Commentary

Warner will be fine despite hip woes

Originally Published: August 14, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- Although the Cardinals' preseason opened with a 20-10 loss to the Steelers on Thursday, Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt proved he has grown as a coach.

Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, his right-hand man on offense as an Arizona assistant, each felt he should have been hired as Steelers head coach after Bill Cowher stepped down more than two years ago. Whisenhunt was Cowher's offensive coordinator, and Grimm was more than just an offensive line coach. Other franchises have interviewed him for head-coaching openings.

It surprised and hurt them when the Rooney family hired Mike Tomlin as head coach. Whisenhunt and Grimm moved to Arizona and turned the Cardinals into NFC champions in two years. Meeting the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII was one thing. The preseason opened with Whisenhunt and Grimm making their first trips back to Pittsburgh.

They made it a business trip.

Even though their many friends wanted to see them for a beer Wednesday night, Whisenhunt and Grimm stayed with their team at a Pittsburgh hotel. A late-arriving flight and a network production meeting kept Whisenhunt busy until after 10 p.m. Whisenhunt looked at his watch and realized curfew was midnight. As boss, Whisenhunt could set a bad example by being out later than the players, so he and Grimm canceled all social visits.

"It is weird,'' Whisenhunt said. "I am proud to be here as the Arizona Cardinals head coach after what we did last year. I am excited about our fans and our team."

The former Steeler is absolutely a Cardinal.

Here are five things I have learned about the Cardinals:

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesKurt Warner, who had left hip surgery in the offseason, completed six of 10 passes for 53 yards against Pittsburgh on Thursday.
1. Kurt Warner can go the distance: Despite the fact that his left hip has been surgically repaired, I believe Warner can play 16 games. Sure, he's 38, and the hip bothers him, but it's weird. The hip hurts only when he stands or walks. When he's dropping back from center, it doesn't hurt.

Warner looked the same as always Thursday night against the Steelers, completing six of 10 passes for 53 yards. He was able to time his drop-back with his receivers without difficulty. His hip doesn't hurt when he plays because quarterbacks bend slightly at the waist as they retreat from center, and that takes enough pressure off the hip.

Although Warner's hip surgery was successful, it will take about 12 months for it to be right. Warner is at the 4 1/2-month stage, so he is expected to be a little gimpy. As long as Warner can say "it only hurts when I walk or stand,'' he can run the offense as well as he did last season.

2. Eye on the passing attack: As long as Warner is quarterback, the Cardinals won't abandon being more of a three-receiver passing team to become a power running team. Whisenhunt would love to switch to a power running game like he had with the Steelers. But why run when you have three 1,000-yard receivers and a QB who prefers throwing the ball?

Whisenhunt -- who will call plays this season because former offensive coordinator Todd Haley left to become Kansas City Chiefs head coach -- found an interesting concession: play-action passing. No defense honored the play-action during the 2008 regular season because defenses knew the Cardinals weren't going to beat them with a running attack. Arizona tried maybe four or five play-action passes a game during the regular season.

During the playoffs, play-action passing went to about 10 to 12 times a game, and Warner bought into it. Whisenhunt believes play-action passes might take away some of the extra hits Warner gets from defenders who might bump him after the play.

3. Larry Fitzgerald out to get even better: If Fitzgerald isn't the best player in football, he's going to work tirelessly to earn that honor. In the past two years, Fitzgerald has established himself as the best receiver since Jerry Rice, but he's not satisfied.

Fitzgerald said he was sickened by things he saw about himself on tape last season. So he's spent the offseason trying to come out of breaks on pass routes with more precision. He strives for perfection, just like Rice. In 2008, Fitzgerald made a big effort to improve his yards after the catch and become more of a physical presence against defenders.

4. Change at defensive coordinator: I now understand why Whisenhunt made a change at defensive coordinator. Clancy Pendergast is one of the league's more imaginative and aggressive defensive coordinators. But Whisenhunt thought things were getting sloppy on defense. With the Steelers, Whisenhunt watched Dick LeBeau work his magic in the 3-4 defense. While LeBeau is known for his unpredictable zone blitzes, each of his 11 starters is strong on fundamentals and technique. LeBeau's defense rarely blows its gap responsibilities.

So Whisenhunt fired Pendergast and hired Billy Davis as coordinator because he believes Davis can make the defense more fundamentally sound, especially in the front seven. The 2009 preseason debut was impressive. Davis had one or two blitzers pressure Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or the Steelers' run game. A few things need to be cleaned up; Davis had to burn two timeouts because of miscues on substitution packages. But overall, it was a good start.

5. Matt Leinart will be the No. 2 QB: Don't buy into the idea Leinart will lose the backup job to Brian St. Pierre. Even though Leinart came out throwing his passes a little high, he settled down to complete eight of 14 for 83 yards against the Steelers.

Although Whisenhunt opened the backup competition publicly, it's been pretty well resolved in the past week. Whisenhunt threw Leinart onto the field in the middle of a drive to make sure he had enough playing time. His first couple of passes were off, but, in fairness, he didn't get a chance to warm up.

The coaches and Leinart felt good about how he got into a rhythm, and then the reins were handed over to St. Pierre. Afterward, Leinart said he had fun. A year ago, he was under pressure as the starting quarterback. He will be the backup, even though he will alternate with St. Pierre in the next couple of preseason games.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer