Cardinals fan (Chris Graythen/Getty)
The Arizona Cardinals overcame 19 unanswered points by the Eagles in the second half to reach the Super Bowl, 32-25. The waterworks came before the final whistle was blown when long-tenured players like Adrian Wilson and team heroes like Larry Fitzgerald realized they proved everyone wrong with hard work and pure talent. Arizona's bumpy journey but constant confidence takes them to Tampa Bay.
The Arizona Cardinals never stopped believing in their quest to win the division and the conference. Now they have bigger fish to fry, as they prepare for the biggest test of their individual lives and of the franchise’s existence.
Skeptics had a difficult time believing that the Cardinals were putting their culture of losing in the past.
The Cardinals haven’t fit the saying, “same old Cardinals” in some time. They played their best football in January after suffering a late season slump. But the organization as a whole changed the minute Ken Whisenhunt took charge.
Whisenhunt came in with a plan. Not everyone bought into his ideas at first, but he successfully changed opinions and the proof is in the pudding. Whisenhunt and his stellar lineup are headed to the Super Bowl, where they will face either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens.
Several of Whisenhunt’s main coaching attributes led to the Cardinals success. After leading the league in penalties last year, he started to bench players who gave away unnecessary yardage due to stupid mistakes.
Whisenhunt was bold in several of his less popular decisions. Performers would play and non-performers would get quality bench time. The conclusion to bench Edgerrin James in week nine and go with rookie running back Tim Hightower, who at that point in the season already posted six touchdowns, could be the most prophetic of Whisenhunt’s career.
Hightower eventually suffered a rookie decline by the end of the season, which allowed James to go into the postseason with fresh legs. James’ performance helped the Cardinals get an impressive pass-rush ratio. He assisted in setting up the pass, and James’ all-around showing was like James of yester year.
The rookie Hightower wasn’t completely out of the equation. He pulled out a huge first down for the Cardinals in the NFC Championship game and an even bigger touchdown that the put the Cardinals back in the driver’s seat over the Eagles on Sunday.
But probably the most effective choices by Whisenhunt was to surround himself with quality coaches from his past. Whisenhunt's ties with the rest of the coaches runs deep. He trusts them, and they've done a solid job.
Offensive Line Coach Russ Grimm interviewed for the head coaching position at the New York Jets. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley very well could have gotten the job at the Miami Dolphins last offseason due to ties with Bill Parcells. But Haley believed in what the Cardinals were doing, as did defensive end Bertrand Berry. He took a pay cut in order to stay with the organization and see the roller coaster ride out.
Perhaps Adrian Wilson was the biggest believer though. With talent that could take him anywhere in the league, he wanted to see a winning season in the desert.
Another major move by Whisenhunt was to name Kurt Warner the starting quarterback over Matt Leinart. The franchise was invested in Leinart, but Whisenhunt knew that Warner gave the Cardinals the best opportunity to win.
Warner proved an old dog can learn new tricks, as he worked on movement in the pocket and protecting the football. Whisenhunt says that Warner's success couldn't have happened to a better man.
A trip to the Super Bowl couldn't have happened to a more tried and tested team.