun, taking risks, giving youngsters chances, and playing not solely, or even primarily for wins any more. Indeed, I've advocated for both in recent years.
But at 5-7 the season would not have been beyond rescue, however lucky the team would have had to be to do so. As we know, late surges are not beyond the realms of possibility for this Cardinals team and in a tight NFC, a win would have kept the team in the hunt for a miracle wildcard spot.
Decisive action by the Cardinals organization is now a must. Whisenhunt made his bed, and now he must lay in it. Some would cite his history, his character and attitude as reason enough to give him another chance, to let him finish the season before making any decisions.
But as I've already written, doing so increases the chance that the team lose defensive coordinator Ray Horton who's unit forced another 4 turnovers against the Jets and gave the offense every chance to win once more.
Severing ties with Whisenhunt allows the Cardinals to name Horton as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Horton has been very impressive as defensive coordinator, and is clearly on a trajectory towards head coach status, but is currently completely unproven in the role.
Ideally, the team would want to see Horton pulling double duty, retaining his role as defensive coordinator while adding the head coach job to his résumé. However this is not guaranteed to result in success, as the Kansas City Chiefs recently discovered when head coach Romeo Crennel was faced with the unenviable task of firing himself from his role as defensive coordinator.
Allowing Horton the chance to fill both roles for the remaining four games of the season allows the Cardinals to get a feel for what he can offer.
If he is successful in both roles, the Cardinals can enter next season unified around their new coach, if he struggles to keep both roles balanced, the organization can focus their efforts on filling his staff with people who support him best, and if he proves not yet to be head coach material, the Cardinals will have the chance to find someone who is, while simultaneously keeping Horton as defensive coordinator for a little longer. It's really a win-win situation.
By keeping Whisenhunt around until the close of the season, on the other hand, the Cardinals force themselves in a nearly impossible situation.
Not only do they run the risk of losing Horton to other, perhaps better, suitors, but even if they manage to keep him, they will be starting 2013 with an unproven head coach, with no idea if he has the nous to pull handle the dual role of head coach and defensive coordinator.
Hire a new coordinator unnecessarily, and you risk breaking the successful dynamic of the team, but fail to do so if needed, and you lose not only another season, but also risk crushing a bright young head coaching prospect in the process.
To be clear, I take no joy in writing this. Whisenhunt has been a model of professionalism on a team which had sorely lacked it for several years before he arrived. He is the sort of coach who players, fans and the press alike all respect and admire.
In a sport too often filled with divas, Whisenhunt never showed even an ounce of it, and expected the same from his players. He took players like with off field issues, bad reputations and poor attitudes and pushed them until they became true role models, on and off the field.
Take Kerry Rhodes as a prime example. Called "Hollywood" and "selfish" by Jets coach Rex Ryan after his departure from New York, Rhodes is now one of the Cardinals better players on field, recording two interceptions and a forced fumble on Sunday. A selfish Hollywood type would have more than enough to engage Ryan with in a post game war of words, if he wanted to. Instead, he dwelt only on team.
“I played well in front of my family and friends ... that part was good,” said Rhodes “Like I said, we lost the game. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter about personal accolades.”
This will, of course come as no surprise at all to Cardinals fans. Whisenhunt has always demanded nothing less, and his players have always responded.
Whisenhunt has lead the Cardinals to their only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, their only division and conference titles in Arizona. He will be missed in Arizona, without a shadow of a doubt.
Whisenhunt has changed the culture in Arizona, and should be thanked for that. But a change of culture will only get you so far. The Cardinals must continue to move forward. Their culture is fixed, now they must change their fortunes.
And sadly, Whisenhunt doesn't seem like the right man for that particular job.