Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, here hugging Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward after the teams played in 2007, will face his former team in Super Bowl XLIII.
Ken Whisenhunt may have had a chance to be coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers right now instead of the Arizona Cardinals.
Maybe if he hadn't taken the Cards' job – about a week before the Steelers were ready to hire a coach – he would have stayed in Pittsburgh. Maybe the Steelers would have hired Mike Tomlin anyway.
Either way, Whisenhunt wouldn't have brought his brand of football to the desert, and he wouldn't have led the Cardinals on this improbable Super Bowl run. He
also wouldn't be coaching against his former team for the right to be NFL champion.
"I had an opportunity here that I felt was a good opportunity," Whisenhunt said. "The one thing I learned if that if you have an opportunity, you have to be very careful about passing things up because you never know if you'll get another one."
Instead, Whisenhunt came to Arizona and ended up with some Steelers flavor with the Cards. He hired Russ Grimm – another Steelers assistant also had a chance to become the Steelers head coach, before losing out to Tomlin – as his assistant head coach and offensive line coach. Kevin Spencer came from Pittsburgh to coach special teams.
Eventually, former Steelers dotted the roster too, guys like special teamer Sean Morey, linebacker Clark Haggans, tight end Jerame Tuman and reserve quarterback Brian St. Pierre.
"I think Coach Whiz and Russ Grimm and all those guys from the Steelers have been around winning and it helps bringing that into this locker room," St. Pierre said. "But this is about these guys and what they have done and the Arizona Cardinals."
Comparisons to the Steelers "are inevitable," St. Pierre said. "It's a great storyline, a great subplot, but it won't affect the game."
Whisenhunt has insisted he was never trying to build "Steelers West," but that doesn't mean it hasn't shaded the franchise.
Morey said the chemistry in the locker room Whisenhunt has sought to create reminds him of his days in Pittsburgh. Quarterback Kurt Warner said the coach has brought a confidence and mentality that can relate to how people view the Steelers.
"A lot of people, when they think of that mentality, think 'Two tight ends, two backs, three yards and a cloud of dust,' " Warner said. "But we have shaped toughness around what we do well. Sometimes we go out there with four wides, but it's still that mentality of toughness."
Warner pointed out the play of both wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and why they have embraced that mentality. Boldin has long been a physical player and fits well into what Whisenhunt wants to do. Fitzgerald changed his game this year to be more physical and it has taken him to a level many believe is as the best wideout in the NFL.
Morey also noted that while the ex-Steelers coaches have influence, the mix of assistants on the staff has added its own slant. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley and running backs coach Maurice Carthon, for instance, come from the Bill Parcells line – not a Steelers background, yet still known for a physical brand of football.
Yet the Cards' rebirth still started when Whisenhunt was hired – making Steelers-Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII apropos.
"Did you expect anything different?" Whisenhunt said. "I mean, when we actually won (the NFC Championship) how could have it not been the Steelers? That's what was what I expected."
Then Whisenhunt added, with a smile, "it's just a shame there won't be many storylines this week because of these two matchups."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 1/19/09.