Passing game coordinator Mike Miller talks to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald before a game.
The play's base was called "Jet," and it was the last one Mike Miller was going to get to call against the Cowboys if the Cardinals didn't convert.
Moments later, rookie quarterback John Skelton zipped the fourth-and-15 pass to Larry Fitzgerald for a 26-yard gain down the seam. The Cardinals' passing game coordinator and heir apparent as playcaller barely saw it; as soon as Fitzgerald hauled it in he was back to determining the next play sitting up in the press box. Eventually, the Cardinals finished off the game-winning field goal drive.
The sequence came together on the drive. That didn't happen enough for the Cards' offense in 2010, and it made for "frustrating" times in calling plays, Miller said. Ask him to recall memorable moments in calling plays, and he acknowledged it was easier to think up what could have been done better than the times when things clicked.
"You can't enjoy it, even during the game when we do something well," Miller said, bringing up the end of the first half in Minnesota when quarterback Derek Anderson broke out of a funk by hitting Fitzgerald on a long pass down the sideline and then finding rookie Andre Roberts for a 30-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
"Even in that process you're walking out of the booth thinking how many plays we left on the field," Miller said. "(As a playcaller), you're only as good as your next play."
The subject of playcalling was a popular topic of debate this past season. When offensive coordinator Todd Haley left after the 2008 season to become head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, coach Ken Whisenhunt took back the playcalling duties he had ceded to Haley. Miller was promoted from wide receivers coach to passing game coordinator while assistant head coach and offensive line coach Russ Grimm was named run game coordinator.
The intention from the outset was always to groom Miller to call plays. Whisenhunt said it at the time, and reiterated again this season.
"I've been very clear about that," Whisenhunt said. "I've done it once with Todd (Haley) already, started the process with Mike (Miller), and if it helps us get better, I don't have a problem with that.
"I've had great success (calling plays), but I also feel like Mike has worked his tail off to get that opportunity and part of the responsibility of the head coach is giving guys their opportunities."
Miller was worked into the playcalling during games early this season. But his role in developing the call sheet – part of the process building up to game day – was long established.
On Mondays, the offensive staff gets the scouting report on the next opponent and Tuesdays, Miller, quarterbacks coach Chris Miller and receivers coach John McNulty mull ideas in terms of dropback passes and play-action passes. In another room, Grimm, tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens and running backs coach Tommie Robinson figure out the same with the run plays. The groups come together to discuss potential third-down plays. Wednesdays, the groups break up again to talk red-zone and short-yardage/goal-line situations.
Grimm and Miller speak again Friday after watching practices, and then after practice Friday, Miller and Whisenhunt put together the call sheet. The Cardinals script the first 10 plays of the game, although they can change in case of dramatic field position or a defense that wasn't expected.
Miller acknowledged there is constant learning in the job – for instance, knowing when a play might not have needed to be set up with another, or the effort and commitment trying to keep the run and pass choices balanced. Sometimes the call is right and it isn't executed, although Miller declined to talk specifics.
(The end-of-game interception against Tampa Bay – in which Anderson tried to force the ball to Fitzgerald when Early Doucet was open on the inside – comes to mind.)
Too many times, the Cards didn't convert on third down, making it painfully difficult to get to all the plays the offensive staff wanted to run during the game.
When he thinks back to the Dallas game, Miller said he heard the complaints about not getting Fitzgerald the football. Miller points to a list of 10 base plays on the white board in his offense. All are plays designed specifically to get the ball to Fitzgerald, in different spots or formations. That is also part of the puzzle, getting the ball to the playmakers.
"(The Cowboys') number one thing was take Larry away," Miller said. "We had him open on some plays but John didn't see him or the read took him away from him. We're just trying to win games. At the same time, on days such as that, it's a lot easier when we get playmakers the ball."
There were other moments Miller considered successes, like the opening drive at home against Seattle that led to points, or the first touchdown pass to Fitzgerald against Tampa Bay, or even the finale, when the Cards went down the field to score needed points on a Skelton-to-Fitzgerald touchdown pass late in the first half.
The moments were few and far between, however. The hope is that changes in 2011. In the meantime, he understands the second-guessing the play-calling can endure. It's part of the responsibility.
"I try to stay away from (comments) good and bad," Miller said. "You just don't want to get caught up in anything. Our job is, 'How good are you the next practice? The next game?' If you ever lose that focus this game will swallow you up and it'll be over.
"The same thing goes with the negative stuff. I understand the fans have opinions and I appreciate the job the media has to do. I respect it. At the same time, you can't get caught up in those things because it doesn't affect what we have to do."
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