Before taking the field for offseason training activities last spring, new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians laid out his code of conduct for the players, one of which involved a ban on tackling. Despite that, within days of concluding his sermon, Robert Gill, a 29-year-old former track athlete whose pro football experience was limited to various arena leagues, tackled cornerback Patrick Peterson after Peterson intercepted a pass from Carson Palmer.
Arians was hotter than a Phoenix summer as he watched Peterson, a Pro Bowler and one of the team’s best players, lie on the ground after injuring an ankle on the play. Finally, he sent Gill to the locker room with no indication of what would happen next. Overnight, he decided he would cut the undrafted rookie, but not by calling him into his office, as most coaches would do. Instead he gathered the team—and Gill—and told them what he was about to do.
“I told the players this is the etiquette, and if you break the etiquette I’ve got to let you go,” Arians recalled during training camp. “He tackled Patrick, Patrick sprained an ankle, I’m a man of my word on that. I felt bad for the kid, but he just flat broke all the etiquette rules. I told him right there, ‘I have to let you go.’ ”
The players sat slack-jawed.
“It got guys’ attention,” says Pro Bowl wideout Larry Fitzgerald. “He was about to cut him in front of the team. I've never seen anything like that before. A lot of guys were like, There's a new sheriff in town, and his pistol is out and he's not playing.”
Arians is hoping to send a similar message to the NFC West, where the Cardinals have gone three straight years without a winning record. In a division that features established league bullies in San Francisco and Seattle, as well as a potential budding power in St. Louis, the bespectacled Arians wants to prove that trio aren't the only ones who can kick sand in opponents’ faces.
Truth is, there might not be a more aggressive play-caller in the pass game than Arians, who makes no secret of his intentions to take at least six shots down the field a game. In each of his past four seasons as a play-caller, his offenses in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis ranked 10th or higher in completions of 20 yards or longer, including three stints in the top three.
He’s a ruthless tactician who believes the numbers are in his favor, even when they’re not. One of his favorite sayings is, “Three can’t cover two;" as in, three defenders can’t cover two receivers. He knows three is greater than two numerically, but not in the passing game. At least not as he sees it.
“If a team doubles one of the receivers, the other one has to win,” he says. “If you're singled, you're the winner.”
Arians loves to the throw the football in the same way Adrian Peterson runs the rock. He attacks at every opportunity, wanting to dictate to a defense rather than counter-punch. He plans to do the same beginning with Sunday’s opener against the Rams, who are as aggressive on defense as he is on offense.
When blitzing in passing situations last season, St. Louis ranked second in both sacks and sack percentage. They dropped the quarterback 26 times on the blitz—one fewer than Green Bay—in 184 pass attempts for a 12.38 sack percentage that trailed Tennessee by .62 percent. The Titans had 21 sacks in 129 attempts.
Last year the Rams also allowed an aggregate of just 90 points in six division games, which was 12 more than the Seahawks, who led the league in fewest points allowed, but 14 fewer than the 49ers, who are viewed as one of the league’s top defenses. The Rams have two talented cornerbacks in Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins.
But none of that is going to stop Arians from doing what he likes to do, which is attack through the air. He has a big, strong-armed QB in Carson Palmer; a Pro Bowl receiver in Fitzgerald; a quietly productive receiver in Andre Roberts, who has earned the trust of Palmer; and an emerging threat in Michael Floyd, the team’s first-round pick in 2012.
“Michael has a ton of talent,” Arians says. “He’s got a good mentor in Larry, and he’s a big guy who can play big, so give him a chance (to go up and get the ball). He has limitations, but he has lots of strengths. Build on the strengths, work on the limitations. Don’t put him in situations where you really can’t win. He also brings a physical toughness to the running game, a Hines Ward effect. But he definitely can stretch the field, too.”
A lot of guys were like, 'There's a new sheriff in town, and his pistol is out and he's not playing.' —Larry Fitzgerald
Arians’ offense has been labeled "vertical" because of the number of big plays it produces—the Colts had 65 completions of 20 yards or more last season, two behind the league-leading Lions—but the description isn't completely accurate. He indeed likes to pick up chunks with downfield throws, but he also believes in big gains off short routes where the receiver can run free after being hit in stride. He teaches his receivers to run through zones, rather than sitting or “squatting” in holes and waiting on the ball.
It’s all about stepping on the gas, although Arians also understands the importance of the brake pedal. Such as when he had Gill, the rookie looking to make the jump from the arena leagues, stand up in front of the team as he prepared to cut him. “You could see what he was getting ready to do, and I’m thinking, Oh, man. This kid’s kinda good. We don’t want to lose him,” says Palmer.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett thought the same thing and raised his hand to ask if Gill could have a second chance. Arians, who had preached ownership and accountability to his players, put it to a vote. Gill won out that day, although he ultimately was cut during training camp.