Bruce Arians knew it was going to happen in the middle of the 2012 season. Arians was running the Indianapolis Colts that season, as he was forced to become the team’s de facto head coach when Chuck Pagano had to bow out early in the season because of a leukemia diagnosis.
The Colts could have fallen apart in 2012 without their first-year head coach and with a rookie quarterback in Andrew Luck, but Arians was not going to let the opportunity slip through his grasp.
Arians was 60 at the time and had been an assistant throughout his NFL tenure. If he wanted to get noticed as a legitimate head coaching candidate, he had to take this opportunity and run to the endzone with it.
That’s just what he did. The Colts had bought into Pagano’s system, and Arians made sure there was no let-up. He also helped Luck stay on track and felt comfortable as a rookie. He coached the brilliant rookie and made sure he followed his lessons – reading his defensive keys, following his progressions – and the Colts kept winning football games.
They made the playoffs and Pagano returned. Everyone loved the story, and Pagano’s emotions drew in non-Colts fans as well as the hardcore types in Indianapolis.
But it was Arians who had made his mark and led the Colts to a 9-3 record during Pagano’s absence. Shortly after the season ended, he was named head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
The one thing that life had taught Arians that he was absolutely sure of was that he was going to look people in the eye and tell them what he thought. It’s a pretty basic lesson of life that everybody is taught from the youngest age.
But being honest – sometimes in a brutal and hard-core fashion – is something that few master. You do it the wrong way, and you turn a lifelong friend into an enemy. You try that with a high-level athlete and you could lose him for a season or longer.
In a bygone era, coaches named Lombardi, Shula and Noll could do it with relative ease. But in today’s NFL, telling a player that he’s not getting the job done while looking him straight in the eye is risky. Especially when you let the public know shortly thereafter that the player has made mistakes as well.
That’s the Arians style, and he’s not afraid to tell wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, linebacker Larry Foote, cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive end Calais Campbell that he’s not happy with them.
Arians does it with no holding back. He will curse players up-and-down a blue streak as he criticizes them, and he does it while looking them in the eye or in a meeting room. Then he will let the press know he’s not happy with that player. He protects nobody.
But he has the gift. That kind of candor is appreciated by all when it comes out of Arians’ mouth. Instead of resenting their head coach, players tend to love him and play harder for him.
The Cardinals have bought in completely to the Arians coaching style. That’s why they are 3-0 and when they go to Denver this week, they don’t care that the rest of the world calls them underdogs and doesn’t believe they have a chance to beat a rested Broncos team with Peyton Manning at the controls.
They know they can win, because they won at Seattle last year. The Seahawks are 17-1 in their last 18 regular-season home games, and the Cardinals are the team that handed them that defeat.
They won in Week 16 last year, as they beat the Seahawks 17-10 in the cacophony that is CenturyLink Field.
The Seahawks could have clinched the NFC West and homefield advantage with a win, but Arizona would not allow it. They managed to slay the beast even though they had been beaten 58-0 there the previous year.
The Cardinals played tougher defense than the hosts that day. They stopped Russell Wilson and the Seahawks from coming back, and that win helped to define who the Cardinals are this year.
The Cardinals will not have starting quarterback Carson Palmer in the lineup again this week due to his continuing shoulder problems. They will have to go with backup Drew Stanton for the third straight game.
That appears to be a hardship when playing a team like the Broncos on their homefield, but Arians is not about to give his undefeated team any excuses. He thinks his Cardinals are still capable of piling up wins and competing in the jungle that is the NFC West.
He continues to call it like he sees it, and his players love his plain-speaking ways.
It’s a gift that few people have. Arians can look players in the eye, tell them that they’re awful and they still love him and play hard for him.
It just may be the key to a season that allows the Cardinals to become a playoff team and a true championship contender.