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Spencer Whipple Makes Most Of Chance As Cardinals Playcaller

Assistant wide receivers coach served as Kingsbury fill-in against Browns

Cardinals assistant coach Spencer Whipple (center) calls a play flanked by fellow assistants Mike Berkovici (left) and Shawn Jefferson.
Cardinals assistant coach Spencer Whipple (center) calls a play flanked by fellow assistants Mike Berkovici (left) and Shawn Jefferson.

As Spencer Whipple climbed on the early bus to make the short drive to Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium Sunday, the skies opened up and cold rain pelted the windows.

And the Cardinals interim play caller realized then that none of the play sheets for the game had been laminated – just in case of rain.

Whipple, normally the team's assistant wide receivers coach, usually is one of the coaches tasked with laminating. The other, coaching assistant Mike Berkovici, had moved into Cam Turner's role of quarterbacks coach for the game and also had it slip his mind.

"We totally forgot," Whipple said Tuesday, noting the two had a laugh about it. "That's just part of the experience."

The experience of Whipple's first chance to call plays in the NFL couldn't have gone better Sunday, with the Cardinals rolling up a 37-14 with head coach and playcaller Kliff Kingsbury (as well as Turner) absent because of Covid.

Jeff Rodgers, the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator, and Vance Joseph, the defensive coordinator, teamed to be co-interim head coaches. Sean Kugler remained in his role as run-game coordinator and offensive line coach.

Kingsbury, meanwhile, tabbed the 32-year-old Whipple to be the voice in quarterback Kyler Murray's ears and Kingsbury proxy with the play sheet.

"There is only one guy who is making that decision and that is the head coach," Rodgers said. "He said Spence is calling the plays, he's going to be the lead guy in the quarterback's ear, and that's what happened. … It was, 'Here's how we are doing this' and I don't take anything the head coach says as a suggestion."

Kingsbury texted Whipple beforehand to just "let it rip," emphasizing he had confidence in Whipple.

Whipple credited the rest of the coaches for helping him, quarterbacks Colt McCoy and Chris Streveler for helping him understand how a QB would see the flow of the game, and Murray for help both before and during the game.

"I know when (Kyler) did check (into different plays), good things happened," Whipple said.

But being an NFL playcaller is a job Whipple – whose father, Mark, coached in the NFL and is offensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh – aspires to reach on a full-time basis someday. During Cardinals games, he said he is always coming up in his head what play he would call each time to feel at least a little what it might be like.

He called plays once previously – in his final year coaching on the staff at UMass in 2018. The Minutemen lost to undefeated South Florida, 58-42, but UMass piled up 486 yards and top wide receiver Andy Isabella had 13 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown.

To fill in for Kingsbury in Cleveland was a "big opportunity," Whipple said. "There really wasn't much time to be nervous."

Whipple does stand in front of the offense to run the red-zone meetings during the week, and guard Justin Pugh said the players think of him as "unflappable."

"I always tell him, 'Hey Spence, tell a joke when you get up to start, an icebreaker, give us a little something,' " Pugh said. "But he's all business, and it showed (Sunday). He was ready to go."

Said Murray after the game, "he did not panic."

The Cardinals might have to go through the process again this week. Unless Kingsbury is asymptomatic and has two negative tests in a 24-hour period, he would miss the Texans game Sunday as well.

"I think adversity is always a good thing to experience during the season, certainly coming out on top with a win is excellent," said Rodgers, who was coaching in Denver when head coach John Fox missed four games with heart issues. "Hopefully we can build on it."

That's what Whipple wants to do – although playing this game at home, rain won't be a factor.

The Cardinals eventually got the play sheets laminated before the Cleveland game, although it never rained after kickoff – another way the day couldn't have gone much better without Kingsbury.

"It took a while for me after the game for me to be at ease, to kind of shut it down," Whipple said. "I kept reaching for the communicator even when we were in Victory (formation), looking to ease the tension and get in the locker room and kind of relax."

There might have been some butterflies beforehand, Whipple acknowledged, but he told himself, "we are just trying to get this win."

The best photos from the Cardinals' 37-14 win over the Browns Week 6 of the 2021 NFL season.

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