Ken Whisenhunt is coaching against the Steelers in the Super Bowl. How sweet it is.
To refresh, when the Steelers made the very bold pick of a 34-year-old, one-year defensive coordinator, Tomlin, to succeed Bill Cowher, they left two longtime and loyal Steelers offensive assistants, Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, out of luck. Whisenhunt got hired by the Cardinals as the head coach, and he took Grimm with him to be the Cards assistant head coach.
Now it's the man the Rooney family picked, Tomlin, against the two they spurned, Whisenhunt and Grimm.
I got Whisenhunt on the phone as he watched the final minute of the Steelers' win. He didn't pour any fuel on the fire, but it was clear that making the Super Bowl as a head coach is the sundae, and facing the Steelers in it the cherry on top. "It's personally going to be very meaningful to me facing the Steelers,'' he said. "I'm here because of the training I got there. That's a great football team. I'm proud of the guys we coached there. I'm proud of Ben and how he's grown. It's really going to be a lot of fun.''
The coaches just keep getting younger.
In NFL history, there has never been a 55-week stretch of coaching turnover like the one ending right now. If Kansas City and Oakland change coaches -- both franchises seem likely to -- that would mean 11 teams would have new coaches since the season ended ... and we would have seen 17 coaches hired since New Year's morning 2008. That's a phenomenal stretch.
Average age of the nine hires so far: 43.
The latest kid on the block, 32-year-old Raheem Morris, had just left his barber shop Friday afternoon around 2:30 when his cell phone rang. It was one of the Glazer brothers, asking Morris to come back to the facility; dad Malcolm Glazer owns the Buccaneers. Morris returned, thinking they wanted to discuss staffing on the defensive side of the ball, seeing that Morris had been named the defensive coordinator three weeks earlier. No. It turned out they wanted to give him the head-coaching job.
"I told them, 'I don't want my upgrade to be the downfall of coach Gruden,' '' Morris recalled Sunday morning, referring to Jon Gruden, the coach. "They said the change was being made, and I was not undermining coach Gruden or [GM] Bruce Allen.
"Getting a job at this age, I don't know if you're ready. But I don't know if you're ever ready. They could have given me the job at 65, and there would still be things I'd be unsure about. All I know to do is deal with each situation as it comes. Deal with the situation honestly, with candor, and be direct. Keep your core beliefs the same. They hired you because they believe in you. That's what I plan to do.''
Now that the sun has set on the Gruden Era, we can assess one of the biggest trades in NFL history.
In 2002, the Bucs traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks and paid $8 million to the Raiders to acquire Gruden, who won a Super Bowl in his first year as coach. His six subsequent years produced a 45-53 record and no playoff wins, and the Bucs chose to fire him Friday, owing him $16 million on his existing contract.
So the pricetag of a Super Bowl for Tampa Bay was two ones, two twos and $24 million in services not rendered -- and, tangentially, no young quarterback developed for the future. That has to be on the Gruden résumé because he arrived in Tampa a quarterback guru and departed with a string of just-OK quarterback performances, and no long-term solution, unless new coach Raheem Morris is going to turn Josh Johnson into Matt Cassel somehow.
I'd say it was worth it because you play to win the Holy Grail. Also, the Bucs are a solid eight- or nine-win team right now, and they're in very good financial shape, the best in the NFC, with $45 million in cap room entering 2009. They're slightly above average in talent right, with a strong offensive line, good building-block pass-rusher (Gaines Adams) and middle linebacker (Barrett Ruud), and a good young secondary, even with the aging Ronde Barber. What they don't have is a base of good young offensive skill players. That's a major weakness.
The great franchises don't throw around first- and second-round picks as freely as the Bucs have. In this decade, the Bucs have traded four first-round picks (two for Keyshawn Johnson, two for Gruden) and two second-rounders. Because of these trades the Bucs didn't pick until No. 51 in 2000 (Cosey Coleman), No. 86 in 2002 (Marquise Walker) and No. 64 in 2003 (DeWayne White). Not good. It caused them to miss out on players like John Abraham, Nnamdi Asomugha and Clinton Portis.
Recent good drafts have only begun to put a salve on it, but the loss of six cornerstone players with manageable salaries for the first half of their careers is something that puts you behind the rest of the league as much as the acquisition of difference-makers puts you ahead of it. New GM Mark Domenik needs to say internally, "We're not dealing high draft choices anymore, unless it's to get in better draft position.''
"Risk is involved in everything,'' Morris said the other day. "We went out and won a Super Bowl that year. The Glazers are not afraid of risk, obviously, and neither am I."' On draft day, the risk ought to be slightly more conservative.
Are the Patriots ruined?
Hardly. But the loss of Scott Pioli and Josh McDaniels in the span of 72 hours is the biggest 1-2 punch the Patriots have taken in any postseason since the team got good in 2001. Finding a new offensive coordinator and quarterback tutor to replace the precocious McDaniels will be a tall enough task. Finding a personnel man with the skill of Pioli might be tougher because there's not a scout in the building who has the one distinctive trait Pioli had -- the ability to go to war with Bill Belichick over players and leave the discussion with the mutual respect of peers. The two were so close that the arguments over players never affected their relationship.
The nearly fawning statement by Belichick about Pioli shows the exceptionally high regard the coach had for him: "Working side by side with one of my best friends for almost two decades is special enough in itself, but to help each other achieve success beyond our dreams is a blessing and something I'll always remember and appreciate.'' That might indicate how much Belichick will miss him during free-agency and the draft. Would the Patriots have taken a shot on a quarterback from USC who never started a college game without Pioli's show of faith in Matt Cassel? Probably not. So Pioli's loss will be felt.
But the Patriots will get a very good start on a bright future. They already have three draft choices between 20 and 60 overall -- their own first- and second-rounders, as well as San Diego's second-round pick -- and could add another prime pick or two if, as expected, they franchise Cassel and get a high pick or two for him. When the Falcons traded Matt Schaub to Houston two years ago, they acquired two second-round picks in return. New England surely would get more for Cassel. As if the Patriots needed five picks in the first two rounds ...
"We've owned the team 15 years,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft told me the other day, still taking in the losses. He said of Pioli, "You can't replace someone like that ... But we used to cut players and no one would pick them up. I think I like it better when other teams are taking our coaches and front-office people. It's the sincerest form of flattery. I know we have a system in place to replace good people, and I have confidence after spending time with our key people that we'll be all right.''