Whisenhunt to Tennessee: Did the Titans Do the Right Thing?
Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl XL winning Pittsburgh Steelers. He made it to the big game just three seasons later as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. And this past season, after a miserable campaign by San Diego in 2012, Whisenhunt coached the Chargers to the third-best offense in the league.
I suppose it’s easier to coach an offense when you have those types of quarterback pieces, but what came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we so certain that Ken Whisenhunt was fortunate, and not just a gosh darn good coach?
I think some fans and analysts have it backwards. I think Ken Whisenhunt is a good – no, a great – coach.
Tennessee fans should be excited.
Whisenhunt’s been in the league since 1997, but didn’t get his first big opportunity until 2004 as Steelers offensive coordinator. That season he was able to coach a rookie Ben Roethlisberger, seeing his Steelers go 15-1, losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
The next season, Coach Whiz coordinated the offensive side of the football for the Steelers again, this time winning the Super Bowl. Perhaps no play call in that game was more memorable than the trick play Whisenhunt drew up, where wide receiver Antwaan Randle El threw a perfect pass to Hines Ward down the field for a touchdown. The Steelers never looked back (Steeler fan nostalgia, sorry).
Whisenhunt was interviewed for the Raiders head coaching gig after the Super Bowl victory, but bailed and coached one more season in Pittsburgh.
After the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin, Whisenhunt took his talents to Arizona, this time as a head coach. He was entering a situation where the Cardinals hadn’t accomplished a winning season eight years. In fact, at the time of Whisenhunt’s move, the Cardinals had never seen a double-digit win season in Arizona.
In his first season, he coached the Cards to a respectable 8-8 record with Kurt Warner under center. In his second, he took them to the Super Bowl where he lost to his old team, the Steelers.
Whisenhunt followed up his Super Bowl appearance with a loss in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. The team went 10-6 that season, the first 10-win regular season the Cardinals saw in the state Arizona.
Kurt Warner then retired, and the team went 18-30 over the next three seasons. Many will point to this record without Warner as reason for Whisenhunt not being a very good coach, but more on that later.
Whisenhunt then took over as offensive coordinator of the Chargers this past season, and we know the story: San Diego beat the odds due to their offensive efficiency, went 9-7 and lost to the Broncos in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
In total, Whisenhunt went 45-51 as the head coach of the Cardinals, and made it to the Divisional Round, AFC Championship and won a Super Bowl in his four seasons as an offensive coordinator.
But yes, let’s just say the success came from superb quarterback play.
Coach Whiz By the Numbers
To show how much of an impact Whisenhunt made on the teams he’s coached and coordinated, we’ll look at numberFire’s nifty Net Expected Points (NEP) data. If you’re unfamiliar with NEP, click here to learn more about the metric.
Let’s begin with the Steelers, a team he coordinated during Ben Roethlisberger’s first three seasons in the NFL. I won’t do any comparison regarding what he took over, as looking at the job Mike Mularkey did in Pittsburgh – the offensive coordinator prior to Whisenhunt – probably isn’t a fair thing to do given the offensive pieces were much different.
Below are the rankings for the Steelers offense over the three years Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator:
I don’t know about you, but I’m overly impressed. The numbers above reflect numberFire’s Adjusted Net Expected Points (passing, rushing and total). The reason some of these rankings may not line up directly with pure yardage totals is because, obviously, NEP looks deeper than that, but also because the raw NEP numbers are adjusted for strength of schedule.
Over his time in Pittsburgh, Whisenhunt led the Steelers to the seventh-, sixth- and sixth- most effective offenses in the league. The only time one of the offensive facets ranked worse than the league average (actually, worse than 9th) was in 2006 when the Steelers finished 8-8.
People may point to Ben Roethlisberger being the reason for this success, and while Big Ben is a special quarterback, it’s not as though he did it alone. After all, once Whisenhunt left, the Steelers offense ranked 8th, 16th, 13th and 11th over the next four seasons.
Whisenhunt continued his success into Arizona, too. As I noted, he spent six years as the Cardinals head coach, taking over a team that was a historic failure. Below are the offensive and defensive rankings for his teams coached.
I’ll get to it right away: Ken Whisenhunt’s offenses post-Kurt Warner in Arizona were pretty bad. During the first season without Warner, the Cards had the 31st-best unit, which got better in 2011. But in 2012, the Cardinals put together a quarterback Frankenstein that nearly broke the numberFire databases. It was that bad.
But let’s talk about Warner. Does Whisenhunt deserve credit, or was his fairly successful head coaching stint in Arizona the result of Kurt Warner playing quarterback for the team?
Well, let’s consider how Warner played before Whisenhunt got there. In his 10 starts for the Cardinals in 2005, Warner accumulated a 35.52 Passing NEP score, good for a 0.09 average with each drop back. It wasn’t a bad season, as his per pass NEP ranked 12th among relevant passers that year.
In 2006, one where Warner split time with Matt Leinart (eww), Warner put together a 19.10 Passing NEP total, 0.10 per drop back. Again, this per drop back average fell in the 10-15 range among quarterbacks.
When Whisenhunt got to Arizona, Warner’s volume went up considering he was the clear-cut starter, and his efficiency still hovered the 0.10 mark. In other words, even with an increase in volume, Warner was still just as efficient. Could he have done that under Dennis Green? Well, Green didn’t exactly give him the right chance, but it's doubtful given the increase in volume and sample size.
In 2008, Whisenhunt’s second year with Arizona, Warner saw his per drop back average shoot up to 0.19, and his Passing NEP total 116.97. For reference, his average was the seventh-best one in the NFL that season, while his Passing NEP sum ranked fifth.
2009 wasn’t as efficient, but Warner still saw better averages than he had under Green. He finished with a 0.12 Passing NEP per drop back, totaling a Passing NEP of 64.38.
At this point in Whisenhunt’s career – 2009 – the thought had to be that he was a good, offensive-mind who could get the most out of his quarterback. After all, when Whisenhunt left Pittsburgh, the Steelers offense dipped. And when he got to Arizona, Warner’s efficiency increased.
The reason people are down on Whisenhunt, however, is because of the 2010 through 2012 seasons. I do think this is valid, but I’d find it difficult to find a coach who could lead a team quarterbacked by Derek Anderson, Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley to anything better than a 5-11, 8-8 and 5-11 record (alright, I know Derek Anderson went 10-5 for the Browns in 2007). Conversely, there are plenty of coaches with solid quarterback play who fail. Plenty. Why overlook this?
Though Whisenhunt may have had a say in who his quarterback was, the fact of the matter is that we’re excusing the impact he’s had in the past by using quarterbacks who are barely in the NFL.
The situation and cause for concern has more to do with what Whisenhunt hasn't had during his career, which is an average passer. There’s nothing in the middle. There’s no Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Alex Smith or Carson Palmer. The only good quarterbacks that Whisenhunt has significantly coached have been great ones.
And that leads me to Whisenhunt’s final team, the San Diego Chargers. After being fired from Arizona, Whiz took over as San Diego’s offensive coordinator in 2013.
This situation's a little tricky. The regime in San Diego changed completely, as they hired Mike McCoy as head coach entering the 2013 season. Mike McCoy, as noted by this article, is somewhat of a quarterback whisperer himself.
Because it’s fresh in our minds, we know how this story goes. Philip Rivers was bad last year, ranking 20th in the league in Passing Net Expected Points, behind players like Joe Flacco and Carson Palmer. This year, however, only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were better. You could even make the case that he’s more deserving than anyone but Manning for the NFL’s MVP, as he performed at such a high level with such little personnel support.
Was it Whisenhunt or McCoy? Probably a little bit of both – maybe even more McCoy. But what is significant here is what Whisenhunt was able to do with the offense in general. In 2012, San Diego was 21st in passing offense and 28th in rushing offense according to our metrics. In 2013, the Chargers were third throwing the ball and eighth running it.
Whisenhunt may not be the sole reason for this, and I can assure you he’s not. No coordinator typically is. But what I can say for certain is that Whiz played a role – a role he’s consistently played over the last 10 seasons in the league.
Whisenhunt in Tennessee
The Titans finished the season as numberFire’s 15th-best team, coming in with, surprisingly, the 12th-best offense and the 21st-best defense in 2013.
The reason for the offensive success is both strength of schedule related (they played the NFC West) and efficiency-based. Though they didn’t fill up the stat sheets with crazy numbers, they were effective at times, having a few big games against tough defenses like their 37-34 loss to the Cardinals.
Whisenhunt may now be getting that middle-of-the-road passer he never had at any other coaching stop. Jake Locker – a quarterback who seems to always be sidelined with an injury – could be Whisenhunt’s new project, as long as the new head coach doesn’t turn to the draft for some help. Before going down for the season this year, Locker was a top-15 quarterback in terms of Passing NEP, showing improvement compared to his first two seasons.
Whether Whisenhunt can make a quarterback in Tennessee relevant will soon be seen, but I have faith that he'll be able to. Though Ben Roethlisberger has turned into a star in the league, Whiz was able to take the Steelers offense under the youngster and make them into a consistent top-six or -seven unit each season, year in and year out. And with Warner, a player who actually put up similar NEP numbers as Locker's 2013 season, Whisenhunt was able to succeed.
I think the offense has a lot of opportunity with Whisenhunt and the young personnel. While some look at how bad the Cardinals' offense was over the final three years under Whisenhunt, I look at the good. The fact that Whiz had four years of offensive coordinating experience and coached no worse than a top-seven unit, combined with the fact that he led a historically bad franchise to two playoff appearances and a Super Bowl is telling to how effective he can be as a coach.
The big question in Tennesse will be who Whiz gets on the defensive side of the ball. Though he’s an offensive-oriented coach, Whisenhunt did coach a couple of decent Cardinals defenses, including the third-ranked one in 2012. Though that partially could be Ray Horton-related, Whiz was still head coaching the team.
In all, the signing of Ken Whisenhunt, in my eyes, makes sense. The Titans will more than likely see more stability on the offensive side of the ball, a place that needs some nurturing given the youth at the playmaking positions. If the right defensive coordinator is chosen, this could be the start of something great in Nashville.