Sam Donnellon: Cardinals coach Whisenhunt's approach shaped by assorted greats

COACHING COMPARISONS are inexact science. You win a championship with an emotional, wired-to-the-max guy like Tom Coughlin or Bill Cowher, well, then that's the way to go. You lose a game you should have won with either at the helm, then those sideline histrionics are construed as unsettling to your squad.

Is Andy Reid's demeanor a plus or a minus? Maybe it's a bit of both, good for weeklong preparation, lacking on game-day adjustments and overall mojo. Tom Landry couldn't win the big game for years and it was supposedly because of his stoical approach. Bill Belichick's sideline stoicism is supposed to give his team an edge. Strengths can be made to look like weaknesses. Weaknesses can be made to look like strengths.

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Whisenhunt

So what to make of Arizona Cardinals second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt? Is he simply riding a wave here, a wave his team has built via lack of respect from the entire football community? Or is he a rising star a few years ahead of schedule, taking advantage of a National Football Conference filled with good-enough teams that just couldn't get out of their own way this season?

"I don't know that I ever saw myself a certain way as a head coach," Whisenhunt was saying recently. "What I've tried to do is emulate some of the great head coaches I've been around - notably coach Cowher, coach [Joe] Gibbs and coach Dan Henning."

In his first 12 years with the Redskins, Gibbs got his team into four Super Bowls and won three. Cowher needed 14 seasons to win his one and only, denied by teams coached by more stoical figures like Marv Levy and Belichick.

Cowher was fiery. At one point in his career, it seemed to be getting in his way. He adjusted. Whisenhunt, his assistant for the last six of those seasons, took note.

"A lot of times when I'm in situations where it's tough and you have to make a tough decision or you're faced with something that's difficult, I think back to what those coaches would have done and what I learned from them. I'm very excited, obviously, that we're at this point and I think the thing I'm the proudest of is that we have good team chemistry. That's not something you can just say you're going to have; that's something that develops, and it's a credit to our coaches and our players."

Well, yeah, OK. But it comes from the top. Talking to former Eagles like Sean Morey and Rod Hood while out there during the week preceding their NFC Championship Game, you get the impression that what Whisenhunt does have in common with Reid is this:

There are no four-alarm controversies in either man's locker room, at least among players, or players and coaches. He benched Edgerrin James in October in favor of rookie running back Tim Hightower, and then reinserted him after the embarrassing late-season loss to the Patriots. By Wednesday of last week, he had doused any cinders left from Anquan Boldin's fourth-quarter pout in the NFC Championship Game.

There is a difference in approach, easily seen. A former walk-on receiver at Georgia Tech, he was a 12th-round draft pick who fought for every inch he was given over nine NFL seasons. He holds people accountable in a very personal - and public - way.

Whisenhunt's Monday press conference following the Cardinals' playoff victory over Carolina lasted 37 minutes. It would have gone on longer, but people ran out of questions. Whisenhunt will call out his team in public, as he did following an ugly 47-7 thrashing by the Patriots in late December. Whisenhunt has, upon several occasions, told the media what he told his players: "I said, 'You better be ready to practice this week and play because if you're not, you're not going to play in the playoff game.'

"That's why you have the eight-man inactive list on game day."

Here's another big difference: His press conferences are a real exercise in sharing. With little or no prodding, he will still tell you that New England game was "embarrassing" and that he's "angry" about it. He's also run victory laps around the Cardinals' home dome this season, and in truth, they are related.

Whisenhunt seems like a college coach out in the desert, like a guy looking to establish a brand where none existed. Reid often cites the importance of Eagles fans even as he stiffs them of any meaningful dialogue in weekly briefings. As a result, you are never quite sure whether he's calling the plays or someone else is, whether those annoying timeouts, clock burning and stalled drives are a reflection of his limitations or that of others - like, say, the quarterback.

Yep, coaching comparisons are an inexact science. But when you use the same pass-first formula year after year and all you produce is a lot of fizz, then it would seem reasonable to provide your funders with better explanations for who did what and when.

Might even make you a better coach.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we have arrived, by any stretch of the imagination, because that's only something that time will tell," Whisenhunt said. "But I think that we have a bunch of players who believe in what we are doing. And we have excited people about the steps we have made." *

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