The challenge of making a challenge

Posted by Darren Urban on December 20, 2011 – 11:39 am

To sum it up, yes, Ken Whisenhunt thought the spot of the ball was wrong.

The Browns Sunday ran Payton Hillis on third-and-1 for what was called a first down, although it looked like the Cards had stuffed him short of the line to gain and replays seemed to bear that out. The Cardinals’ coach thought about challenging but didn’t – three plays later, the Browns scored on their 76-yard touchdown pass – in a sequence that was a microcosm of the difficulty in making a challenge.

“Let me tell you something, (challenging) is a tough deal,” Whisenhunt said. “The whole world is looking at you and a lot of times, you don’t have all the information.”

Generally, Whisenhunt quickly checks with the upstairs coaches on whatever side of the ball isn’t involved in the challenge – for instance, if the Cards’ defense is on the field, he goes to the offensive coaches first. Then he would check with the defensive coaches.

But it’s all done in a very tight window.

The situation on the Hillis spot dictated Whisenhunt’s hesitancy.  Earlier in the game, the Cards had unsuccessfully challenged a third-down Cleveland completion in the first half. The play picked up only eight yards and it was fourth down regardless. But the catch made a field-goal attempt 44 yards instead of 52, and a challenge was worth it to Whisenhunt.

The play was upheld, however, meaning that the Cards only had one challenge left the rest of the game. So when the Hillis run came early in the third quarter, and it only gave the Browns a first down at their own 22-yard line, it was already sketchy. Add in the odds that a spot would actually be changed, and Whiz said no.

“Yes, we talked about it,” Whisenhunt said. “But I was scared to use it because there was too much judgment involved with that.”

It paid off too, because the Cards’ saved challenge ended up becoming very useful later in the game when Whiz flagged the Seneca Wallace sack/fumble that ended up being overturned, giving the Cards the ball.

Whisenhunt said he’s been burned by a lack of challenges before, and the moment was burned in his brain — a play in Tampa Bay on Nov. 4, 2007, when Kurt Warner threw an interception with 2:39 left. The Cardinals thought Jermaine Phillips had only one foot inbounds, but Whisenhunt couldn’t challenge.

In that case, though, the Cards had both their challenges remaining. In that game, the Cards couldn’t challenge because they had burned all three of their timeouts earlier in the half and had none left (and a team must have a timeout to use a challenge, in case the challenge fails). Sunday, timeouts weren’t the issue, just the earlier missed challenge.

“I learned a hard lesson in Tampa,” Whisenhunt said.

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