Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt addresses the New England media during his conference call on Wednesday, December 17, 2008.
Q:What are you thoughts on west to east travel and some of the challenges for teams making that trek?
KW: It's a tough challenge, just from the standpoint of the affect on your body and playing the one o'clock games. It's very difficult. We've done a number of different things and finally settled on leaving Friday afternoon, which gives us a day to acclimate. The last time that we did it this year was against Carolina and we played the best that we've played on the East Coast, so we're hoping that maybe just our routine and how we do it will help us in this game.
Q:How much of an adjustment has that been for you as a head coach—coming from the Northeast—to get used to going west to east?
KW: I've done it many times going east to west and it's not as difficult, in my opinion, going that way. So, it was very new to me, being here in Arizona and having to come back east. We played a number of games—five this year and three last year—so it's always going to be something that we're faced with. You have to find something that you think works and can help you prepare for it. Like I said, I think we made progress on that line. It was tough for me, just from the standpoint of mentally and physically what it does to you when you get there and having to adjust to the time. The thing that we found was a lot of times we started very slowly in those games because we were sluggish starting out. Hopefully, coming in a day earlier and acclimating ourselves has helped us.
Q:I'm not sure the exact record but I think it might be one win for teams coming west to east and playing at one o'clock. If you had Commissioner Roger Goodell's ear, would you say 'hey, it might not be a bad rule to make those four o'clock games to really even the playing field'?
KW: Well, I don't know. There's no real evidence to suggest that anything other than playing at one o'clock isn't tough. But, a lot of the times that's because some of the teams we've played this year—I know playing the NFC East and now playing New England—they're all good football teams. That makes it tough. I think that's part of it. There's nothing that we're going to do that's going to change it. It doesn't help [that the game is at] one o'clock—that's difficult, and that there hasn't been much success. I think you're right, the only team, I think, that's won was San Francisco beat Buffalo in a one o'clock game. We're hoping that we have something that will work for us and that we play well.
Q:How worrisome is your record recently against top teams—Panthers, Giants, Eagles, Vikings? Those are games where you could have made a big statement and you haven't been able to. Is that concerning?
KW: Well, it's not something that we're pleased about, especially two of the games. We didn't play well at all against Philadelphia and then this past week against Minnesota. But, I think that's all part of growing up as a team. We're still a work in progress. We're learning about ourselves and we know that this week is going to be especially tough going into New England and how NFC teams have not faired well against this team. It's a challenge. We're just hoping that we can improve our play and get in position to play well in the playoffs.
Q:Do you feel that last week's loss was in any way a hangover form winning the division?
KW: I believe it was, yes, to a degree. I really think that's something we've focused on for almost two years now, last year being our first year and then this year. You devote a lot of time and energy and effort indo doing that—into winning the division. And then when you actually accomplish that goal, you're faced with a letdown. It was something I was worried about last week and mentioned that during the week to the team. I felt like you didn't see indications of that in practice, but obviously we didn't play well and I think our focus in that game wasn't what it had been in previous games. I think it's very difficult—especially when we did something that had never been done in Arizona, and that's win the division. You have a number of people that are excited, and rightfully so, telling you you're a good team, patting you on the back and it's easy to lose your focus. I think that is what happened to us, to a degree. We also played a good team. That didn't help.
Q:The Patriots lead the league in fewest penalties and the Cardinals are up there near the most. What can you do to fix your problem and how admirable is what the Patriots are accomplishing?
KW: I use the Patriots as a model for that all the time. The one thing you can say about their team is that they're very disciplined. They play with technique. They're very sound in what they do and that's the reason that they're not a penalized team. That's something that we work on. We're greatly improved this year on our penalty number. Our yardage is way down in our penalty yardage, so we are improving. Even though we may be listed up there at the top, we have improved significantly from last year. That's something that we're constantly aware of and working on. When you see a team like New England, when you're playing against them you know you have to play well because they don't make a lot of mistakes. And the reason that they don't make a lot of mistakes is because they pay attention to the details and they're a very disciplined, well-coached team.
Q:Is the lack of balance on offense concerning to you? Do you feel like teams are not respecting the running game and that's compromising what you can do passing wise?
KW: I don't think so. I think we've been successful throwing the ball and the reason that we're doing that is because we've won games. We've been successful scoring points, getting into the redzone, scoring touchdowns and even our time of possession is above 30 [minutes]. When you look at all those things—we obviously would like to run the football better than we have and that is something we're going to continue to work on. It's been a number of things as to why we haven't, but I think the debate is always, can you win throwing the football consistently? You do expose yourself to the potential for turnovers more when you throw the ball and that's something that up until the last few weeks we haven't been bad with. I think I'm comfortable from the standpoint that if we play well and don't turn the ball over, then we can throw the ball and be successful. But we do certainly want to continue to work on the run because going into a game like this, there's a potential for the weather to change or you don't know what to expect. It's always nice to have that as something you can do.
Q:As a guy who's been around football for a while, is this second act of Kurt Warner's career surprising at all? It's unusual to see a great player have a five-year dip and then get back to the level that he was at before.
KW: I think it's a credit to Kurt more than anything and his competitive spirit. I'm not surprised. I'm surprised that he's been as proficient this year because not many quarterbacks throw the ball as well as he's thrown it this year with the accuracy and the number of touchdowns. But, I'm not surprised on the other level because he works so hard. I think that being in a competition with Matt [Leinart] where he had to earn this, a 38-year-old quarterback in that position who worked the way he did, made him a better player. I know that he was a good player already, but I think some of the things that we asked him to do as far as ball security and better decisions on his throws - those were things that because of the competition, he worked on and have helped him as far as this season has gone. I'm excited for Kurt because it's always great to see a guy that people were saying couldn't do it anymore have the season that he's had.
Q:How's Stephen Spach working out at tight end?
KW: He's doing a good job for us. He came in at a time that we were really desperate. We were banged up at tight end; we didn't have one healthy guy among three of them. He came in the first game and off of a short week preformed very well. He's a competitive young man that does a very nice job of picking up our system and has fit in very well.
Q:Has Ben Graham sort of stabilized your punter situation?
KW: Yeah, I do at this point. It's only been two games but he does some things for us that I'm very excited about: his plus 50 kicks have been very good and he's kicked the ball for average very well. Obviously, it doesn't help that we had a punt returned on us for a touchdown last week, but I don't think that was as much his fault as it was our coverage team. The reason we made the switch with the punter was because of a game like this where you're playing a good opponent with a weather condition. You don't know what to expect and field position could become such a big part of it. That aspect of the game we had not been as good as we need to be and hopefully Ben will give us that as we go forward.
Q:This is down the road a few weeks, but it will be your first home playoff game since 1947. Do you ever step back and think about how staggering that is?
KW: You're aware of it because that's a topic of conversation and that was certainly, I think, part of why we didn't play well last week, everybody wanted to talk about that. As far as the coach and trying to prepare for this, I think I learned a lesson from Bill Cowher and that is not to reflect as you're going through the season. I'm very pleased that we won the division. We did what we needed to do to win the division and now we're in the playoffs. And now our focus has got to be on playing better than we did last week, so we can actually have a chance to win a playoff game. I'm happy for the organization because it has been so long that we've done that, but I think that we need to move on from that and play better.
Q:How much of a boost would beating the Patriots be, given your struggles against playoff-bound teams? Would beating the Patriots give you a boost more than beating maybe the Rams or the 49ers?
KW: Absolutely. This is a team that's 9-5 and leading or tied for the lead with the AFC East, a division leader. We know what a tough opponent they are. They were in the Super Bowl last year. We're well aware of that because they played in our stadium last year. I think this is a team that's been very successful. I know from a personal standpoint they've kicked my butt a few times, so I recognize what a good job coach [Bill] Belichick has done and his staff and how well-prepared those players are. I think it would be a great boost for us if we were able to get a win.
Q:How well do you know Bill Belichick?
KW: I've coached against him for a number of years. I know [him] enough to say hello to Coach Belichick. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he's done in New England and how that program has been consistently winning, especially since we lost two championship games to them. That makes it tough.
Q:22 straight games with a touchdown pass for Kurt Warner. Does that just speak to his consistency?
KW: I think it does. I think he has some good receivers that have made some plays for him, but I think Kurt has always been a quarterback that makes good decisions, that understand what people are doing to him, that can get the ball out in situations. I think when we get into the redzone we put a lot of burden on Kurt to make decisions and because of his ability to do all those things I just mentioned, he has had great success down there. That's definitely an advantage to us because—and I think that's reason we have scored so many touchdowns this year—because of his ability to make decisions in the redzone.
Q:What are your impressions of the Patriots defense, which has been hammered by injuries? They're rankings on third-down and redzone are pretty poor.
KW: Yeah, but they're not—they're rankings on yards given up are not bad at all. In fact, they're pretty good from a standpoint of yards within a drive. I think what they've done with the number of injuries they have had is a testament to their players and their coaches because they are playing very well with what they have and I know they have had to make a number of changes. And we know, as coaches, how difficult that can be at times, especially when you lose the type of players that they've lost: when you lose a Rodney Harrison, when Tedy Bruschi doesn't play for you, when you've had your D-line going in and out due to injury. It's very difficult and what I see on tape, once again, is a disciplined team that doesn't make a lot of mistakes and they make you earn everything that you get. We know that we're going to have to play well in order to be successful offensively.
Q:Both teams have receivers who have taken huge shots this year: Wes Welker and Anquan Boldin. Can you talk about the resiliency and tenacity receivers sometimes have to exhibit when they take shots like that and bounce back up?
KW: I don't know if all receivers can do that. I think that Anquan and Wes have similar qualities and that's because they are both very tough, competitive football players that are playing at a very high level. And the competitive nature of that position and actually those individuals is what drives them. You can see it in the way that Wes plays and I think you can see it in the way Anquan plays. They play with no fear. And when you have a situation where you take a big shot like that, as difficult as it may be for the normal guy to bounce back from, because they're so competitive and because they play at such a high level, I think it's one of the reasons that they can come back.