Whisenhunt not as much of a genius without a QB

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- We offer our condolences to the people of Arizona.

It turns out Ken Whisenhunt is human.

For three seasons, the Cardinals coach defied history, derision and market economics to turn one of the nation's worst professional franchises into a winner.

Hall is having an understandably rough time as a rookie starter. (Getty Images)  
Hall is having an understandably rough time as a rookie starter. (Getty Images)  
The Cardinals lost an epic Super Bowl to the Steelers, won two consecutive NFC West titles and electrified a fan base that normally requires high voltage shock treatment just to register a pulse.

But when the 2010 season dawned, Whisenhunt's wunderkind reputation starting taking hits.

First, he released quarterback Matt Leinart before the season started, insisting newly signed retread Derek Anderson meshed better with his teammates than the sulky SoCal southpaw.

When Anderson struggled in the season's first four games, Whisenhunt replaced him with undrafted rookie Max Hall, echoing, but not whole-heartedly endorsing, media reports that Hall's fire inspired his teammates.

Hall does play with passion, but at this stage of his career, he doesn't have the corresponding game. On a rainy Sunday in Seattle, Hall completed 4 of 16 passes for 36 yards and an interception as Arizona fell out of first place for the first time since Week 5 of the 2009 season with a 22-10 loss to the Seahawks.

Following the loss, Whisenhunt quickly named Hall the starter for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, assuming he has no setbacks this week in practice after suffering a concussion in the third quarter at Qwest Field.

"We can't make too much of what happened [Sunday]," Whisenhunt said.

That didn't stop former Ravens coach and current Fox analyst Brian Billick from firing away.

"I've seen nothing in Max Hall over two games that leads me to believe he should be your starter," Billick said during Fox's telecast of the Cardinals' loss. "He's just not ready."

That's not a condemnation of Hall. He never should have been placed in this situation.

It's a condemnation of the coaching staff and general manager Rod Graves for putting the Cards in this predicament.

There's no guarantee Leinart would have been the answer, but who would you rather hand the reins of a team still in contention for a division title: a veteran who knows the system or an undrafted rookie?

The answer is obvious, but the truth is the Cards never expected to face this problem.

Forget contentions to the contrary. Nobody in this organization expected Kurt Warner to walk away from the final, $11.5 million year of his contract.

When he did, the Cards appeared so shell-shocked that they came up short in an offseason of other quarterback pursuits. They tried to deal for Chargers backup Charlie Whitehurst, a restricted free agent, but he went to the Seahawks instead.

Although Donovan McNabb was available via trade, the Cards never seriously considered that possibility. And when the Rams held off on releasing Marc Bulger until April, the Cards couldn't wait and signed Anderson to a two-year, $7.25 million deal that included a $2.5 million signing bonus.

In a blink, the Cards went from having the best quarterback situation in the NFC West to the worst.

It couldn't have come at a more inopportune time, because the NFC West is there for the taking. Despite owner John York's guarantee of a division title, the 49ers are dead and buried at 1-6. Sam Bradford shows remarkable poise for a rookie quarterback, but the Rams are still too young and inconsistent to make a serious run. And while the Seahawks are gaining confidence, their offense hasn't been able to match up with the Cards defense the past three seasons. At one point in the third quarter Sunday, Seattle had just over 100 yards of offense yet still led thanks to the ineffectiveness of Hall and some special-teams blunders.

But it's not just the division that's within easy reach. It's the entire conference. The Giants are the flavor du jour after four consecutive wins, but there are significant flaws with every team in the NFC.

That makes you wonder: Would Warner have retired had he known the road to the Super Bowl was a 10-lane, toll-free highway? How good would the Cards' chances look right now if No. 13 were still behind center?

After some early-season struggles that accompanied five new starters, the defense has rounded into shape with back-to-back solid performances against the Saints and Seahawks.

Except for a hiccup in Seattle, the Cards special teams have been excellent.

Beanie Wells may get his first start at running back this week, and the receiving corps is finally healthy with the return of Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.

In the wide-open NFC, the Cards have a legitimate chance to repeat that improbable 2008-2009 Super Bowl run if they can just get competent quarterback play. But with the cast Whisenhunt, Graves and Co. have assembled, that may be too tall a task.

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