Game over: Anderson’s reaction after throwing a costly pick to end the Cardinals comeback hopes
This was a tough one and I’m sure Cardinals fans are still smarting from this loss. I know I am. Arizona clawed back from a 17-point deficit to take a 35-31 fourth quarter lead. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Cardinals imploded with mistakes, dropping into 3rd place in the NFC West at 3-4. “It’s discouraging,” Whisenhunt said. “There are so many twists and turns, and then to have a chance at the end and make a mistake, it’s a very bitter loss.” It’s easiest to point the finger of blame at Derek Anderson, but ultimately it would be undeserved, a point discussed in detail below.
Before we get to that, however, something should be said about the Buccaneers’ effort. They went across the country and responded to their coach’s proclamation by gutting out a tough road win. They blew a 17-point lead and still came back to win the game. Josh Freeman didn’t panic and certainly seems like a leader that gets the job done at quarterback. It’s just too bad that Arizona can’t say the same.
The Cardinals’ won the toss and their first possession on offense started out pretty well. The newly appointed starting running back Beanie Wells (16 carries, 50 yards, 1 TD) got the game going with a nice 14-yard gain off right tackle. After an end-around to LaRod Stephens-Howling (4 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD) went nowhere, a Buccaneers offside penalty set up a third and two. Max Hall (8/16, 71 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) passed the ball short to Wells, who appeared to catch the ball and pick up the first down before going out of bounds, but Tampa Bay challenged the play and it was ruled that Wells never had possession. Arizona punted to the Buccaneers.
On defense, the Cardinals forced an emphatic three-and-out, highlighted by Darnell Dockett’s (5 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 QB hit) first down tackle for a two-yard loss. After a Bucs punt, the Cardinals offense got things rolling. Starting with good field position from their own 39-yard line, the Cards drove down field on a 9-play, 61-yard drive capped off by Hall’s first career touchdown pass, a short dump to Larry Fitzgerald (6 receptions, 72 yards, 2 TDs). During the drive, the Cardinals offense flashed a little bit of everything. Hall did miss a wide open Fitzgerald down the right seem on the first play of the drive, but the rookie redeemed himself, connecting on 3/5 passes for 34 yards, including the touchdown pass. In addition, Steve Breaston (8 receptions, 147 yards), who had a monster game in a losing effort, emphasized his return with a nifty 14-yard end around run, bringing the Cardinals down to Tampa Bay’s 6 yard line.
Arizona’s defense forced another three-and-out when Tampa got the ball back, but it turns out that the Bucs don’t need their offense to score points. On the ensuing Cardinals’ possession, Hall threw his first of two pick-sixes. It wasn’t all Hall’s fault, though. Beanie Wells failed to pick up a free-runner on Hall’s blind side and Max was hit as he threw. Unfortunately, Hall’s errant throw went right into the waiting arms of linebacker Geno Hayes, who scampered 41 yards for the touchdown making the score 7-7. Wells’ blitz pickup was the predominant reason why Whisenhunt kept him behind Hightower on the depth chart until now and it bit the Cardinals big time in this game.
Arizona and Tampa Bay then traded punts, ending the first quarter. The second quarter started out as eventful as the first. After another Cardinals punt, Bucs’ return-man Stroughter muffed the fair catch, which was recovered by all-around gamer LaRod Stephens-Howling. The Cardinals took over on the Buccaneers’ 16-yard line poised to regain the lead. That’s exactly what they did 4 plays later on a Beanie Wells 1-yard run plunge making the score 14-7.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers would answer right back on a 47-yard bomb from Freeman to receiver Mike Williams. Greg Toler was burned badly, but actually made up some ground to come up just short on the play. Williams strolled into the endzone, tying the score at 14 in the process. When the Cards got the ball back, Max Hall’s day would end shortly thereafter. After grabbing a first down, Hall dropped back on first and ten from the Cardinals’ 40 yard line. Hall pulled the trigger looking for Steve Breaston, but found Talib instead. The Buccaneers cornerback took his fourth interception of the season all the way for a touchdown, putting the Bucs up 21-14. “I think other than (the interceptions) I was playing a decent half,” Hall commented. “Unfortunately those two throws just really turned the momentum.” Whisenhunt had seen enough and promptly inserted Derek Anderson in Hall’s place.
On Anderson’s first drive, he threw a deep jump ball to Breaston, which Steve somehow came down with before falling out of bounds for a 33-yard gain. On the Bucs’ 11 yard line, the Cardinals brought it down to Tampa’s five yard line for a 3rd and 4. The next two play calls, in my opinion, cost the Cardinals the game. It’s once again proof that Ken Whisenhunt should not be calling the plays for the Cardinals. Instead of utilizing his 230-pound beast of a running back on a third and less than five, Whisenhunt decided to rely on the inaccurate arm of Derek Anderson not once, but twice. Which brings me to my next point. There is absolutely no reason for the Cardinals to go for it on 4th and 2 in the closing minutes of the first half. In a 21-14 game where the Buccaneers are going to have the ball starting the second half, there’s no excuse for Whisenhunt taking points off the board with over two quarters of football left to play. A terrible decision, but here’s how Whisenhunt reasoned it:
“I thought worst-case scenario we’d have them inside the 2 and stop them and get it back. Our defense has been very good down there this year, especially with the noise with the crowd. That was the thinking there. I thought it was a pretty safe bet at that time.”
I hope that Whisenhunt simply failed to mention that he at least thought of the consequence of taking the points off the board when he explained his thought process. Granted the defense was playing pretty well, but it’s not really about the defense at that point. It’s about taking points away from a struggling offense so early in the game. There’s no justification for taking that risk in the second quarter in a one-score game.
Of course, the Cardinals failed to convert as Anderson, appropriately enough for him, threw a bullet right into the back of Alan Faneca’s head on fourth down. Amazingly, intended receiver Steve Breaston almost caught the deflection, but it slipped through his hands. The Bucs would then drive down the field to add a field goal, stretching their lead to 24-14 at the half.
It should be noted that the Cardinals had an Adrian Wilson (4 tackles) interception negated by a phantom defensive pass interference penalty called on Wilson himself. I’m not one that typically bemoans bad calls because they are a part of every game and usually go both ways, but this one was truly terrible. Adrian merely placed his hand ever so slightly on intended receiver Kellen Winslow before stepping in front of him to snag the ball. Wilson took off down the sideline advancing the ball to the Buccaneers’ 44 yard line. The call certainly negated a scoring opportunity for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals forced a Bucs punt to start the third quarter. Arizona caught a break when an Anderson interception was negated by off-setting penalties. The Cards punted and the Bucs poured on the points on an 8 play, 80 yard drive capped off by a LeGarrette Blount 14-yard touchdown run making the score 31-14 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
On Blount’s touchdown run, Kerry Rhodes (10 tackles, blocked field goal) was the last Cardinal standing between the ball carrier and the endzone. Instead of lowering his shoulders like a football player, Rhodes cowered away from the 250-pound Blount in a half-hearted attempt to look like he wanted to make a play. That will be tough to hide from his teammates on film. Rhodes has certainly made plays for the Cardinals this season, but that kind of effort is honestly sickening. Rhodes is definitely giving up quite a bit to Blount, who’s basically a Mack truck, but it’s hard to imagine that someone like Steve Breaston (who’d be giving up more) would stick his head in the sand and hope he doesn’t get run over with six points on the line. At least go for the man’s legs. It’s really about heart.
Facing a seemingly insurmountable 17-point deficit, the rest of the Cardinals showed plenty of heart as they pulled to within three points on two touchdowns within 23 seconds of each other. First, the Cardinals drove down the field on a 7-play, 76 yard drive capped off by a 30-yard touchdown scamper by LaRod Stephens-Howling. Facing a 3rd and 1, Anderson handed the ball off on a delay from shotgun. Stephens-Howling took it around left end and turned on the jets, benefiting from a great down field block by Fitzgerald, which made the score 31-21. After the extra point, the Cardinals struck again, this time on defense. Linebacker Paris Lenon (5 tackles, forced fumble) forced a Garrett LeBlount fumble, which was scooped up by newly activated veteran linebacker Gerald Hayes (5 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, fumble recovery, TD). Hayes, showing great veteran awareness, scooped up the loose ball and rumbled 21 yards for a touchdown. In a flash the score was 31-28.
The Cardinals’ defense forced a huge three-and-out, thanks in large part to a third down sack by linebacker Joey Porter (3 tackles, 1 sack, 1 tackle for a loss, 1 QB hit) for a loss of 11 yards, which took Tampa out of field goal range. On the Cardinals’ next possession, Anderson led a 4 play, 48-yard drive that culminated on a 5-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald, his second of the day, giving the Cardinals an unbelievable 35-31 fourth quarter lead.
The Buccaneers, however, weren’t done either. Josh Freeman, like he’s done all season, brought Tampa Bay back with a 47-yard bomb to Arrelious Benn, who absolutely toasted Kerry Rhodes deep. Benn was ruled down on the one yard line, but it was just a formality as Blount took the ball into the endzone on a 1-yard dive, making the score 38-35 with 5:08 left in the game.
Arizona had two possession to add the game-tying field goal, but both ended the same way: interceptions thrown by Derek Anderson. The first interception was merely fortuitous as intended receiver Stephens-Howling was absolutely rocked by linebacker Gino Hayes as soon as Hyphen touched the pass. The deflected ball was picked off the turf on a great play by linebacker Barrett Ruud.
The Cardinals’ defense stood strong in a bad spot, though. Pinned back starting on their own 22 yard line, Arizona forced a 53-yard field goal attempt when Clark Haggans’ replacement, Will Davis, came up huge on third down sack for a 14-yard loss. Kerry Rhodes blocked the 53-yard attempt.
With 3:16 left and with absolutely amazing field position at the Cardinals’ own 43 yard line, Arizona had about as good a chance as you could ask to tie the game with a field goal. Things started out fine and the Cardinals moved the ball 18 yards down field to the Bucs’ 20 yard line. Arizona was poised to at least knock in the game-tying field goal with what would have been a relative chip shot for Feely, but no. Instead of protecting the ball by running, Whisenhunt put the game in the hands of Derek Anderson, who promptly forced a 14-yard pass into double coverage while looking for Larry Fitzgerald. Talib and Anderson respectively recorded their second interceptions of the game on the play.
“It was (Cover) Two and the corner just squeezed it,” Anderson said. “I think the ball went to the right spot. I have to look at it. But the guy made a good play. Obviously, it was very frustrating, first down on their 20 and to throw a pick and not even give us a chance to at least tie the game.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t even seem that Anderson understands that he should never have thrown that ball. Is Anderson serious with his “I think the ball went to the right spot” remark? The right spot is the open receiver, 20 yards out of bounds or the worst case scenario, your hip pocket.
You can’t really blame Anderson all that much, though. He is what he is. We can, however, blame Whisenhunt for allowing Anderson to lose the game when the team had a chance to tie it. Although the offense was without Beanie Wells (sidelined after he apparently injured his back) and Stephens-Howling (injured by the Hayes hit), bring in Jason Wright to pound it on the ground a couple of times to preserve the easy field goal. Don’t let Anderson throw the game away. Lost in the shuffle of this disappointing mess is the question of who is going to play quarterback now. I’m sure we’ll get to that this week.
Here’s what Whisenhunt had to say about the fateful play call: “We thought we had a good play based on coverages that we thought we were going to get. Obviously, you ask me that now and I’d like to have it back and run it.” That is quite an obvious statement. I don’t understand how a head coach can make these kinds of simple mistakes again and again during the course of a game and what is shaping up to be an entire season in Whisenhunt’s case. They aren’t complicated mistakes where one could say, “You know what, I can understand what the coach was thinking at that time and it just didn’t work out.” These are elementary blunders that someone with even limited coaching experience should be able to avoid.
Moments after the ball sailed into Talib’s hands, you could see Fitzgerald wringing his hands in a mixture of what could only be disbelief, regret, and frustration. Early Doucet, by the way, was totally uncovered on an inside slant on the other side of the field. As Anderson sauntered off the field and Whisenhunt glanced up at the 38-35 score, I suspect Whiz wished he had those three points back from just before the half.