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Mystery Man Helps Cardinals Offense Achieve

Assistant receivers coach Spencer Whipple was a large part of the Arizona Cardinals Sunday win over Cleveland.

Peter King produces his Football Morning in America every week and Monday he devoted a large part of it to the Cardinals in several spots. 


Spencer Who?

Kyler Murray’s three security blankets (coach/play-caller, QB coach, Pro Bowl center) all were missing, the first two because of positive COVID tests. The unexpected star of the show was Spencer Whipple, the Cards’ 32-year-old assistant receivers coach, designated to call plays by the quarantining Kliff Kingsbury. How’d the kid do? First-half drive for the Cards: TD, TD, FG, FG, FG. You’ll meet Whipple—who’d previously called plays once in his coaching life, at UMass—in a few paragraphs. The NFL’s lone unbeaten team didn’t just survive in Cleveland. The Cardinals buried the Browns.

Kliff on FaceTime

Usually after a big win, the head coach speaks in the locker room and the players cheer and someone gets a game ball. In the age of COVID, sometimes there’s a wrinkle. The 6-0 Cardinals stayed the last unbeaten team in football Sunday with a statement game—a 37-14 win at Cleveland. Afterward, the coach was in the locker room, sort of. Kliff Kingsbury was actually in the room virtually, on FaceTime, watching from his home 2,060 miles away in Arizona, quarantining with the coronavirus. Kingsbury and quarterback coach Cam Turner were missing from the joyous scene, both having tested positive last week. Without them, Arizona whomped a supposed playoff team, with Kyler Murray and J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins all playing roles. And it was odd to hear club owner Michael Bidwill speaking post-game.

“What you guys did today was extraordinary,” Bidwill said in the locker room. “Special shoutouts—Spencer did an incredible job today!”

Spencer. First name mentioned. The noise from the crowd of players, for a good five seconds, sounded like: “YAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYY!’’

Spencer? Spencer who? Would even the diehard Cardinal fans know “Spencer?”

Spencer Whipple, the assistant receivers coach, got the nod from Kingsbury on Friday to call the plays into Kyler Murray’s helmet. Seems that Whipple’s even demeanor and encyclopedic knowledge of the Kingsbury offense appealed to the head coach. Kingsbury has been the play-caller for the first 37 games of his Cardinal tenure. Now, the way Kingsbury organized play-calling in his absence was to use the game plan, already installed during the week, as the template. Run-game coordinator Sean Kugler would ID the best running plays for situations, and when a run was called for, he’d be on the headset to Whipple, telling the play, and Whipple would tell Murray. On pass plays, Whipple would make the call. Both men knew there’d be times a run or pass might be the call, and in that case, they’d basically think, WWKC? What would Kliff call?

“Kliff put me at ease,” said Whipple, the son of the former Steelers and Browns quarterback coach Mark Whipple, now the offensive coordinator at Pitt. “When he told me what was going on, he just got right into it, instead of talking about how different it would be or how hard it would be. So I never really thought of the magnitude of it.”

Plus, as special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers told Whipple: “It’s not like you’re going to be driving a minivan. You’re taking the keys to a Ferrari in this game.”

The Ferrari, of course, was Murray, off to a great start. Whipple’s not in the QB meeting room, and so he doesn’t work with Murray normally. They met for a while Saturday in Tempe, before flying to Cleveland, and Whipple wanted to get a sense of what Murray liked. Murray told him the plays in each category of the play sheet that he felt good about.

Whipple said when he got to the stadium Sunday in Cleveland, the enormity of the task hit him. “I was like, ‘Hey, we’re really doing this.’” He’d called plays in a UMass-South Florida game as a UMass assistant several years ago, and he remembered thinking how nervous he was that day. “I was a lot less nervous today,” he said. “Everything was set up pretty well for me.”

The play he recalled fondly after the game was the first touchdown. Arizona had a third-and-19 at the Cleveland 21 on the opening drive. Murray’s favorite play on third-and-long was a corner route to Christian Kirk; if the Cards ran it right, Kirk should have single coverage. “I just thought, ‘Kyler loves it, so let’s call it,’” said Whipple. Murray drew defensive attention to him when it looked like he might scramble—but he was planning to hit Kirk in the left side of the end zone all along. The throw was perfect, Kirk was singled, and Arizona led 7-0.

The Cards had 352 yards, scored on seven of 10 possessions, and it all seemed just too good to be true. When you’ve got a good plan and good player to execute it, dream days like this can happen. But it was no dream. Whipple found that out when his boss texted him a few minutes after the game.

The text: “Congrats! Hard work pays off!”

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Murray One of Three Top Offensive Players

Playing in a hostile environment without the security blanket of the only coach he’s had in the NFL who has called plays for him—Kliff Kingsbury missed Sunday’s game with COVID—Murray led scoring drives on Arizona’s first five possessions (TD, TD, FG, FG, FG) and finished 20 of 30 with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s a frenetic ball of fire on the field, but Murray is pretty damn efficient too.

Golden One of Three Top Defensive Players

He teamed with linebacker Jordan Hicks to wreck Baker Mayfield’s day in the Dawg Pound. Golden’s sack of Mayfield early in the second quarter led to a field goal and a surprising 17-0 lead after 17 minutes of play. The Browns had some life after the Hail Mary TD by Mayfield to close the first half, but on the first Cleveland snap of the third quarter, Golden crashed into Mayfield for his second sack, short-circuiting a drive the Browns needed badly. This was a great day for a resurgent defensive front, with J.J. Watt contributing his first sack in the third quarter, another strip-sack of Mayfield. Nothing fluky about this team, or this defense.

From 10 Things I Think, Prater was No. 2

I think the most amazing thing I learned this weekend was Matt Prater has 62 field goals of 50 yards or longer. The top-scoring kickers in NFL history are Adam Vinatieri (45 FGs of 50+ yards) and Morten Andersen (40). The best kicker in the game now, Justin Tucker, has 44. (Tucker is 31. He’ll have plenty more.) But just saying: Prater on the long ones has been amazing.