Interim play-caller Spencer Whipple comforted by support from Cardinals’ staff
Arizona Cardinals assistant receivers coach Spencer Whipple realized while sitting on the team bus — with a cold rain falling outside — that he and fellow assistant Mike Bercovici hadn’t laminated the offensive play-call sheets.
It’s a task he and Bercovici usually take care of, but there was more on his plate Sunday in Cleveland. Whipple, for the first time in his pro career, had to call in plays.
There were few hiccups in his NFL debut doing so. The 32-year-old took head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s headset and with the support of a reduced staff helped the Cardinals to a 37-14 win over the Browns.
Kingsbury remains away from the team after testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday before the road win. When he returns is anyone’s guess.
Without the regular play-caller, not to mention quarterbacks coach Cam Turner, the Arizona offense did just fine.
The Cardinals had possession for 35 minutes of the game, outgained the Browns 352-290, converted eight of 15 third downs and scored on seven of 10 drives.
It helped that third-year quarterback Kyler Murray felt comfortable taking Whipple’s decisions on passing plays and making the proper checks at the line. It also helped that Murray is very good — he went 20-of-30 for 229 yards and four scores.
“Kyler makes it easy to call plays, that’s for sure,” Whipple said.
But the assistant, who had called plays only once before as an assistant with UMass, found comfort from other places.
“I think really just the whole staff and just the situation, the players, everybody around, I think when I found out it was happening, pretty much every coach reached out,” Whipple said. “Especially Coach Kingsbury, what he texted, ‘just let it rip.’ It said he had confidence and faith in us and me.
“For me, it’s a position I’d like to aspire to be full-time. I had a really big opportunity and there really wasn’t much time to be nervous.”
Whipple had help before the game, leaving the receivers room to meet with the quarterbacks as the team reconfigured duties without Kingsbury. The coach credited backup quarterbacks Colt McCoy and Chris Streveler, along with Murray, for talking through things they liked about the gameplan.
Saturday night, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph had some calming advice: “He said, ‘Don’t worry. The first time I had to call a game was against Peyton Manning in his record-breaking year,'” Whipple said. “He said, ‘You’ll do fine.'”
When the game came, pregame jitters were blanketed by the job at hand.
From the kickoff, Whipple had run game coordinator Sean Kugler calling run plays as he usually does with Kingsbury. Meanwhile, special teams coach and assistant head coach Jeff Rodgers was in charge of throwing challenge flags. He also decided when to go for it on fourth down, or when to punt or kick a field goal.
“We have a system in place where we’re trying to think through scenarios,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “Everything’s kind of prewritten. Recommendations what we’re going to do at the end of the drive, we’ve got a real good feeling for that.
“I’m going to make those decisions on everything I’ve observed through three years. There wasn’t really anything that came up.”
From there, with a support system limiting the worries, Whipple just wanted to get out of his own way and take advantage of an opportunity.
By the results, he did let it rip. His play-sheet didn’t.
It didn’t rain anyway, but he and Bercovici got it laminated before the game — just in case.
“The more I thought about the situation and the things that were unfolding, the more hesitant you become,” Whipple said. “You just let it flow, let it happen, you get in a little rhythm.”