Former outcasts Bruce Arians, Drew Stanton now leading Cardinals to top
So, a funny few things happened on the way to Bruce Arians' alleged retirement ...
He had been "re-fired" by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 20, 2012 after five years as the team's offensive coordinator. The team announced that Arians had retired from the game, but that was a cover -- Arians had been replaced at the request of head coach Mike Tomlin, who wanted his own guy, and Arians was disgusted enough with the process that he was about ready to make the team's lie an absolute truth.
"I had actually started working with an agency, training some players for the combine," Arians said by phone Wednesday. "I was out at Oklahoma State working out with Justin Blackmon, thinking that I would be in retirement, and this would be a nice way to stay in the game, and stay around some young players."
Arians knew in his heart that he could be a coach at the highest level -- in his five seasons with the Steelers, the team went to two Super Bowls, won one, had three 12-win seasons and missed the postseason just once. In the two full seasons since Arians was asked to depart, the team hasn't had a winning season, finishing 8-8 in 2012 and '13.
Still, the man who had been an assistant coach with college and professional programs since 1978 was ready to hang 'em up. Only one colleague had other ideas, and it wasn't long before Arians was back in the game.
"As I was coming back from Oklahoma State and was driving pack to Pittsburgh with the rest of our furniture, Chuck called. And my wife looked at me and said, 'Oh, s---. You're going to take that job, aren't you?'
"I said, 'Probably, but he hasn't offered it to me yet.'"
Chuck, of course, was Chuck Pagano, the former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator who had been newly minted as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach in January 2012. The Colts were coming off a disaster of a season -- 2-14 and knowing that Peyton Manning would no longer be part of their plan -- but Arians saw a sweet opportunity. He was the Colts' quarterbacks coach from 1998 to 2000, the last time the franchise underwent a complete and total reversal of fortune when they took Manning as the first overall pick in the '98 draft. Now, with Andrew Luck soon to follow in Manning's footsteps, and the right people at the top, Arians was recharged and ready to start over.
"It was like déjà vu all over again, having been there in 1998 with Bill Polian, coming in with Jim Mora and Peyton. Now, it was Ryan Grigson, Chuck and probably Andrew Luck. That was very exciting for me, to go back and work with another young quarterback."
Of course, things changed that season in ways nobody could have imagined. Arians was named the team's interim head coach on Oct. 1 following Pagano's leukemia diagnosis. At the same time he was making sure that the light was on in Pagano's office 24 hours a day (literally) and talking to Pagano every day about the gameplan, Arians was leading the Colts to one of the more incredible single-season turnarounds in league history -- from 2-14 to 11-5, a playoff berth and a Coach of the Year award. With Pagano on the mend by season's end, NFL teams were asking Arians if he wanted to be their head coach on a permanent basis, and his future seemed secured.
So, a funny few things happened on Drew Stanton's way to permanent NFL bust status.
Stanton was selected in the second round of the 2007 draft out of Michigan State by a Detroit Lions front office led by Matt Millen -- a front office that was then one year away from presenting America with the only NFL team ever to go 0-16 for a season. When Millen was mercifully canned after the 2008 campaign, the first thing the Lions did was take Georgia's Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick. Stanton had missed his entire first season with a knee injury, and then sprained his thumb in the 2008 preseason, and spent that year as Dan Orlovsky's backup after Jon Kitna was out for the season with his own injuries. Stafford's selection meant Stanton had little future in Detroit, where he completed 104 passes in 187 attempts for 1,158 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions over a four-year period.
A free agent in 2012, Stanton was signed by the Jets, but asked for a trade or release a few days after the team signed Tim Tebow. The Jets obliged, shipping Stanton to the Colts in a deal that barely made a dent in the news cycle. Stanton would play backup to Luck in the No. 1 overall pick's first season, and would also meet Bruce Arians, a relationship that would change everything for him.
"He's re-instilled confidence in me," Stanton said, when I asked him what Arians has done for him as a quarterback. "Early on, and I think if you ask any player, regardless of position -- confidence is the hardest thing to hold onto and the easiest thing to lose. You start questioning and doubting yourself, especially when people try and tell you that you can't do things. But he's done a great job of re-instilling that in me, and that started in Indianapolis. He gave me the ability and freedom to do stuff, even though I was a backup. He listened to my input and made me feel that I had a voice -- even when I wasn't on the field. So now, when I get on the field, I feel very comfortable with what's going on -- the mechanics of things. He'll chime in on certain throws -- get my shoulder down, do this, do that,. Having played the position too, I think he understands the cerebral part of that. He can relate to quarterbacks, and help them to feel relaxed and confident."
Stanton never got a shot in Indy, obviously -- Luck was the man, and he took Arians' passing concepts to amazing levels in their one season together. But Arians saw enough of Stanton to know that he had something about him that just worked. And Arians, who knew full well what it was like to be overlooked and rejected when you knew you could do more, paid attention to that hunch.
"I liked him coming out of college -- he was smart and he was tough," Arians said of Stanton. "As long as you have those two elements in a quarterback, you can work on accuracy and he did a great job, busting his tail. He really benefited with Andrew Luck not being there for all the OTAs. Andrew was in the Stanford quarter system so he couldn’t come [to early camps].
"Drew got every snap [in Indianapolis that summer], he got every meeting and you saw him prepare. You knew he was more than ready mentally and physically -- it was could he get accurate enough? He and Clyde Christensen worked tirelessly on his mechanics and I saw him develop into a very accurate passer."
What would happen next?
After his triumphant year in Indy, Arians thought for sure he would be the Chicago Bears' new head coach, replacing Lovie Smith. But the process that ended with the hire of Marc Trestman included a faux press conference, and the insistence that whoever Chicago's new head coach was, he would keep defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Arians had been through too much to have such conditions set for him. Besides, there was a better opportunity in Arizona. The Cardinals had fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who preceded Arians as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, and after hearing from Whisenhunt that this would be a good opportunity for him, Arians met with general manager Steve Keim and team president Michael Bidwill.
It was clear that this was the place for him.
"Steve and I grew up about 15 miles apart, and I didn't know him -- he's a lot younger. But we hit it off so good. We had a dinner, Michael and Steve and I, the night before the interview, it was just very relaxing. These guys obviously want to win. Michael Bidwill wants to win. So it was very easy going into the interview process -- I think they accepted who I was and what I was looking for, and I shared the same vision they had for a franchise."
No mock press conferences, then, I asked him?
"No. No mock press conferences."
The Cardinals named Arians their new head coach in January 2013, giving him a four-year deal. Two months later, and before they acquired Carson Palmer, Arians' new team signed Drew Stanton to a three-year, $8.2 million contract.
"It was an easy decision to sign him for free agency here, not knowing we were going to get Carson, or we were going to exhaust every option to get another quarterback to compete with him, but I was more than happy with him."
The Cards traded for Palmer in a deal with the Oakland Raiders, and Palmer helped Arizona to a 10-win season in his first year with Arians. That wasn't enough for the playoffs, but it was clear that this was a team that was on its way. Instead of Marinelli (who wound up leaving Chicago for Dallas anyway), Arians selected former Eagles defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to be his main man on defense based on Bowles' time as a player for Arians at Temple, and the new Cards looked like a contender. Hopes were high for the 2014 season, and it was thought that with Palmer at the helm, this team could be the first in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
So, a funny few things happened on the Cardinals' path to league dominance in 2014.
First, Palmer started having issues with the nerves in his throwing shoulder, which led to Stanton starting for Arians in Weeks 2-4. He failed to complete half his passes and didn't throw a touchdown in two of those games, but the Cards went 2-1 in that span, and Stanton proved without a doubt that he could handle Arians' deep ball scheme, throwing a full 25 percent of his passes 20 or more yards in the air and throwing both of his touchdowns on deep passes. When Palmer proved ready to return, the Cardinals kept winning games, and Arians knew he had a great backup quarterback.
Palmer tore his ACL against the St. Louis Rams, and Stanton was named the starter for the rest of the season. He mopped up the win over St. Louis, and for the first time in his career, prepared for an NFL opponent with the knowledge that he was the guy for the rest of the season, and that he had the full confidence of his head coach.
More than anything, the great backup quarterbacks have to prepare "as if." They must go through all the motions as if they're preparing to start every game, even when they know that the only thing that puts them in that position is franchise disaster.
Stanton had that down pat.
"I was extremely lucky to have a few guys show me the ropes. None greater than Shaun Hill [in Detroit], because he showed me how to prepare as a backup -- what it took, and the process that goes into it. It's something that I continue to work on, and work with, on how to fine-tune these things. But Wednesday is a carbon copy for me now as it was compared to when I wasn't playing. You go through, and you watch everything, and you have the regimen of a daily process to feel prepared when Sunday rolls around. You put all this work in behind the scenes, and most of the time it never comes to fruition. It's never seen, but when that chance does come, you hope to go out there and feel like you're prepared."
But in his case, it was seen. And he was prepared. Against the Detroit Lions' top-ranked defense last Sunday, Stanton completed 21-of-32 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Arians didn't dumb the playbook down for his backup (as Stanton said of his head coach, he'll "empty the holster on every home run that we have"), and the Cardinals continued their winning ways with a 14-6 final.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the success Arians and Stanton have had in Arizona is that neither of them seem surprised by any of it. Both men -- indeed, everyone on the team -- will talk about the "Next Man Up" philosophy with an air of inevitably as opposed to desperation. At 9-1 despite the loss of Palmer and several key defensive players, the Cardinals have taken Arians' toughness and philosophy to a new level.
"It has to be -- when you find yourself in this league, you have to have that approach because you have to have the self-discipline and once you get your opportunity, you want to try and make the most of it," Stanton said. "For me, I waited a long time -- four years in between starts. Also, I think it’s a credit to the front office and to BA [Arians] for the type of people they bring in here. Because that speaks volumes about the type of guys that are answering the bell once they get their chance. It’s not one or two guys -- that would be coincidental. This is something that has become a culture around here, and hopefully it can be that way for a while."
Now, the Cardinals will head to Seattle for a key divisional matchup with the Seahawks. Last season, they gave the current NFL champs their first loss at home in over a year, despite a four-interception performance from Palmer. This time, it's the Seahawks who are the underdogs, no matter what the line may say.
Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, who went through his own dark night of the soul when the Patriots fired him after the 1999 season, knows a kindred spirit when he sees one -- both he and Arians had to wait for their chances, and perfect circumstances.
"I’ve really admired what has done whether he was a coordinator or not," Carroll said Wednesday. "He’s been a really top-notch coach at the head of the game for a long time. I think he’s perfectly suited to be a head coach in this league. He knows the league really well. He’s got a great approach and a great mentality about him. It’s no surprise. I don’t know how our division got so darn tough, but it just is. I know that he has really added to it and quickly. It only took him half the season to get going last year and then they were really hard to deal with.
"I love coaches and I appreciate any of their trials and tribulations to get where they get and to stick as long as they can, and guys do bounce back. It’s a great challenge and he’s got great resolve. He knows exactly what he wants to do, and I think the message comes across loud and clear."
It does, but Arians is on too much of a roll to think that much about it.
"Every day is a blast. I'm not coaching for my next job; this is it. This is it, so I do whatever the hell I want to do."
Is it fair to say that his "retirement" has worked out pretty well?
"Yeah. I would recommend this to just about anybody."
Whatever happens next, Arians and Stanton will be ready for it.