- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

TAMPA, Fla.

The hot assistant angle is a rite of passage at the Super Bowl. When the Arizona Cardinals arrive Monday afternoon, offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be asked three things during his three scheduled interview opportunities leading up to Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

How contentious is his relationship with receiver Anquan Boldin?

What kind of gadget plays will he run against the Steelers?

Will he be the next coach of the Kansas City Chiefs?

The Cardinals’ surprising run through the NFC playoffs in which they eclipsed 30 points each time - as an underdog - has turned Haley into this year’s version of Steve Spagnuolo, so Washington Redskins fans can relate to Chiefs fans.

Last year, Spagnuolo probably wasn’t on the Redskins’ radar until the New York Giants won at Dallas and Green Bay, forcing Dan Snyder to wait until after the Super Bowl to chat with the defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo eventually stayed with the Giants and was recently named coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Haley appears to be in a similar position, one made more interesting by his ties to Bill Parcells (NFL royalty), his sideline confrontation with Boldin during the NFC title game (showed he knows how to handle a diva), his creative playcalling (opponents haven’t been able to stop the Cardinals) and the decision by the Chiefs (firing Herm Edwards).

“I’ve got five kids, so the last thing I’m thinking about is moving anywhere,” Haley said last week. “I’m just enjoying what’s going on here and the fact we’ve been able to do something nobody else has been able to do [with the Cardinals].”

Obvious lip service. Spagnuolo - even though he doesn’t have any kids - recited the same values last year before the Super Bowl. Better to keep your current employer happy than try to impress a future employer.

But Haley would be wise to listen to the Chiefs. Their new boss is Scott Pioli, and they have the third overall pick and a ton of salary cap space. And with so many new coaches being hired this year (11, including Oakland interim coach Tom Cable) and so many huge names taking the year off, chances are Haley won’t garner as much interest next year compared to Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan and Jon Gruden.

The playoffs have been a nationally televised job interview for Haley, who has found ways to create mismatches for receiver Larry Fitzgerald and helped give quarterback Kurt Warner enough time to throw by moving him around the pocket.

How the Cardinals attack Pittsburgh’s defense will be devised by coach Ken Whisenhunt, offensive line coach Russ Grimm and Haley.

The subplot of Whisenhunt and Grimm facing the franchise that spurned them two years ago in favor of Mike Tomlin will gain traction as the week goes along, but the fascinating X’s and O’s matchup is Haley against Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Pittsburgh’s defensive game plan on a weekly basis has been to pressure and then pressure some more. Even though the Steelers blitzed only seven times against the Ravens, opponents trying to figure out who’s rushing and from where is the key to the Steelers’ success.

Arizona hopes on a weekly basis that Warner is blitzed.

In the divisional round, Carolina blitzed only twice in the first half, figuring a four-man rush could get to Warner. Didn’t happen.

Philadelphia, also a team that preaches pressure, blitzed 16 times. On those plays, Warner was sacked just once and completed 10 of 15 passes for 110 yards.

LeBeau has had a week to decide which plan works best - coverage like Carolina, blitzing like Philadelphia or a mix of both. He should have plenty of chances to dial up pressure because the Arizona running game shouldn’t scare any team.

Warner and Fitzgerald do worry Pittsburgh, which should make Haley and Whisenhunt’s decision easy - come out firing instead of facing second-and-long situations all night.

Last year’s stunner in the Super Bowl helped pave a new career path for Spagnuolo, a career assistant who was in his first year as an NFL coordinator.

If the Cardinals, currently seven-point underdogs, can surprise and defeat Pittsburgh, Haley knows the spotlight on him will become even more glaring. And it could lead him to Kansas City.

“I think it’s human nature to want to be patted on the back a little bit, but I’m not entirely comfortable with being in the spotlight,” he said. “That’s not really my personality. But I know with success some of that stuff comes along with it, and I wouldn’t give back the success for a second.”

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