How Bad of a Head Coach Is Ken Whisenhunt?

Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt is melting before our eyes, like the Wicked Witch of the West.

More and more, I’m becoming convinced that the head coach formerly known as “The Whiz” is less like the Great Oz and more like a charlatan with a projection screen. Tennessee Titans' boss Ken Whisenhunt may have a brain, a heart, and courage, but if I was an NFL general manager, that wouldn’t mean I’m about to let him pilot the hot air balloon of my franchise.

So, go click your ruby slippers somewhere else, Ken. Nashville shouldn’t be your Emerald City anymore.

We heralded the Titans’ signing of Whisenhunt as a landmark move 11 months ago, but JJ Zachariason’s concerns were clear: “Pundits will point to a reason for Whisenhunt’s success: Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner and Philip Rivers…. 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?”

Those concerns have finally come home to roost: he barely is a whiz of a Whiz, if ever a Whiz there was. Translation: he ain’t that good.

When Monkeys Fly…

Let’s start with the narrative: Ken Whisenhunt is supposedly a legendary quarterback whisperer and offensive guru who formed Big Ben into the titan (no pun intended) that he is today, who resurrected Warner and Rivers’ careers, who can make magic with anyone with two eyes and two arms if he puts them under center. Right?

Before we go confirming these ideas, let’s look at those players he “made magic” with. In the combined 32 NFL seasons between these three hallmark players that Whisenhunt has made his career on, there are 11 Pro Bowl appearances, 3 NFL MVP awards, and 3 Super Bowl championships. Not too shabby of material for a coach to use. In fact, even including Matt Leinart, Kevin Kolb, and Jake Locker, Warner was the only quarterback who started a season for Whisenhunt that was not drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft –- and Warner clearly had the exceptional talent to be drafted and drafted highly, in hindsight.

Now, this shouldn’t automatically rule out Whiz’s coaching prowess, but it’s definitely a point that has to be considered. Whisenhunt certainly had success in the win column as well, leading the Cardinals during three consecutive winning seasons from 2007-2009, and then repeating the feat in 2011 in Arizona.

But can we say a handful of 8-8 finishes are good enough to preserve the legacy of the Whiz? How does this stack up against other active head coaches?

We Represent the Lollipop Guild

Sure, in a vacuum, Whisenhunt’s prowess that he’s displayed as an offensive coordinator and in saving the Cardinals in the late '00s is impressive. However, if we consider his coaching legacy in the context of his fellow active head coaches, it’s a pretty sad story.

The below table displays Whisenhunt and his peers among the 19 other current head coaches who have at least 50 career games coached. Shown below are head coaching records and ranks among these coaches. For the sake of fairness, I took only their records in the same timeframe that Whisenhunt has been a head coach (2007 onward). What kind of company does Whiz keep?

Head CoachGamesWinsRankWin%Rank
Lovie Smith1085412th0.50016th
Rex Ryan924415th0.47817th
Ron Rivera602820th0.47518th
Ken Whisenhunt1084713th0.435t-19th
Tony Sparano693019th0.435t-19th

There’s nothing conclusive about a win-loss record, but it’s pretty damning that in the same strata of coaching as Whisenhunt, we also find some of the most universally loathed head coaches in the NFL. Whiz himself is tied with – dry heave – Tony Sparano, the biggest proponent of the Wildcat offense we’ve ever seen, for the worst record among active head coaches with at least 50 career games coached. Color me unimpressed.

So, if this is yet another data point, how can we truly figure out just how (in)effective of a head coach Ken Whisenhunt has been?

Cracks in the Yellow Brick Road

For this, we will examine the team version of numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure of just how much a player contributes to his team’s effort of scoring, providing a more illuminating view of production than simple box score counting stats do. Since we want to know how effective teams coached by Whisenhunt have been, it makes the most sense to examine their scoring potential, and not just how much they did score, or even the win-loss record.

The table below shows the team Adjusted Offensive and Defensive NEP data and ranks among the league for each of Whisenhunt’s offensive coordinator and head coaching positions since 2004. Has he been all that good?

YearTeamRoleAdj. NEP RankAdj. Pass NEP RankAdj. Rush NEP RankAdj. Def NEP Rank
2012ARZHC32nd32nd 32nd 3rd
2014TENHC29th27th 18th30th

It shouldn’t take much examination to figure out why Whisenhunt is lauded as an offensive mastermind, and a quarterback whisperer at that. In every year that he was an offensive coordinator, his offenses finished in the top seven of the league, and his passing offenses all finished inside the top 10 as well. Again, however, remember that his quarterbacks during those four years were Ben Roethlisberger in his early years and Philip Rivers during his resurgence.

As a head coach, his offenses have had exactly one top-10 finish overall by Adjusted NEP (with Kurt Warner’s 2008 comeback year) and one top-10 passing season by Adjusted Passing NEP. Every other year has seen the Whisenhunt offensive machine falter, possibly due to his need to focus on constructing an entire roster rather than game planning an offense. In fact, not since Warner retired at the end of the 2009 season has a Whisenhunt-led team finished in the top half of the league in either Adjusted NEP or Adjusted Passing NEP.

All of these warts don’t even begin to lament his ineptitude at assembling a defense, where he has had two top-half finishes and exactly one top-10 finish by Adjusted Defensive NEP: 2012, when his offense ranked dead last in every category.

Ding-Dong, the Witch Is Dead

It has become abundantly clear that it's not simply bad quarterback play, missing pieces in the offense, or even lackluster talent on the defensive side of the ball that is limiting Whisenhunt’s ability as a head coach; it just isn’t there. When allowed to focus solely on offensive game-scheming, Whiz’s offenses have excelled. There's a very defensible position that says those four years were due solely to the talent he had at his disposal, but until he gets hired into a new offensive coordinator role with less talent elsewhere, we just won’t know that for certain. What is clear is that Whisenhunt’s brief tenure in the Emerald City of the South should end soon, and he should return to his natural role managing an offense: nothing more, nothing less.

“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”