A year after coming within 35 seconds and the tips of Santonio Holmes' toes of winning the Super Bowl, Ken Whisenhunt's emotions are still a little raw about the subject.
The former Richmond Academy and Georgia Tech star passed on attending this year's shindig featuring the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints in Miami.
"I've gone every year up until this point," said the Arizona Cardinals coach. "This year because our two seasons seemed like they ran together, I just felt like I needed a break. Also, it's still a little bit difficult to go back to a Super Bowl the way it went for us last year. You still have thoughts that are hard to get out of your mind, the last two minutes when you're so close to winning it. When you get to the pageantry and excitement of the game, those things will come back to you."
Whisenhunt was the toast of the NFL last year after taking what is historically the worst franchise in NFL history to the brink of a championship. He danced his way right out of what had long been a coaching graveyard.
But what his Cardinals did this season might have been more impressive -- winning a second consecutive NFC West title, reaching 10 regular-season wins for the first time since 1976 and becoming only the second Super Bowl-losing team since 2000 to return to the playoffs the next year.
"Overcoming the odds and getting back to the playoffs after having lost a Super Bowl -- that's not something very many teams have done in the last decade and we were able to do that," said Whisenhunt, whose club joined the Seattle Seahawks as the only franchises to do it since the 1999 Tennessee Titans. "That speaks to the character of our players and the hard work that they put in."
The other thing he is most proud of is that the Cardinals were the only team in the NFL not to lose consecutive games in 2009 -- a feat that included rebounding from a regular-season ending loss to the Green Bay Packers to beating the same Packers team in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
"I think what that shows is our resiliency and ability to bounce back, put games behind us and move forward," Whisenhunt said. "That was what we did last year at halftime of the Super Bowl, and we were able to put that devastating play that James Harrison made right before the half -- the fact that we were trailing when there was a very good chance we would be leading -- put that behind us and play a very good second half and have a chance to win it. That to me shows growth as a team and belief in what we're trying to do and belief in each other as teammates. That's what I'm most proud about."
That says something considering Whisenhunt had to replace both his offensive and defensive coordinators after the Super Bowl and face a tougher schedule as reigning NFC champions. Anyone who considered 2008 a fluke was shut up by another successful season.
"It very difficult after you go to a Super Bowl," admitted Whisenhunt. "Your off-season is short. You have a number of distractions. Your schedule is tougher. We had our bye week after the third game. When we were playing the New Orleans Saints (in the divisional playoffs), that was our 15th straight week playing a game and that's tough.
"So it was a very rewarding season even though it's still tough and rips your guts out and you lose and know you're one game away from playing in the NFC Championship and getting a chance to go to the Super Bowl again. When you're so close, that's disappointing because it's so hard to get there."
It will be even harder next year for the Cardinals, who will have to replace retired quarterback Kurt Warner with Matt Leinart. Whisenhunt considers Warner a no-brainer choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Whenever you lose a player like Kurt Warner, it's a challenge to your franchise," he said. "Because he's playing the hardest position in the league to play at the highest level. It's never easy to replace that. But we've developed a good base of young talent that's shown that when it's their time to play they've done a good job. So while on one hand you're always sorry and respect the fact that you've lost a very good player, on the other you're excited to see the young guys step in and where they can take you. The good teams in the NFL are the ones that are able to overcome the losses of players or coaches and still be able to stay focused and build."
Whisenhunt knows he has work left to establish the Cardinals as one of those good teams. Two years doesn't erase decades of futility -- ask an Atlanta Falcon fan how difficult it is to have back-to-back winning seasons -- but it's a good start.
"I believe the people in the league and teams we play look at us in a different way," he said. But there's too many years of futility, you might say, that you can't just overcome that with two good seasons. I think the first year people said we were a flash in the pan and got lucky. This year when we did it again people are starting to say maybe they are legitimate. But I think we have to continue with this for a number of years before we'll ever be recognized by fans across the country as an organization that's arrived. We need to have a few more years of sustained success -- a lot more successful than not successful -- in order to build that trust with the public."
After a brief and well-deserved vacation, he'll resume his quest to build that trust.
Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt -- a former standout player at Richmond Academy and Georgia Tech -- shares his thoughts about the Super Bowl XLIV matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. The Cardinals lost to the Saints, 45-14, in the NFC Divisional playoff round and to the Colts, 31-10, early in the regular season.
It's the first time since '93 that both the No. 1 seeds are actually going to play in the Super Bowl. The two best regular season teams are playing in the Super Bowl and ultimately that's the way you would expect to see it go.
Indianapolis has a distinct advantage because the last time they won the Super Bowl it was in this same stadium (Miami, beating the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI). As far as the routine for practicing and preparing and knowing what's coming, that's all familiar to them and that has to be an advantage.
The Saints, the first time being there, there are a lot of distractions that come with that.
I truly believe that the reason the Saints have had success, especially defensively in the playoffs, is the advantage of having the noise at home (in the Superdome). That's going to be negated somewhat by playing at a neutral site with pretty much a split fan base.
On the flip side, New Orleans has a very good offense and has been successful and the quarterback is playing at a high level. The matchup is going to come down to Indianapolis' ability to get pressure on Drew Brees and more importantly to tackle and limit the run after a catch.
They're going to try to get the ball in the hands of the Reggie Bushs and some of their underneath players that run with the football. If the Saints don't perform better than they did against Minnesota's defense (in the NFC Championship game), it's going to be tough for them to be successful in the Super Bowl."