(Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Games can be won or lost months before they’re played—in cramped classrooms as schemes are installed. We sat in as coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals’ profane perfectionist, taught Larry Fitzgerald and crew a critical element of his offense. Grab a seat and listen

By Peter King
August 23, 2013

From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From August, Peter King goes behind the scenes with the Arizona Cardinals to give readers a look at every detail surrounding an NFL team's preparation...

A note from The MMQB’s editor-in-chief, Peter King: This week is the one-month anniversary of our website. In the first month, we’ve given you a seat in the Dallas Cowboys’ training-camp-opening team meeting, sweated with a player as he unexpectedly gets cut by the Jaguars, heard what goes through a veteran player’s mind as he fights a youngster to keep his starting job in camp, shadowed an undrafted rookie in his quest to make an NFL team and felt what the Vikings felt in their agonizing January 2010 NFC title game loss in New Orleans from backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels—including the startling “I choked” admission from Brett Favre as he sat on a Gatorade cooler in overtime. Today, we take you into the offensive meeting room of the Arizona Cardinals, as rookie coach Bruce Arians installs the offense … and lectures his rookie players about the minutiae of the game that turns mediocre teams into winners. In the increasingly crowded landscape of pro football coverage, we think this is the best place—the only place—to get inside the game and feel what the players feel, see how the coaches coach. We look forward to months, and years, of giving you more of the same.

WORDSTK No detail is overlooked by the hands-on Arians, who was named 2012 Coach of the Year after stepping in for the leukemia-stricken Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis last season. The Cardinals hired Arians in January to turn around a franchise that hasn't finished above .500 since 2009.

“We never, ever want to pass on the home run to complete a short fade.”

In the front row of the meeting, which includes quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends: QBs Ryan Lindley, Drew Stanton, Carson Palmer and assistant head coach Tom Moore. Across the aisle, also in the front row: wideouts Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald. Rookies sit a couple of rows behind the starters, clustered to the right side. There’s a hierarchy to the room, and when the power players are up front, it’s a sign that this is where you want to be—eventually.

The meeting, held on one of the Cardinals’ Organized Team Activity days in June, lasts 50 minutes. The purpose is to review the plays from the previous day’s practice, and to install what the team will be working on today. It probably doesn’t differ much from meetings in 31 other team rooms around the league. The MMQB has come to Arizona to show what an installation meeting is. It’s apparent that it’s part lecture, part preachy, part intense warning, part profane and, in its complex terminology, part droning Econ 101 class. In other words, a classroom. An everyday, ordinary classroom—with a few curse words thrown in. The players have already learned the very basics of Arians’ offense in spring minicamps. This class teaches offensive plays and offensive strategy. It’s Cardinal Football 201: The Second Level of Offense.

All the great teachers can feel the room. You don’t just go in with a script and read from it. You feel the room, and you be yourself.

Any good teacher in any walk of life has learned how to get his message across so that a 50-minute session seems like 15 minutes. When Arians has been droning for a short while, it’s as if he knows eyelids are getting heavy, and he yells to the room, with a nod to his star receiver: “LARRY! Excellent job setting that pick!” Everyone’s attention snaps back.

“Bruce is Rex Ryan without the bravado,” says kicker Jay Feely. “Accountability is his big trait. He knows exactly how to get his point across.”

“Coaches are teachers,” Arians says later. “The coach who had the biggest influence on me was Jimmy Sharp, my coach my senior year [at Virginia Tech]. I was a scout-team quarterback, and all of a sudden I was the quarterback, playing every week. Jimmy had a way of teaching that really worked for me. He could feel the room, feel what worked. I think all the great teachers can feel the room. You don’t just go in with a script and read from it. You feel the room, and you be yourself. It’s easy for me, just being myself in there. The profanity is part of it. The stories are part of it. How they learn, that doesn’t matter. They just have to learn it. And it’s your job to figure out how to do that.”

I came to witness and write about an installation meeting. But I found something much more compelling: a 60-year-old rookie NFL head coach—hired by Arizona after his Coach of the Year performance filling in for Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis in 2012—talking to his players the way a sixth-grade English teacher would instruct students in grammar. There is only one way to do things and win, and I’m going to show you the way. And the little things mean everything. And in this installation session—with plays taught for the Cardinals’ red-zone offense—the real teaching is about offensive precision and offensive philosophy. It’s a side of the game I hadn’t seen before.

* * *

At the Cards’ facility, a few long spirals from the Arizona State campus, players gather in one of the rooms just off the large meeting space where the full squad gets together. Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin speaks briefly at the start of the meeting. “Today is red zone day,” Goodwin says. “Let’s have fun with it. Let’s get better today.”

Now it’s time for Arians, in the right corner of the room, where he will conduct the meeting and lord over the video.

“We’re not satisfied with what we’re doing, guys,” he says. “We still can’t get f---ing lined up right. Running routes off the wrong foot. Missing the little things. Clean up the minor details! That’s how you get great! Guys, get together with Carson if you need to. He knows it. Clean it up, and clean it up now. Or we’ll start all over again. Got it?”

The first subject of the morning: the screen pass. When a new coach comes in, one of his first jobs is to get the mechanics he feels strongly about into the players’ repertoires. In Arians’ mechanics book regarding screens, quarterbacks must find a throwing lane, have their feet set and pointed directionally—quickly—toward the targeted receiver. Quarterbacks must be quick to decide whether to execute the screen, so the decision and the footwork can be organized in time to throw a ball that the receiver can do something with, before the defense recognizes the screen. It has to happen in a second—or a second and a half at most.

“Quarterbacks: I’ll tell you why it’s so important to get this right,” Arians says. “Screens give you such cheap, easy yards. So easy. We can’t blow these plays and lose these yards by not having our feet set. Remember: chin over toes. Easy gain—good throw, long run. Got it?”

Plays are taught. Notes are taken. The going gets heavy. Arians talks precision routes, when to throw certain balls, how defenses will respond. Players get it.

There are no little things. The little things are all big things.

Now it’s situation time. Arians is freaky about the tiny things. You wouldn’t think spiking the ball at the right time, or sitting on the field instead of running the ball in for a touchdown, or handing the ball to an official instead of leaving it on the field would be fodder for a June coaching session. But all of those things come up. Why? “Three times last year we won games with the Colts because of crazy situations,” Arians told the room, and it’s not the first time they’ve heard it.

Now Arians looks at his rookies, clustered together.

“We need 22 yards in 50 seconds,” Arians says. “And there’s a little science to that.”

The players are looking at a review of yesterday’s practice, when the offense was trying to advance the ball while controlling the clock at the same time. Arians was simulating the end of a game, getting in position for a field goal—and kicking it so that the clock runs out on an Arizona victory, meaning the Cards don’t have to kick off.

“So … ” Arians begins, and he pauses, looking up at a short completion to Floyd, “the first thing we want is a completion. We’re expecting pressure, and here’s Mike—now, we’re simulating the game so we’re not being real physical, but Mike, you would have stiff-armed that f---er out of bounds, right? You get rid of that guy anyway you can, right? We get a few yards here, and the clock’s running. KILL! KILL! Okay, Carson, right, make sure everyone’s set. Not worth the 10-second runoff penalty, is it, rookies?”

WORDSTK Making the catch is only part of the two-minute drill—Arians coaches Fitzgerald and the rest of the receivers to put the ball in the hands of the right official after the play to save crucial seconds in clock management.

The kill happens. Third down.

“Larry?” says Arians.

“Yessir,” Fitzgerald says.

“This is nothing more than a 10-yard release,” Arians says to Fitzgerald. “Right now we should have had this 10-yard release, out, and it’s game, set, match. But we don’t complete it, and instead it’s fourth down. And look, here”—now to the entire room—“we take a sack. FIRST OF ALL, GET F---ING LINED UP RIGHT! We lost this game yesterday. We have to win this game every day!”

Video. Now Arians has his offense in another situation. Field-goal range. End of game. Sixteen seconds left. Clock running. Running back with the ball after a pileup.

“We don’t want to kick with 16 seconds left, do we?” Arians says, laser-eyed at a rookie back. “Young guy, we want to kick with four seconds left, right? So what do we do here?

No answer.

“Hand the ball to the umpire! Where is the umpire? Remember, rookies—the umpire’s behind the defense in the two-minute drill. He switches sides. Don’t drop the ball! You know why?”

WORDSTK Arizona had the 28th-ranked passing attack last season ( 3,005 yards) and just 11 TDs through the air, but that will change with Palmer letting the ball the fly in Arians’ system.

No answer. Tough room.

“The defense will kick the ball around! You think any umpire’s going into that scrum to get the ball? Hell no! So you hang onto the ball and hand it to the umpire. You got it? So find the umpire. Don’t go back to the huddle till you find the umpire and hand him the ball. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve see defensive guys kick it around, and there goes eight, 10 seconds that you can’t afford to lose.”

Sixteen seconds left. No timeouts. Now a running play, to bleed the clock. Another lesson.

“Run one play,” Arians says. “Run one play, halfback. Say the defense opens up, and you think you can score from here. Do you want to go for it, juke around, make ’em miss, get a big touchdown, be the hero?”

No answer. You can tell the rookies don’t want to give the wrong answer and end up in the doghouse.

“Hell no! Get down! Quick! If you run for it and don’t make it, the defense will lay on you, and the clock runs out, and we don’t get to kick the chip shot to win the game. So you just get what you can in a couple of seconds and go down. Clock’s running, quarterback comes to the line, we line up, he spikes it. Three, four seconds left. Plenty of time. We kick the field goal. We win.

“You guys got that?”

Late in the session, Arians focuses on the young receivers. He goes from face to face as he speaks, looking each one in the eyes.

“Wideouts,” he begins, “you know what I want. I want six big plays a game. I want mismatches. Which one of you can give me that? I’m looking for an opportunity here. On both fields today, both practices, I’m watching you. [The Cards run one play on one field, then the same play on the neighboring field with another squad, so they can get in more work and not stay out in the Tempe heat so long]. I’m looking for speed. About four guys I’ve got my eyes on, and I’m not afraid to tell that to the whole team. I’m looking for one of you guys to take the top off the secondary.”

Pause. Silence in the room for six, seven seconds.

“Which one of you will it be?”

Later, between this meeting and practice, Arians explains that he wants the Cardinals to be the smartest situational team in football. In his office, the man who looks like the jovial uncle you had your first beer with gets passionate about the minutiae.

“These little game-winning situations don’t get practiced a lot,” he says. “You have to be a student to be a great football player. These things, they have to be part of your fiber.”

After the meeting, I look at my notes. During one long riff to the players about the importance of not wasting time when there is no time to be wasted, Arians looked out at the room and said: “There are no little things. The little things are all big things.”

Out of the mouths of coaches …

* * *

The real test of whether the kids know Arians’ rules will come in September. But for now, a training-camp practice in early August will have to do.

The Cards are working on the final-minute drill, getting in position for a last-second field goal. The team is working with a full officiating crew. The call, signifying the clock-bleeding toward the final field goal, comes in from the sideline: “ALERT! DOWN!” The clock ticks down. Jaron Brown, an undrafted free-agent from Clemson, catches a pass with seconds left, and as he is whistled down, sprints immediately to the umpire and hands him the ball.

“Perfection,” Arians says. “That’s good. In this league, that’s how you have to play.”

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