Cardinals' Future Is Bright with Bruce Arians, Who's Easily Coach of the Year

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJanuary 7, 2015

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 16:  Head coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates as he walks off the fiield after defeating the Detroit Lions 14-6 following the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on November 16, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You likely haven’t invested much time thinking about who will receive this year’s NFL Coach of the Year award. As a person now living in the year 2015 you’re wired to allocate time and mental energy with caution, leaving little room to quietly contemplate a question with an obvious answer: Bruce Arians is the Coach of the Year, and it’s not close.

There’s value, however, in looking back at how exactly Arians has been granted unique access to that pedestal. Because when we do that, more than just a deeper appreciation for Arians’ mystical coaching powers is gained.

Quickly you wonder how the Arizona Cardinals even had an opportunity to lose a playoff game, and how they didn’t instead evaporate as injured bodies collected.

When Arians took over as head coach of the Cardinals in the winter of 2013 he inherited a team that had gone three straight seasons without a winning record. An 8-8 year in 2011 was sandwiched between two 5-11 campaigns oozing with awfulness.

Since then, only five teams in the league have a higher regular-season win percentage than Arians’ Cardinals.

Top NFL Regular-season records since 2013
TeamWinsLossesTiesWinning %
Seattle Seahawks25700.781
Denver Broncos25700.781
New England Patriots24800.750
Indianapolis Colts221000.688
Cincinnati Bengals211010.672
Arizona Cardinals211100.656
Source: Pro Football Reference
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That win percentage during the regular season is an impressively quick turnaround. But the Cardinals’ record alone under Arians gives us a hollow set of digits when compared to other teams.

You need context following a 2014 season with 11 wins, the Cardinals’ highest regular-season win total since 1975. Specifically, you need this context:

Cardinals 2014 injuries
PlayerInjuryGames missed
Darnell DockettTorn ACL16
Daryl WashingtonSuspension16
John AbrahamConcussion15
Carson PalmerNerve problem/torn ACL10
Drew StantonKnee2
Tyrann MathieuThumb2
Calais CampbellKnee2
Larry FitzgeraldKnee2
Matt ShaughnessyKnee8
Andre EllingtonSports hernia4
Ed StinsonToe6
Source: NFL.com

Those are only the most notable bone busts and muscle rips. In total the 2014 Cardinals lost 109 man games through injuries to 21 players, which included five starters spending all or most of the season on injured reserve.

When we dive deeper into the shell of a team created for him, it becomes even easier to repeat this statement as an indisputable fact: Bruce Arians is the Coach of the Year.

The defensive voids

It all started in early August when defensive end Darnell Dockett tore his ACL in training camp.

Dockett was already declining and fighting the good fight against time while set to turn 34 this offseason. But he remained an effective, valuable cog in the Cardinals’ defensive front. In 2013 his 13 quarterback hits ranked fourth among all 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Or maybe it started with Daryl Washington, the middle linebacker who’s great on the field with 11 passes defensed, three sacks, 75 tackles and 41 defensive stops (per PFF) over only 12 games in 2013. But off the field? Not so much, as his multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy resulted in an indefinite suspension.

Or maybe the swirling defensive black holes originated when defensive end John Abraham could manage only a single game due to a concussion. In 2013 Abraham finished fifth among 3-4 outside linebackers with 46 total pressures (again per PFF).

The falling bodies continued when defensive ends Calais Campbell, Matt Shaughnessy and Ed Stinson all missed time of varying significance along with safety Tyrann Mathieu. Injuries are accepted pitfalls of a brutal game, but not to that extent while centralized on one side of the ball.

Of course, age throughout the Cardinals’ roster and the abuse endured over time didn’t exactly help matters.

Josh Weinfuss @joshweinfuss

#AZCardinals' average age last season was 27.3 years old -- tied for third-oldest in the NFL, according to Elias.

Yet something remarkable still happened: The Cardinals had a defense that wasn’t the least bit enjoyable for opposing offenses.

With the guidance of Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles—who’s now rightfully a sizzling-hot candidate for head coaching vacancies—the Cardinals allowed only 18.7 points per game, the league’s fifth-best average.

Eventually a mashed-together unit was exposed, as slowing veterans like linebacker Larry Foote and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly were pushed into more playing time, and far past their points of effectiveness. The Cardinals missed 43 tackles over their final three games, per PFF.

But it was still a solid overall defensive effort despite major injuries that kept scores low and provided field position, making a playoff appearance possible.

That’s only the beginning, as the Cardinals’ 2014 accomplishments get even more difficult to comprehend when we look at the offense.

The quarterback crumblings

Arians oversees and manages an entire football team, which summarizes the job description of “head coach” nicely in seven words. But as a former offensive coordinator and the Cardinals’ play-caller, his deeper expertise is rooted in the area of his team that does the scoring.

Which is how Arians made his ultimate Coach of the Year statement.

We’re all keenly aware that having a quality backup quarterback is a must for any team. But we can still acknowledge another reality: When a team’s starting quarterback misses over half the season, said team is generally screwed.

Carson Palmer was healthy and fully functioning for only six games this season. First he fought through a nerve issue that zapped his arm strength. Then an ACL tear ended his season in Week 10, and he became the rare player who's jacked about OTAs on Day 1 of the offseason.

Darren Urban @Cardschatter

QB Carson Palmer, on his rehab: "I know guys aren't looking forward to it (right now) but I am, to get going in OTAs and mandatory mini."

After Palmer went down the Cardinals still won three more games with Drew Stanton leading the offense. That added to the two Stanton-led wins earlier in the season.

How did Arians keep chugging merrily along with a far less accurate backup quarterback? By stubbornly changing nothing, and laughing at those who suggested he do otherwise.

Arians is and also will be a play-caller who’s deeply in love with footballs that sail far, and do that often. His vertical offense overloads certain areas of the field while putting stress on defensive backs, forcing them to make decisions quickly.

An Arians team that doesn’t work deep in the passing game has abandoned its core identity. So Arians didn’t allow that to happen, and he kept jamming balls into far-reaching areas. Stanton’s accuracy left much to be desired (overall he completed only 55.0 percent of his passes), but Arians knew and trusted his arm strength.

He was rewarded for that trust often.

NFL Retweet @NFLRT

Drew Stanton be like "Carson, who?" https://t.co/jSrtLsRrsN

Of Stanton’s total passing yardage, 64.7 percent came through the air, per PFF. That places him third among quarterbacks who took at least 25 percent of their team’s dropbacks. Stanton also finished with six completions for 40-plus yards, only two behind the likes of New England’s Tom Brady, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Diego’s Philip Rivers, despite far less playing time.

The season was then derailed when Stanton suffered a knee injury too. Though something above historically horrible from Ryan Lindley would have been nice, at best only mild competence can be expected when a third-string quarterback starts a playoff game.

The Cardinals used four quarterbacks including Logan Thomas and still played football in January. That alone is enough to earn Arians the keys to several major American cities.

And now expectations will be even higher in 2015

Acknowledging a weakness is poor form as a head coach, which is why Arians has denied that injuries played a factor in his team’s early playoff exit.

But in a moment of truth he’s surely cursing and looking to the heavens above, asking why he deserved such a cruel injury fate this season.

Football karma will never be distributed fairly. But the Cardinals were struck by a particularly violent evil this season. Next fall that witchcraft will be reversed, and when the sun rises on a new season it’ll come with even greater expectations.

Palmer will be back, though there are questions about exactly when he’ll be back, and his long-term future is cloudy after two major knee injuries. Regardless, even a somewhat limited Palmer is a vast improvement over Stanton and Lindley, and he’ll bring much-needed stability to the quarterback position.

Ellington will return too and will now be another piece in a backfield that actually improved in his absence. Before his season ended Ellington averaged 3.3 yards per carry. His primary replacement, Kerwynn Williams, marched along at 4.6 yards per carry. With other capable hands available the Cardinals backfield is more dynamic, and Ellington’s punishment can be limited.

Then there’s Abraham, who “retired” and did so very much in the quotation-marked sense of the word. He’s a free agent and has already expressed interest in returning for one more season and could be a productive veteran bargain if he’s symptom-free.

_ @55getlive

Honestly I think I got one more year in me and thanks to the Grimes family

Scoff at Abraham’s age (37 in May) at your own peril. His body has rested for a full season, and during his age-35 year he still recorded 11.5 sacks.

There are questions surrounding the futures of Dockett and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The latter could take a pay cut and work out an agreement to stay, while the former is a pass-rusher who’s advancing in age and comes with a cap hit of $9.8 million in 2015, per Spotrac.

But the immediate future still shines brightly with or without Dockett and Fitzgerald, though cornerback Antonio Cromartie needs to be a priority among pending free agents. There’s plenty of emerging youth to go around between wide receivers John Brown and Michael Floyd, and tight end Troy Niklas (a second-round pick in 2014) will also be returning.

Young blood was infused into the Cardinals roster defensively too, most notably through outside linebacker Alex Okafor, who finished his rookie season with eight sacks even while missing four games.

Some pieces will be moved, and others will need to be replaced. That’s the regular cycle of every offseason. But there are enough of them either in place or currently mending for Arians to finish what he started this season and win the NFC West.


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