Larry Fitzgerald's over-the-pylon touchdown catch against Chicago in 2009 came from a play quarterback Kurt Warner didn't like but one with which the Cards' coaches had confidence.
Ken Whisenhunt was sitting in his office recently, tending to various administrative manners, when a thought hit him.
More specifically, the concept of a play popped into his head.
So he flipped to an open page of the notebook he had been using and jotted down the idea – involving wide receiver Early Doucet going in motion – in a sentence, ready to go back to fully flesh it out when he had time.
"When you draw up plays," Whisenhunt said, "it rarely comes from just sitting here and saying, 'I'm going to draw up a play.' "
Once, the head coach had a play epiphany in church, scribbling it on the back of a church bulletin. He's gone in to talk to video office for something and glanced at a college game being recorded and had an idea germinate based on what he saw. Offensive coordinator Mike Miller said he has had watched something on TV that isn't even football, and it has given him an idea.
Former Cards offensive coordinator Todd Haley famously came up with a key play – "Fake Toss 339 Taxi Pass X-Pylon" – during the long charter flight to North Carolina before the 2009 playoff game against the Panthers. It worked for a 41-yard gain to Larry Fitzgerald (here at the 35-second mark) to set up the Cards' first touchdown.
The process is always ongoing. It doesn't always work. Next to Whisenhunt's desk sit a handful of red folders, including one jammed with more than 100 pieces of 8½ by 11 sheets of paper, with between four and 10 concepts of plays on each that have been considered the past couple of years.
Sometimes, Whisenhunt or Miller or another assistant comes up with a play and then, after further review, realizes it just isn't that good. Other times, the play moves on to the practice field, where test-driving it with human beings shows the play is better in theory than real life.
"It's a little bit like American Idol," Whisenhunt said. "You have to audition 125,000 to get the top 10 that you really like. The one thing you have to do is be open-minded and forgo your ego, and if guys don't think it's going to work or some people think it's a dumb idea, you have to listen.
"I will put a play on life support and try to resuscitate it, no question. But the success rate of plays working in this league is not great. It's like shooting three-point shots. Or a major league baseball hitter, if you are hitting 33 percent of them and they work the way they are designed to work, you're one of the better offenses in the league."
Sometimes, it's just the players who turn a play into a positive even when it doesn't develop the way it was dreamed up.
But when a play does click, "that is what drives you, the thrill of the chase, to draw up that perfect play in the right situation and have it work," Whisenhunt said. "There is a tremendous adrenaline rush."
That's how Haley was feeling that night in Carolina – "If we weren't on the plane that long, maybe that play doesn't happen," Haley said at the time – and how Miller felt during Fitzgerald's 62-yard touchdown reception in Washington in 2008, a play Miller had designed. It's definitely how Whisenhunt felt when he was coordinating the Steelers' offense in Super Bowl XL and wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El threw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward.
"When you are around guys that respect your input like Todd did, we were able to put it in and when you saw it called and run, it was a good feeling," Miller said.
But, Miller added with a chuckle, "We always laugh when we are watching a play on film (later) and you say, 'I bet you that play looked a lot better on Tuesday night than it did on Sunday afternoon.' "
There was the time in Chicago in 2009 when Whisenhunt decided to call a play that quarterback Kurt Warner had never liked and had continued to fight against using. The Cardinals called it anyway, and Fitzgerald caught the post corner from Warner and reached out over the pylon for a 17-yard touchdown.
"It was wide open," Whisenhunt said.
Sometimes, the play works but it doesn't – like last season, when coaches spied the way the Chargers would line up defensively the same way every time against a certain formation. Whisenhunt realized a certain play-action fake would draw the deep safety up and with two receivers down the field, one would be open.
The Cardinals ran the play correctly, with Fitzgerald running a deep in from the slot and rookie Stephen Williams jetting down the field on a skinny post. He was wide open for a touchdown, but quarterback Derek Anderson overthrew the pass.
"Unfortunately, last season we had a lot of those plays and we just didn't connect on them, and that's tough," Whisenhunt said. "But I don't think that keeps you from continuing to try and find those plays."
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