Cardinals take Todd Haley's play from pie in the sky to reality
Bob Donnan / US PRESSWIRE
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was a key playmaker in Saturday's victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Arizona's offensive coordinator uses air travel time to watch tape and find way to thwart familiar formation by Carolina defense. It helps propel Cardinals past Panthers and closer to Super Bowl.
By Sam Farmer
January 14, 2009
It's just a scrap of paper marked up with some scribblings. But to Todd Haley and the rest of the Arizona Cardinals, it's a masterpiece.
In fact, the offensive coordinator plans to frame the keepsake and hang it on his office wall.
And why not? The doodling helped propel the Cardinals to the unlikeliest of places -- one victory away from the Super Bowl.
Rewind to last Friday, when the Cardinals were making their four-hour charter flight to Charlotte, N.C., for a divisional playoff game against the Carolina Panthers, who were favored by 10 points. Throughout the regular season, Arizona failed to win a road game outside of its division, and was 0-5 in games played in the Eastern time zone.
Haley, a former assistant coach with the New York Jets, Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, was doing what he typically does on flights -- or any spare moment, really. He was watching game footage on his laptop.
"I love long flights," he said in a phone interview later. "Just to sit there for four or five hours and watch tape with no distractions. It's great."
On this flight, of course, he was studying footage of the Panthers against NFC South opponents. He was looking for tendencies by Carolina's defense, any pre-snap cues that might tip off what the Panthers liked to do, any weaknesses in their coverage schemes.
"I kept seeing a familiar formation show up," he said. "The left corner did the same thing over and over. I could see how they were trying to play the defense."
So, naturally, Haley went on the offensive. He tore out a sheet of notebook paper, clicked open his pen and started to sketch a play. It called for quarterback Kurt Warner to freeze the defense with a fake pitch, roll right, then look for star receiver Larry Fitzgerald streaking the left middle of the field.
The next step for Haley? Creating a name. He called the play "Fake Toss 339 Taxi Pass X-Pylon."
With that, he got up from his seat, and like a sandlot quarterback in the sky, walked around the plane and explained his creation to each member of the offense. It would work, he told them, and they just might try it against the Panthers.
The Cardinals arrived in Charlotte on Friday afternoon and had only a brief walk-through practice to prepare for the game. Players wear sweats for those, and typically spend about a half-hour walking through roughly a dozen plays.
Haley had planned to try out his new play there, at the stadium, but got spooked. Maybe he felt skittish about the possibility of prying eyes. Maybe it was the TV news helicopter hovering overhead. Whichever, he huddled the offense close and talked the Cardinals through the new play.
A day later, those players would never forget it. With Arizona trailing, 7-0, and facing a third-and-one at its 49-yard line, Haley called the play. It worked beautifully, from the fake toss, to the long heave, to Fitzgerald's spectacular leaping catch that split two defenders.
"Once it was drawn up," Haley said, "I knew it would work in a third-and-short situation."
The 41-yard gain -- Arizona's longest play of the game -- gave the Cardinals a first down at the 10. They scored a touchdown three plays later for the first of a jaw-dropping 33 consecutive points.
"He is our big playmaker," Warner said of Fitzgerald, "and he didn't disappoint again today."
Behind every playmaker, of course, is a maker of the play.
In this case, that's Haley. Soon, he'll be able to lean back in his office chair, point to that scrap of paper under glass, and tell how it went from off-the-wall musing to on-the-wall masterpiece. And maybe those flights back East aren't so bad, after all.
"If we weren't on that plane so long, maybe that play doesn't happen," Haley said.
As it is, the Cardinals are just hoping for one more of those brainstorm sessions at 45,000 feet.