Cardinals: In Whisenhunt they trust

Ken Whisenhunt has turned the Arizona Cardinals into a playoff contender under his watch. Scott Boehm/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS -- Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt is now one of the NFL's highest-paid head coaches.

"There's no question he is in the upper portion of the league," team president Michael Bidwill said Saturday from the NFL combine.

Whisenhunt's extension through 2013 marked the first time the Cardinals extended a head coach's contract since the team moved to Arizona in 1988. It's a significant step because Whisenhunt, an ascending coach with a 4-2 postseason record, wouldn't have agreed to a new deal without knowing the organization would arm him with sufficient resources.

"The ability of an organization to have a plan, stick to that plan and have success certainly makes (the job) attractive," Whisenhunt said. "There were a lot of questions about Arizona that have been answered about certainly with a new stadium, could they win if they had a plan? And I think we've shown that to a degree."

Although labor uncertainty will affect plans across the league in the short term, I would expect the Cardinals to eventually grow their 16-man coaching staff (the other NFC West teams have at least 20). Whisenhunt will have more control over hiring his coaches and more control over the roster, another perk successful coaches tend to enjoy. Building an indoor practice facility should be another expectation.

These are the long-term investments a team can make to weather a down season or two. The Cardinals have gone 8-8, 9-7 and 10-6 under Whisenhunt, a trajectory they'll have a hard time maintaining in 2010.

With quarterback Kurt Warner and pass-rusher Bertrand Berry retiring, free safety Antrel Rolle likely hitting the market and linebacker Karlos Dansby all but gone, the Cardinals will rely heavily on their college scouting department to find players and Whisenhunt's staff to coach them up.

"We are a football team that I think is positioned correctly to withstand transition, whether we are losing Karlos Dansby or whether we lose Kurt Warner," general manager Rod Graves said. "I just feel like Ken has done a tremendous job of instilling the right qualities and setting the proper standards for our football team. If we lose players from time to time, I feel like we can keep going."

The Cardinals have gone into quite a few offseasons with relatively few players under contact, and that is the case as free agency approaches on March 5. Some of that reflects questionable planning (see Rolle's rookie deal) and some reflects the team's confidence -- so far rewarded -- in the personnel department's ability to find replacement parts. Whisenhunt's unsolicited reference to college scouting director Steve Keim during his media session Saturday was appropriate.

Much like Whisenhunt's former organization, the Steelers, Arizona has succeeded in using the draft to replace key veterans lost in free agency. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, running back Beanie Wells, defensive end Calais Campbell, running back Tim Hightower and running back LaRod Stephens-Howling made significant contributions beginning as rookies.

Outside linebacker Will Davis, outside linebacker Cody Brown, cornerback Greg Toler and offensive lineman Herman Johnson could emerge this season.

Most of them will be needed.

"What we've been trying to do is build the depth on our team and we feel like we have done that to a great degree," Whisenhunt said.

Matt Leinart is the only quarterback signed for 2010, but his price tag beyond this season becomes untenable unless Leinart enjoys a breakout season. I would expect the Cardinals to pursue Chad Pennington or another veteran to compete with Leinart and probably back him up.

Warner made that depth look a lot better.

Whisenhunt has already pulled off the near-impossible by turning the Cardinals into a playoff contender with front-office stability and a long-term plan.

They'll need his best coaching job yet in 2010.