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TAMPA, Fla. -- Go back to the last Thursday practice before the last game of the regular season. It was a tenuous moment when the NFC's mild, mild West champion Arizona Cardinals were reverting to their steeped laughingstock tradition by stumbling, bumbling, fumbling their way into the playoffs with losses in four of their previous five games. It was a cold morning for Tempe, Ariz. It was a rainy morning.

It was Christmas morning.

And Ken Whisenhunt made them wear full pads -- or, as he unkindly put it, "big-boy pads."

He made them crush one another as if it were training camp in August.

He made them work so hard, stir so deeply, redress their misbegotten habits that he forged steel, if not Steelers West, that desert day.

Their even-keeled coach went Bear Bryant on them, one wag put it. He went "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" on them. He went ...

"What do you think?" Whisenhunt said last week, turning to a Pittsburgh acquaintance.

He went all Bill Cowher on them.

Minus the moisture, of course.

"He said, 'If you guys want to play one game, go home and watch everybody else, then continue to practice and play the way you have been playing,' " remembered defensive tackle Bryan Robinson.

"That was definitely a wake-up call," added receiver Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt. "[That] was like a two-a-day practice. We were in full pads banging, coaches yelling. Really an intense practice. I think guys responded well to the tough coaching and to the tough practice. We saw good results against Seattle [a 34-21 victory three days later], and we were able to build that positive momentum going forward."

Positive momentum? The NFL's losingest franchise, with one home playoff game and two postseason victories in 89 previous seasons, was shoved up a Mount Everest of professional-sport failure -- equal in its scope and slope to the Chicago Cubs -- and into its inaugural ascent to the summit. It is such a foreign notion, such a Football folly, that it gets repeated in wide-eyed, italicized disbelief: the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

Merry Christmas, from coach Whis.

"Let me be clear," began Whisenhunt, Cowher's offensive coordinator from 2004-06, tight ends coach from 2001-03 and potential successor when the Rooneys ultimately chose Mike Tomlin to steer the Steelers (14-4), whom, it just so happens, face Whisenhunt and the Cardinals (12-7) Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII. "Not that we don't push the players here. This was a unique situation: We had won the division, we knew we were going to have a [home] playoff game, and we weren't playing well.

"That practice wasn't so much about the game that weekend. It was about the playoffs."

Whis' kids haven't lost since. They're 4-0. They're still giddy from the coach's hand-slapping, victory laps after beating Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia. They're here in the Super hoopla, aiming to shed the tailspin-earned tag "worst playoff team in history" and plant the Lombardi Trophy atop that summit.

The Cardinals. Lombardi Trophy. He maintains he had both heretofore unthinkable thoughts in mind upon his Jan. 14, 2007, arrival.

The man came with a plan, and it went something like this: Copy the Steelers.

Soon, former Steelers were following him up the facility walkway. Russ Grimm, after he lost the Steelers' head coaching job he felt he might get offered, became Whisenhunt's assistant head coach. Special teams coach Kevin Spencer, former offensive assistant Mike Miller, ex-defensive assistants Bill Davis and Matt Raich, even video guy Rob Brakel brought along Steelers pasts to accent the philosophy, the accountability, the toughness that the new head coach sought to raise in Arizona.

Even former Steelers players were signed, such as tight end Jerame Tuman, quarterback Brian St. Pierre, linebacker Clark Haggans and Pro Bowl special teamer Sean Morey.

"Aw, it's a definite connection," St. Pierre said one day last week in the Cardinals' locker room in Tempe, Ariz. "Coach Whis and Russ and all those guys from the Steelers are about winning, and they brought that. There are a lot of guys in this room who know the Steeler way."

The connection is so complete, in fact, that they run the old Steelers' practice schedule.

This season, with back-to-back games at Washington and the New York Jets, Arizona's second-year coach planned a weeklong East Coast stay in between. He modeled the hotel and practice schedule after -- what else? -- Super Bowl XL in Detroit with the Steelers.

Funny thing, too: Media types chortled that late-September week when Whisenhunt mentioned such a schedule could help his Cardinals come a Super Bowl trip some day. Some day arrived 15 weeks later.

Not that Whisenhunt channels Cowher. Not that he, uh, spits out Cowherisms. Far from it. Joe Gibbs and Dan Henning are two other old bosses he credits for his development.

"He's a smart man and a very cool customer," Spencer said of his boss armed with a Georgia Tech engineering degree, "and he's still maintained his wit. You don't want to get into a verbal barrage with him, because he's going to win."

In short, he changed a culture but not himself in the process. Spencer added: "He's still Ken Whisenhunt, but he's a hell of a head coach. I'm glad he's on our side. Let's put it that way."

"He really hasn't deviated from what he was in Pittsburgh," St. Pierre said. "Very fair guy. Very up front. A great communicator. He's a guy players want to play for and be motivated by. And I don't know if I heard coach Whis overturn one play call [by offensive coordinator Todd Haley] all year. That doesn't surprise me. Whis being a coordinator under a very tough coach in Bill Cowher, he knows what it feels like having a coach yelling or overturning it. And that's what makes him successful as a coach."

Defensive tackle Bertrand Berry added: "He's not an iron-fist guy. He has discipline, for sure, but he knows how to laugh, knows when to joke and has a sense of humor. He pretty much embodies everything that you could want in a head coach."

Whisenhunt's steady hand stroked them in ways they apparently wanted, needed, craved.

Reliability: "In years past, accountability might not have been the No. 1 concern," said long snapper Nathan Hodel, a 7?-season veteran and the team's player representative. "Now, players are holding each other accountable. You don't win in this game alone."

Cohesion and confidence: They got mixed messages in the past, said eight-year veteran safety Adrian Wilson. "We were getting one thing from the head coach, and the other coaches were saying other things. We weren't getting the same thing."

Discipline and toughness: Christmas Day.

Arizona went 8-8 last season, though a 21-14 triumph against Tomlin and the Steelers in Week 5 might have been the beginning of when the coaches pulled the players to their level. Defensive tackle Gabe Watson recalled, "I think they were more excited about it [beforehand]. They were saying, 'We have to win this game.' And we pulled it off."

A 7-3 start this season all but secured an NFC West title and home playoff game, both franchise firsts since the 1947 NFL championship, but the players started -- their word -- "sleep-walking."

Whisenhunt awoke them, all right.

The Cardinals were throttled in New England, 47-7. They were throttled the next Thursday, too.

"I've always been around teams that were physically tough, never more than Pittsburgh," he said. "That organization exudes that. You know, when you're in a situation like that, you go back to what you know works.

"The biggest challenge that we faced was that the first thing we wanted to do was try to establish a team concept. We've seen it at times during our two years, but to have it on a consistent basis, that's something that you can't rush. And I think you really saw the fruition for us after the New England game."

Arizona lost four of those five games, ending with New England, by a collective 130-41.

Arizona won its four since Christmas by 129-83.

"Coach Whisenhunt did an excellent job of turning the mind-set of this team," said guard Deuce Lutui, a Phoenix native. "People used to accept losers, but now that is no longer tolerated around this program. It is not a big surprise that we are in the Super Bowl."

The Cardinals. Lombardi Trophy. Whisenhunt and the guys are busy making believers.

The Whiz file

* Personal: Born February 28, 1962 in Atlanta, Ken Whisenhunt was raised in Augusta, Ga., and is a graduate of Richmond Academy.

* College: Entered Georgia Tech as a walk-on tight end and finished career ranked second on the school's all-time receiving yardage list and fourth in career receptions; earned degree in civil engineering.

* Pro career: Was selected in the 12th round of the 1985 NFL draft by Atlanta; went on to play nine NFL seasons with the Falcons (1985-88), Redskins (1989-90), and Jets (1991-93).

* Coaching start: Previously coached at the pro level with the Jets (2000), Browns (1999) and Ravens (1997-98); began his coaching career in the collegiate ranks with Vanderbilt (1995-96).

* Steelers: Spent 2001-06 with the Steelers, the first three as tight ends coach and the last three as offensive coordinator; helped team earn victory in Super Bowl XL.

* Passing game: Took over as the Steelers' offensive coordinator the same year the team drafted QB Ben Roethlisberger (2004). That year Roethlisberger went on to set an NFL record with wins in his first 13 career starts en route to offensive rookie of the year honors.

* Super Bowl XL: His second year as offensive coordinator ended with an NFL title after the Steelers' offense averaged 26.8 points per game in the playoffs.

* Cardinals: Became an NFL head coach for the first time when hired by Arizona Jan. 14, 2007.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: January 30, 2009

Tony Richardson Name: Tony Richardson
Position: RB
Age: 36
Experience: 14 years
College: Auburn
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