Bruce Arians' long-awaited opportunity arrives
The day Bruce Arians worked for and dreamed of, but had every right to doubt he'd ever see, has at last arrived. On Tuesday, his first group of Arizona Cardinals players, his guys, his team, will begin taking the field in training camp, led by a rookie head coach running the whole show at the tender age of 60, after a career path these past 18 months that fiction writers would have rejected out of hand as wholly implausible.
So you think you have an idea of what's going to happen next in the NFL? Consider Arians' route to Arizona. He went from being labeled part of the problem in Pittsburgh and not-so-gently nudged into retirement as the team's pass-happy offensive coordinator in January 2012, to being celebrated as the league's Coach of the Year roughly 12 months later, as in demand as he has been at any point in his long and circuitous 38-year coaching career.
In between, there was the Indianapolis chapter in the story, and a season of vindication, faith and unexpectedly sweet success with a young and over-achieving Colts club that represented the emotional high point of the NFL's 2012. From Pittsburgh to Indianapolis to Arizona, Arians' recent saga defies all probabilities. Calling it unlikely doesn't do it justice. Unfathomable is at least in the ballpark.
"There's no doubt, the last 18 months have been quite a ride,'' Arians said Monday, taking time out on his team's rookie reporting day to chat, as part of his role in Gatorade's annual "Beat the Heat'' program. "Going from, let's just say retirement -- whether it was forced or not -- to what went on in Indy last year and the Coach of the Year award, to watching (Colts head coach) Chuck Pagano get healthy and win his battle with leukemia, and then to have this opportunity arise. Yeah, it's kind of a crazy twist. I sat at home in Georgia a couple weeks ago and reflected on the whole story and how I got here.''
Fortunes change so rapidly in today's NFL, and perhaps all coaches wear an interim tag of sorts, whether they're identified that way or not. But Arians' star turn as the Colts' interim head coach last season during Pagano's absence -- he went 9-3 and guided rookie Andrew Luck and Co. to an AFC wild-card berth one year after Indianapolis bottomed out at 2-14 -- made him a hot commodity who was quickly snapped up by the Cardinals after they ended the six-year Ken Whisenhunt coaching tenure.
This week opens a hopeful new era of football in Arizona, with a new head coach, new starting quarterback and new training camp location, as the Cardinals become one of the latest teams to stay home all summer, eschewing their annual trip north to Flagstaff in order to get their prep work in at the University of Phoenix Stadium in nearby Glendale.
Arians is literally and figuratively in such a different place in his career at this point, and for company in that particular state he has Carson Palmer. He's the only readily available quarterback Arians truly pounded the table for this offseason, believing he could resurrect and re-energize a 33-year-old passer he once was very familiar with, owing to their days spent competing against each other on behalf of the Bengals and Steelers in the AFC North.
After the debacle that was the Cardinals' quarterback depth chart last season -- four starters producing just five wins -- Palmer will be the big story in Arizona's camp. Acquired for next to nothing from the downtrodden Raiders, Palmer hasn't played like the guy who went first overall in the draft a decade ago for quite a while now, but Arians is just confident enough in himself and his coaching talent to look at his new quarterback and see closer to the 2005-09 Palmer than the 2010-12 version who has won four games as a starter in each of the past three years.
Some would view the Arians and Palmer pairing with muted enthusiasm, perhaps lumping them together as a coach who will have to buck a historical trend of losing records compiled by rookie full-time head coaches at age 60 or over (Rod Rust, Dick MacPherson and Dick LeBeau, to name three examples in recent research by Football Outsiders) and a quarterback on the downside of his career. Arians sees it differently. And before we dismiss their chances in the rugged NFC West, home of the 49ers, Seahawks and improving Rams, would Cardinals success be drastically more unlikely than what the unheralded Colts accomplished last season?
"After studying all the throws he made last year, it was evident to me that he can still make every throw, and he has enough mobility to protect himself,'' Arians said of Palmer, who went 4-11 as the Raiders starter in 2012, with 4,018 yards passing, 22 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and an 85.3 passer rating. "He's not going to run around like these young kids [in the league], but once we got him and he started making those throws on the practice field, our defensive players are going, 'Wow, we got a quarterback.' I think everybody's excited about it, that he still has it. He's still as good a deep ball thrower as I've seen.''
Always straight forward to a fault, Arians ties his chances for success in Arizona to a return to prominence by Palmer. He has coached Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Luck, and knows well the only equation that works in the NFL.
"As a head coach, you're only as good as your quarterback,'' Arians said. "I don't buy into that notion that great defense and running the ball wins. None of those teams have ever won the Super Bowl (possible apologies to the 2000 Ravens?). They all had quarterbacks, because quarterbacks win in this league. You have no chance in this league without one. You really don't.''
As last year's Cardinals so vividly proved.
But Arians has plenty more work to do, of course, than just restoring Palmer's game to its previous standards. He has to shore up the woefully sub-standard Arizona offensive line, make sure the Cardinals' most elite player, receiver Larry Fitzgerald, is getting all the passes he wants and deserves, and oversee the NFL indoctrination of one Tyrann Mathieu, the former play-making LSU defensive back and high-profile character risk that Arizona rolled the dice on in the draft's third round.
The Aaron Hernandez arrest that rocked New England and the rest of the NFL in June is in a category all to itself when it comes to the potential consequences of taking character risk players, but Arians understands the debate about downside versus upside, and what's at stake with Mathieu's well-chronicled record of marijuana usage.
"I think you have to go case by case with players, because they're all so different, each flawed individual,'' Arians said. "Which we all are, to some degree. If you can't manage it, then it's too high a risk. If you feel like you can manage it, then is the reward going to be worth the risk? In our case, we had a young man who had a history with marijuana looking for a second chance. And he probably wouldn't have gotten one if a teammate (Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, a former LSU teammate of Mathieu's) hadn't stood on the table for him. That was kind of the difference for us.
"Once I got to know Tyrann, I felt this kid needed to have a second chance. And if it fails, I'll bite the bullet and say we gave him a shot and it didn't work. But I don't think he's going to fail.''
In many way, Arians, Palmer and Mathieu are all Cardinals rookies together, starting out this week in Glendale, as Arizona opens camp and prepares to do battle against both the desert heat and the formidable opponents that await in what is suddenly perhaps the NFL strongest division, the NFC West.
It's quite the glamorous roster of coaches Arians is now part of in the division, joining San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh, Seattle's Pete Carroll and St. Louis's Jeff Fisher. But something tells me Arians isn't likely to shyly wait his turn to make some noise. He waited long enough for this shot to run his own show, and he's going to run it his way. Right down to the tone-setting step of making sure his Cardinals rookies take the field Tuesday in the midst of triple-digit temperatures.
"We'll have practice with the rookies Tuesday and it'll be 105 and we'll be outside,'' Arians said. "But it'll be with the same message we've been sending them a week ahead of time, about the need for early hydration. Three Gatorades and a water. In this heat you can't come in here start trying to drink a lot of fluids the night before practice. That's too late at that point. It's got to start long before that.
"It was a new experience for me, especially in OTAs and in minicamp. In June it was up in the 100s and we were out there trying to beat the heat by getting out there at 10:30 in the morning. But in going to Glendale now, we'll be indoors with air conditioning plenty, but once a week we'll open that roof to get some heat and get the toughness part of it. We'll be smart, and we'll educate them, but we'll get after it.''
In Arizona, the task of rapidly changing the Cardinals fortunes for the better is at least in the hands of a coach who has his own recent experience with that kind of transformation. We witnessed it in Indy last year, but let's see if the Arians touch works once again in 2013.