Thursday, August 03, 2006
Maybe it was because a demonic highlands sun had turned the floor of Saint Vincent's natural amphitheatre into a microwave, and maybe it was that 80-some Steelers each seemed at that moment a viable candidate for spontaneous human combustion, but as offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt left the practice field in the merciless daylight yesterday, the prospect of being somewhere else seemed like an appropriate question.
"You know," someone mentioned, "you could be spending this week at the Napa Valley Marriott Resort and Spa, summer home of the Oakland Raiders."
"Instead of beautiful Latrobe?" quipped the o.c.
The Steelers' gifted play-caller came within an oft-chronicled Al Davis compulsion of being the head coach in Oakland the week after Super Bowl XL, with only the eccentric owner's chronic inability to dismiss himself totally from the football operation likely sending Whisenhunt back into the arsenal of one William Laird Cowher.
"I don't think about it now," Whisenhunt said.
Fair enough, but if he did think about his own career path, rather than merely the innovative ways in which he'll probably coax another 5,000 yards from this Steelers offense in 2006, those thoughts would be ricocheting through a very different context than the one he inhabited in February. At that time, no one knew the correct interpretation of Cowher's comments on the morning after Steelers 21, Seahawks 10, to wit: "The rest of this week I'm going to sit back and reflect for the first time on this football team, on this season, and on what we were able to accomplish. You're taught with other players never to reflect when you're in the middle of something, and I really like to practice what I preach. But I can tell you, this I'm going to do a lot of reflecting and enjoying every minute of it."
In hindsound, the auditory equivalent of hindsight that I just made up, it seemed that Cowher took a little too long getting from one end of the word "lot" to the other: "I'm going to do a lohhhht of reflecting." But, of course, like hindsight, hindsound is 20-20. Or something.
Obviously, we all know about the big house the Cowhers have purchased near Mt. Pilot, the maturing of the three basketballing daughters and the notion that the head coach might have reflected all the way to where, if he can't see the end of his career, he can certainly see the end of the black-and-gold part. With negotiations essentially stalled on a contract extension for the Jaw, Whisenhunt goes from somebody's-head-coach-before-too-long to the heir apparent in the Noll-Cowher lineage that's made winning football and Pittsburgh virtual cultural synonyms.
"I've been around a very successful organization [going on six years]," was about all Whisenhunt would say about such naked speculation yesterday. "I've always felt I have to do what's right for me and my family, and this is what's right for me."
There are plenty of ways to oversimplify Whisenhunt's impact on the Steelers' organization as constituted, but the one that shrieks for attention is the fact that with this 44-year-old Georgia Tech grad helping to design and calling Cowher's plays, the Steelers are 31-7, including 5-1 in the postseason. (In the five years before Whisenhunt ran the offense, Cowher was 44-35-1 and twice had losing seasons.) The glorious postseason freshest in the memory included a stunning and practically pristine offensive performance through which the Steelers averaged 27 points per game, in large part by converting a staggering 54 percent of their third-down situations, eight of 15 against a flummoxed flock of Seahawks.
You're clearly entitled to any selected postseason moment freeze-framed for the memory, but you'll have a hard time beating Fake Toss 39 X Reverse Pass, the play Whisenhunt spoke into his headset with 8:56 left in Super Bowl XL and the Steelers leading, 14-10. Four players handled the ball on what turned into the only touchdown pass thrown by a wideout (Antwaan Randle El) in the Steelers' Super Bowl history. And wasn't it just the prettiest thing, spiraling most of 43 yards and landing in the dead-sure hands of Hines Ward, who took it deep into the Super Bowl's extensive visual history?
"People don't remember the ones that don't work," Whisenhunt said modestly. "Those kinds of things sometimes work for us because Bill believes in them, and we all have trust in the players to execute them. Those kinds of plays are devised by a great staff, late at night, and a lot of the success we've had is because we've used them in the context of our basic stuff."
But they also work because the gadgets themselves are part of Whisenhunt's basic stuff as well. The Bengals, pursing Randle El hard in the first playoff game in January because they had seen him throw from the same formation, were scalded by Whisenhunt when Antwaan stopped, threw back across the field to Ben Roethlisberger, who found Cedrick Wilson floating near the Cincinnati goal line for the touchdown that put the Steelers up by 11 points as the third quarter was ending. That kind of thing not only electrifies an audience, it inspires an offense even here, eight months later.
"Duce [Staley] and Willie [Parker] seem to think they're auditioning for some type of throwing role," Whisenhunt noted yesterday. "I see them throwing out here every day, it seems. Hines can throw. Cedrick can throw. Santonio [Holmes] can throw. Miller can throw."
Heath Miller can throw?
"Oh yeah," said the o.c.
He wouldn't be mentioning that here in August just to give somebody something to think about would he?