Under the radar for now, Cardinals look like the best team in football
Last Wednesday, three days after his Cardinals beat the Bears 48–23, scoring the most points anyone ever had at Soldier Field, coach Bruce Arians had a simple, inspirational message for his players.
“You ain't s---.”
Arians was shooting from the hip as he always does, but he was also remembering the 2014 season, when his team stormed out to an 8–1 record before Carson Palmer was lost for the season to a knee injury. The backup combination of Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley was underwhelming, to put it kindly, and the 11–5 Cards wasted that hot start and an underrated performance by a great defense with a 27–16 loss to the Panthers in the wild-card round. So, you'll forgive Arians if he isn't all that impressed with this year's amazing start. He knew what kind of team he had last year, and he understands how quickly it can all go away.
That said, it's going to be hard for Arians to calm the hype this year. After Sunday's 47–7 thrashing of the 49ers, Arizona stands as perhaps the NFL's best team. They have scored 126 points in three games and allowed just 49, for an insane plus-77 point differential. Palmer is back with a vengeance; he's thrown nine touchdown passes to two interceptions. Veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald looks completely rejuvenated; he's caught five touchdown passes in the last two games alone after bringing in just two last season. Rookie running back David Johnson returned a kickoff 108 yards against the Bears last week and became the first player in NFL history with rushing, receiving and return touchdowns through his first two regular-season games. Johnson is getting reps in the backfield behind Chris Johnson, who had been an afterthought over the last few seasons with the Titans and Jets. Against the 49ers, the veteran Johnson amassed 150 total yards and scored two touchdowns.
Perhaps even more impressively, Arizona's defense hasn't missed a beat despite the departure of coordinator Todd Bowles. New coordinator James Bettcher has his charges looking just as aggressive and productive as they were in 2014. That point was brought home when two of Colin Kaepernick's first four passes were intercepted and returned for touchdowns—the first by cornerback Justin Bethel, and the second by safety Tyrann Mathieu. Before the 49ers were even out of the gate, they were 14 points down, and Kaepernick finished his day with nine completions in 19 attempts for just 67 yards.
It all lines up to look as if the best team in the game resides in the Valley of the Sun, but again, we've seen that movie before. The difference now may be that in the third year in Arians's offensive system, his players are far more comfortable. Arians is a risk-oriented coach in a risk-averse league. He has absolutely no qualms about seeing something on tape Thursday, running it in for Friday walkthroughs and expecting it to work on Sunday.
“He’s not shy about it,” Palmer said earlier this month. “He lets you know. We talk about it all the time. Touchdown [then] checkdown mentality. But there’s a touchdown, big-play capability within just about every play in the offense.”
Arians's philosophy resonates through his life. He was fired by the Steelers as their offensive coordinator after the 2011 season and hooked up with the Colts just in time to keep that team together through head coach Chuck Pagano's diagnosis and recovery from cancer. His resolve there prodded the Cardinals' front office to make him their main man in 2013, and his 26–11 regular-season mark as a head coach speaks for itself.
But this is the same Bruce Arians who thought he might not get another chance after the Steelers debacle. He had taken a job with an agency working with draft-eligible quarterbacks before Pagano called, and when he returned to the NFL, he resolved to do it his way, especially after a 2012 job interview with the Bears went awry. Chicago wanted a guy who would play to type, and that's not Arians.
“The same way I play golf, I don’t ever lay up,” Arians recently said. “I’ve hit a lot of balls in the water, but you can’t hit a good shot if you don’t try. There are times to run it and use the timeouts against certain teams, and times when you think you have a good play you use it.”
As Arians told me last year, “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.”
That's how it looks, and that's how his team is playing. It's early yet, and the Cardinals know that, but it's hard not to get excited if you're in that building.
By the way, what did Arians think of his team after the 49ers win? The same team that “wasn't [expletive]” a week ago?
“They smell a little better.” the coach quipped.