It has been another season many in the Arizona Cardinals organization would prefer to forget. In many ways, the team's final loss of 2012 mirrored the entirety of their season—early promise on defense masking the teams offensive ineptitude, before the wheels finally come off as the game and season dragged on.
Their to say that their 5-11 record is about right, though a huge disappointment for a defense with as many positives as the Cardinals, is in fact generous for a team who started four different quarterbacks, and failed to get Larry Fitzgerald more than 800 yards for the first time since his rookie season. To put things in perspective, even with Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton at quarterback in 2010, Fitzgerald was able to post 1,137.
Though the season may be over, the fallout is only just beginning. In the coming days and weeks, the Cardinals have no shortage of tough decisions to make, but all of those start now, with the dreaded black Monday, and the inevitable coaching and front office changes which follow.
A trip to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history will buy a head coach a lot of leeway in the NFL, but two fourth place finishes in three years in the NFC West, and an 18-30 record since the retirement of Kurt Warner, has even head coach Ken Whisenhunt's staunchest defenders questioning his decision making.
Whisenhunt has not been entirely unsuccessful during his tenure, helping turn around the Cardinals defense in recent years, and nurturing a great atmosphere in Arizona, but his talent evaluation, especially at quarterback and offensive line, has been truly abysmal.
And while position coaches and coordinators—especially Mike Miller, their offensive coordinator, and Russ Grimm, the offensive line coach—have to accept their fair share of the blame, the fact remains that Whishenhunt maintains final say in all coaching and personnel decisions, and must take ultimate responsibility.
Many would be inclined to make other changes—replace Grimm, Miller and perhaps other position coaches—and give Whisenhunt another chance, perhaps with reduced authority. They would argue that it us unfair to judge him on this season's performance when injuries have played such a huge role in the Cardinals failures.
And in different circumstances, I would be inclined to agree. But the reality is, the Cardinals are not only deciding whether to give Whisenhunt another shot, but are instead deciding between Whisenhunt, and Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton. The consensus is, that unless the Cardinals promote Horton, they will lose him—with some rumors no fewer than three teams have already enquired about his services. The Cardinals it seems, can have either Whisenhunt, or Horton, but likely not both.
Horton's defense has been the lone bright spot for the Cardinals this season, and losing him may be a blow right to the heart of this Cardinals franchise perhaps for years to come. Horton has done his job these past few years, and earned the right to have a shot at the top job, Whisenhunt, sadly has not, and the decision should be simple.
The same goes for general manager Rod Graves. While Graves has certainly been a loyal servant to the team, and many within the organization—though few outside—may wish to give him another shot, the fact remains that his recent record, especially during the draft has not been good.
As with Whisenhunt, keeping Graves as GM would mean losing Steve Keim and Jason Licht, two of the cornerstones of the Cardinals front office, to other teams. Licht is apparently in line to interview for the Jacksonville Jaguars soon-to-be-vacant GM job, with Keim a top contender for the GM spot in Cleveland amongst others, if the Cardinals do not promote him.
The simple reality is, Whisenhunt, Miller, Grimm, and likely some offensive position coaches, all need to go. Graves needs to be reassigned to cap management, where he excels, and Keim promoted to GM, while retaining his current responsibilities.
But this, obviously, leaves some big holes to fill.
Ray Horton's promotion would leave the Cardinals without a dedicated defensive coordinator. Had Whisenhunt been fired during the season Horton been tagged as interim head coach for the final games , the Cardinals could have used that time to evaluate whether he could have pulled double duty as head coach and DC, as Whisenhunt did offensively before him. But without that opportunity to evaluate him, you have to assume that the Cardinals cannot gamble away another season, and must appoint a defensive coordinator.
Horton may choose to promote from within, with Louie Cioffi the top possibility.
Cioffi was hand picked to coach defensive backs when Horton was announced as defensive coordinator, and has done wonders with Patrick Peterson and the Cardinals secondary since joining the team. Cioffi seems to have been groomed to eventually take over as a DC, with Deshea Townsend hired at the same time to assist, and seemingly, replace, Cioffi if and when he makes the jump. Cioffi knows the system and the playbook from his past two years in Arizona and clearly has a rapport with Horton from their time together in Cincinnati, so would likely be a plug-and-play replacement.
However, with at least one defensively minded head coach—namely Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel—already fired, the Cardinals may yet do well to look outside of the organization.
As for the offensive coordinators job, the Cardinals have no choice but to look outside, and aggressively pursue a proven, or high profile coordinator.
Recent internal promotions have failed to impress, and no-one currently under contract on the offensive coaching staff has done a good enough job to feel secure in their continued employment, let alone hope for a promotion.
Norv Turner, who is all but guaranteed to be released by the San Diego Chargers, has already expressed a willingness and perhaps even resignation that he will have to take a step back, and accept an offensive coordinators job. Turner is a realist, who has been in this situation before. In 2005 Turner was fired as the Oakland Raiders head coach, and in 2006 accepted a job as offensive coordinator for the struggling San Francisco 49ers before being hired by the Chargers. Prior to that, Turner was head coach in Washington, before taking coordinators jobs in San Diego and Miami.
Turner is unlikely to step straight into a head coaching position, and given his age, it is not even clear if he would want the top job again if offered. The Cardinals are the sort of team Turner could really stamp his identity on, especially with a defensively minded head coach. If, as many suspect, the Cardinals pursue 49ers quarterback Alex Smith when, as many expect, he is released following the 49ers post-season run, then this is only an added bonus for someone like Turner, who worked extensively with Smith in 2006 in San Francisco.
Another option may be former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who may be forced out of Pittsburgh following a less than impressive first season as offensive coordinator. Haley has expressed his desire to remain in Pittsburgh, and expressed his preference for coordinating over the head coaches job. Still, high profile clashes with Ben Roethlisberger, and something of a fan revolt against Haley may be enough to force the franchise's hand, and show Haley the door. If they do, Haley may be convinced to return to the role in which he last helped lead a team to the Super Bowl—the Cardinals offensive coordinator job. Haley was reportedly interested in the position last season, but the Cardinals were unwilling to demote Miller, and offered him only a position coaches job instead. If available, the team would do well not to make the same mistake twice.
A final option may be former Cardinals quarterback and current NFL Network announcer Kurt Warner.
Warner has expressed a great deal of hesitance about coaching in the NFL, saying that he is happy with his current schedule which allows him to keep in touch with the game, while also spending time with his young family.
Nonetheless, Warner keeps a home in the Phoenix area, and if the right offer came along, could be tempted. Some would argue that going from player, to analyst, to offensive coordinator is a huge leap, and would expect a coach to earn his stripes as an assistant or position coach first. But the fact remains, during his tenure in Arizona, Warner effectively handled play-calling during the latter part of his career, and it was no secret that his fingerprints were all over the design of the plays and the playbook—one which incidentally remains largely unchanged since his time in spite of two changes at offensive coordinator and seven different starting quarterbacks.
While Warner would undoubtedly be a huge risk, and hiring him would undoubtedly be a huge sell, the return of Kurt Warner to the Arizona Cardinals in any capacity may well just be enough to keep the team, and it's fan base, from falling apart at the seams.