Bruce Arians: The NFL's Ultimate Quarterback Whisperer

Lars AndersonSenior WriterAugust 20, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Standing behind the wet bar in Suite 1036 at the Renaissance Hotel, the clock approaching midnight, the 62-year-old former bartender pours a Crown and Coke and pushes it to his current boss, who happens to be the general manager of the Arizona Cardinals. He cracks open a Coors Light and slides it to a head-turning young woman, who is a fashion designer working on his wardrobe.

"You've got sizzle," she purrs to the bartender. "You've got style."

The bartender, a noted Crown Royal sipper, lifts a red plastic cup filled with Captain Morgan and Coke to his lips. "This is what I drink when I'm not drinking," he says, winking, a liquid glimmer of mischief filling his eyes.

It is early August, and Bruce Arians, the reigning NFL Coach of Year who bartended his way through Virginia Tech back in the 1970s, is in the team's unofficial training-camp headquarters, which doubles as his living quarters. Outside the windows, a quarter-mile away, stands University of Phoenix Stadium, its floodlights twinkling in the darkness, where earlier Arians and his team had finished their first day of training camp.

Now, it is nearing 1 a.m., the hour for secrets to be revealed. Arians, who has developed and nurtured four Pro Bowl quarterbacksPeyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmeris asked by a young assistant coach what the key to that success has been.

"My quarterbacks have to be a member of my family, and that has nothing to do with football," he says. "Trust is everything. We have to connect on a deep level in order to really be able to build something together. Trust brings a higher level of communication and a higher level of commitment and accountability. We have to care for one another. It's all about family, family, family."

Arians is just revving up. The story of how he became the ultimate NFL quarterback whisperer—a tale that winds from Pennsylvania coal country through the heart of Alabama to the Valley of the Sun—unspools deep into this summer night.

And it all began when a gun was pointed at his gut.

Bruce Arians, right, and Peyton Manning in Colts minicamp in 1998.
Bruce Arians, right, and Peyton Manning in Colts minicamp in 1998.AP Photo

Manning was a live wire of nervous energy, crackling with anxiety. It was Dec. 12, 1999. He was in his second year with the Indianapolis Colts and about to face the New England Patriots. On the field during pregame warm-ups in the old RCA Dome, his frowning, contorted face was a portrait of concern.

The previous autumn, in his second start of his rookie season, Manning had thrown three interceptions against New England. Midway through the fourth quarter of that game, he was so frustrated that he begged Arians, who was the team's quarterbacks coach, for a mercy killing: He wanted to be pulled.

"F--k no. Get back in there," Arians said. "We'll go no-huddle, and maybe you'll learn something."

Manning then led the Colts on a late fourth-quarter drive that culminated in a three-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Torrance Small. It was Indy's only score of the game in the 29-6 loss.

Now, before facing New England again, Manning kept fidgeting with his equipment. This was, in poker parlance, a classic tell: Whenever Manning adjusted and readjusted his left kneepad, Arians knew his obsession-prone quarterback was upset about something. Arians approached Manning, determined to shift his focus.

"Peyton, your footwork is all messed up," Arians said. "What's wrong with you, man?"

Manning then spent the final 10 minutes of pregame perfecting his footwork, even though Arians believed it had been flawless in his warm-up. But Manning's mind became so locked on taking precise five- and seven-step drops that his anxiety disappeared.

Tom Moore
Tom MooreAP Photo

"One of Bruce's great gifts is that he knows exactly what's going on inside the head of his quarterback. He has an intuitive feel," said Tom Moore, who was the offensive coordinator at Indianapolis at the time and is now an offensive consultant with the Arizona Cardinals. "The psychological part of the game is just as important as the physical part."

Against the Patriots, a calm, cool Manning threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions in the Colts' 20-15 victory, which was Manning's first-ever victory over New England. Manning would finish the season by earning his first invitation to the Pro Bowl.

But that pregame moment against the Patriots was the turning point in the Arians-Manning relationship. Arians had pushed the perfect psychological button. Recognizing and understanding nonverbal cues in others is essential to coaching at all levels, but Arians has turned it into an art form. It's something he learned in an unlikely place—behind a bar in Blacksburg, Virginia.

On Saturday afternoons during his senior year at Virginia Tech, Arians called his own plays as the starting wishbone quarterback for the Hokies. In what may have been a first in college football history, the starting quarterback then dished out drinks on Saturday nights at a dive named Carlisle's.

Arians was familiar with the rhythms of the bartending world. He grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in York, Pennsylvania—his dad was a machinist and his mom worked in a candy factory—and often visited a bar his grandfather owned in Paterson, New Jersey. There, sipping his birch beer in the smoky haze, little Bruce observed and listened.

"You learn a lot about human nature in a bar," Arians said.

After piloting the Hokies to a 4-7 record in 1974 and becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree, Arians moved from Carlisle's to tend bar at a nightclub in Blacksburg. One evening, a man who lived up in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains—"This guy was straight out of Deliverance," Arians said—strolled in looking for trouble.

"Tonight," he declared to Arians, "I'm going to drink and I'm going to fight."

"Well, then, let's make the beer free for you," Arians replied, "but go fight somewhere else."

A few hours passed. Then, the man, filled with liquid fire, started pinching the posteriors of several women. "You've got to leave," Arians told him.

The mountain man then pulled out a black handgun and stuck it in Arians' belly. "Throw me out now," he said to Arians.

Just then, the nightclub owner, wielding a blackjack, clubbed the man over the head, knocking him out cold. It was Arians' last night of bartending.

"At that moment, with the gun pointed at me, I realized that perhaps coaching would be a better career path," Arians said.

Yet the lessons Arians learned in the bar—how to measure people based on their facial expressions, how to actively listen to someone spilling his or her soul, how to gauge a person's mental state, how to articulate pitch-perfect words to someone at just the right moment—have become the hallmarks of his coaching.

Browns QB Kelly Holcomb at work against the Bengals in 2002.
Browns QB Kelly Holcomb at work against the Bengals in 2002.AP Phot

The quarterback looked like a future Hall of Famer. Even as snow fell from the cold Midwestern sky, he flung it deep with accuracy at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. He feathered intermediate-length throws between defenders and into the arms of his targets. And he sprayed fastballs all around the field that hit his receivers between the numbers.

It was a historic day on Jan. 5, 2003. That was when Arians, then the offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, transformed a journeyman named Kelly Holcomb into the second coming of Otto Graham.

Facing the Steelers in a Wild Card playoff game, Holcomb—a career backup who had been released three years earlier by the Colts—threw for 429 yards, the most in a Wild Card game and the third-most in NFL postseason history. The Browns lost 36-33, but Holcomb's out-of-nowhere performance in a swirling snowstorm illustrated the coaching acumen of Arians.

"Bruce hollered at me up and down the field in practice at Indianapolis," Holcomb said. "But he knew I could take it, and I knew he was really talking to Peyton [Manning], who was our starter. But then he signed me in Cleveland, and the more time we spent together, the more I learned his offense. It got to the point where I knew what plays he was going to call before he called them, which is how quarterbacks can get in a zone like I was in against Pittsburgh."

Arians had sprinkled his pixie dust on a no-name quarterback before. When he was the passing game coordinator at Mississippi State in 1978, he was searching for a starting quarterback in the preseason. Then, during an August practice, he saw the team's kicker, Dave Marler, throw a textbook-perfect spiral to another kicker. Arians immediately went to work on him, the sculptor massaging his lump of clay.

The two spent hours performing the "goalpost drill." Each would stand 10 yards away from the goalpost, and Arians would order Marler to throw the ball as hard as he could over the crossbar and into his arms.

"It simulates throwing over the linebacker and in front of the safety," Arians said. "It's a throw you have to be able to make."

Marler earned the starting position. When Mississippi State faced third-ranked Alabama that October, Marler injured his quad kicking in pregame warm-ups. He limped up over to Arians. "Coach," he said, "I can stand still and throw it."

The Bulldogs had been a wishbone team, but Arians quickly drew up several shotgun-spread plays that incorporated elements of the wishbone. Scribbling the new plays on sheets of paper, he schooled his players moments before kickoff.

What happened? Marler set a school record by throwing for 429 yards. The Crimson Tide pulled away late to win 35-14, but Marler, operating out of the shotgun spread for the rest of the season, suddenly became golden-armed. He lit up the SEC, and in December, the former kicker was named a first-team all-conference quarterback.

Twenty-five winters later, another long-shot quarterback flashed like a streaking comet across the football landscape.

"Everybody needs a guy that believes in him, and Bruce made me believe I could do anything," said Holcomb. "When it came to X's and O's, Bruce made his money by designing play-action passes that could really hurt defenses. Even today, he'll play-action teams to death. But what sets Bruce apart is that he can get you to do things you didn't think you were necessarily capable of. And it's all because he really cares about you, and, in return, you want to make him proud."

Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger confer in 2010.
Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger confer in 2010.AP Photo

They needed to talk.

It was the spring of 2007, and Arians had just been promoted from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator of the Steelers. Arians did not have a good relationship with fourth-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—"He thought I yelled at the wide receivers too much," Arians said—and so Arians invited Big Ben to his house at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia for a few rounds of golf.

Away from football, Arians is as easygoing as a Sunday afternoon drive. In 1970, Virginia Tech assistant coach John Devlin handpicked the laid-back Arians to become the first white player to room with a black player in school history.

Arians didn't think twice about breaking this segregation barrier; his closest friends in his old neighborhood in York had been black. On his peewee football team, the towheaded Arians even earned the nickname Whitey from the black players.

At Tech, Arians and his new roommate, James Barber, became close buddies; they hung a sign on their door that read, "Salt and Pepper Inc." By the time Arians was a senior, he and his wife, Christine, whom he had started dating in the ninth grade, babysat Barber's twin boys, Ronde and Tiki, the future NFL players.

Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator of Arizona Cardinals.
Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator of Arizona Cardinals.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

"Bruce can talk street with anyone, and if he needs to, he can be the most intellectual guy in the room," said New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who played for Arians at Temple in the mid-1980s and was his defensive coordinator at Arizona in 2013 and '14. "Because of his unique background, he can reach absolutely everyone on a football roster, and that's the key to building chemistry and building a winning team."

Arians knew the key to reaching Roethlisberger was winning his trust. "Ben lost his mother when he was young, and that was hard on him," Arians said. "I never want to be a father figure to my quarterbacks. I've got my own kids. I want to be the cool uncle you'd like have a drink with."

Once Roethlisberger was on the golf course in Reynolds Plantation, located 80 miles east of Atlanta on Lake Oconee, Arians turned on the charm. For hours, the two drank cold beer, swung the sticks and talked.

Arians told Roethlisberger about his own rebellious streak, explaining how he'd been kicked out of York Catholic High as a senior after getting caught swilling beer with his football buddies. The only reason he didn't lose his scholarship offer to Virginia Tech, he told Big Ben, was because the assistant who was recruiting Arians told the rest of the Hokie staff that Arians had switched schools to take a more advanced math class at the public school.

"How about that s--t?" Arians, laughing, said to Roethlisberger.

"I was unfairly kicked out, and that motivates me to this day," Arians said to his quarterback. "Everything I've done has been to win back the honor of my family name."

Hours later, as the sun was falling and bleeding across the horizon in Reynolds Plantation, Arians told Roethlisberger, "I want you to help me rewrite the playbook. If you show me you can handle it, I'll let you call the plays."

And just like that, the quarterback whisperer had a new No. 1 fan.

"We built our communication on the golf course," said Roethlisberger. "I even bought a house down there to be close to Bruce."

In his first season under Arians, Big Ben began calling some of his own plays and compiled a passer rating of 104.1, which is still the best of his career. Arians and Roethlisberger continued to have success with each other through the 2011 season, when Roethlisberger threw for more than 4,000 yards.

After losing to the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow in the first round of the playoffs, Arians met with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. According to Arians, Tomlin told him he would try to get him a raise in the offseason. But a few days later, Tomlin phoned his offensive coordinator and told him his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

Stunned, Arians turned to his wife, Christine, who was sitting next to him in the house in Reynolds Plantation. "We just got fired," Arians said. Christine began to sob.

"But I thank Pittsburgh every day for letting me go," Arians said. "Otherwise, I'd never got a chance to coach Andrew Luck and never gotten here to Arizona. So thank you, Pittsburgh."

Andrew Luck and Bruce Arians in 2012.
Andrew Luck and Bruce Arians in 2012.AP Photo

The rookie was upset.

Luck, during his first training camp with the Colts in 2012, stormed off the field after misreading a defensive coverage and throwing an interception in a scrimmage. "I f--ked that up," he told Arians, his offensive coordinator. "Man, did I screw up."

"It's OK, dude," Arians replied. "Let's move on. We're learning here. Remember that. Every play is a chance to learn."

There is a fine line in coaching between motivating a quarterback by yelling at him and having those verbal bombs napalm his confidence. Make no mistake: Arians can be a world-class screamer—heaven help the quarterback who falls asleep in a meeting—but he is always searching for ways to become both loved and feared at the same time. It's a coaching philosophy he learned at the knee of Bear Bryant.

In 1981, Bryant, then in the winter of his career at Alabama, interviewed Arians to be his running backs coach and passing game coordinator. Arians had spent the prior three years as an assistant at Mississippi State, where, as the passing game coordinator, he helped engineer a 6-3 upset of Alabama the previous fall.

Arians took a seat in the legend's office in Tuscaloosa. Bryant sat behind his massive oak desk, a string of smoke rising from the Pall Mall dangling from his lips, silently inspecting Arians for a few moments. Then, the Bear said in his gravelly drawl, "I hear you have a way with young black players. Is that true?"

"I don't know about that," Arians replied, "but no matter what color they are, I'm going to f--k all of them up."

Bryant let out a booming laugh that practically shook walls. This was his kind of blunt talker; Arians was hired.

Arians watched Bryant closely. If the coach's secretary was having a bad day, the Bear would detect it and stop at her desk to offer a few encouraging words. "Her day would suddenly be brightened," Arians said. "It was magic the way he dealt with people."

In December 1982, the 30-year-old Arians was hired to be the head coach at Temple, which made him the youngest head coach in Division I football. Arians walked into Bryant's office to say goodbye, just days after Bryant had coached his final football game in the Liberty Bowl. The two embraced, and then Bryant told his protege to carry one pearl of wisdom with him for the rest of his days.

"Coach them hard," Bryant said, "and hug them harder later."

Those were the last words Bryant ever uttered to Arians. Three weeks later, the Bear was dead. "But before he left us," Arians said, "he gave me my guiding philosophy."

Luck required more hugs than oral hits. Arians knew he couldn't be as hard on Luck as he was with other quarterbacks because Luck—a big-hearted people pleaser—was more sensitive. So, Arians assumed the role of the encouraging professor with the Stanford grad, who was the co-valedictorian of the Class of 2008 at Stratford High in Houston.

On Saturday nights before games during Luck's rookie year of 2012, Arians and Luck would review the game plan in painstaking detail. Arians would ask Luck what plays were his favorites, and then he'd weave them into the script of the first 30 plays the team would run.

"You make them pick the plays so you can say, 'You picked it. You make it work,'" Arians said. "It increases the level of accountability."

Arians' game plan always features six long bombs a game. He constantly tells his quarterbacks to take a shot if the defense appears vulnerable based on its pre-snap formation. One common trait all of Arians' quarterbacks share is the ability to throw an accurate deep ball; as much as any play-caller in the NFL, Arians wants to stretch the field vertically.

"If it's 3rd-and-3 and you got T.Y. [Hilton] on a deep route, then throw the f--king ball to T.Y.," Arians would say to Luck. "I don't care that we only need three yards. Throw the ball to T.Y."

Luck quickly bloomed into a Pro Bowl player with Arians in his headset. In his first year, Luck set an NFL rookie record by throwing for 4,374 yards.

"Bruce knew exactly what buttons to push," Luck said. "I owe so much to him. He taught me the NFL game."

Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer in 2013.
Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer in 2013.AP Photo

The coach stood 15 yards behind his quarterback, examining his every move, studying him like he was a complex piece of art hanging in a gallery.

It was the second day of training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium. Promise was in the air—last season, the injury-depleted Cardinals made the playoffs with an 11-5 regular-season record, which earned Arians his second AP NFL Coach of the Year award in three seasons—and now Arians was reading his franchise player.

Nine months removed from a torn ACL in his left knee, Carson Palmer moved with confidence as he guided the offense in an 11-on-11 drill. At one point, Palmer connected on eight straight passes.

After Palmer was traded from the Oakland Raiders to Arizona in April 2013, he met with Arians in the head coach's office. For over an hour, the two talked about everything except football: their shared love of golf, their wives and their kids, with Arians explaining how one of the best days of his life was when his son, Jake, asked him to be the best man in his wedding.

They also dug deep into the hard truth that, for both of them, time was running out on their NFL lives. At age 33, Palmer was older than any starting quarterback Arians had ever coached. This meant Arians needed a new approach to connect with his QB. Call it Intentional Passive-Aggressiveness.

"I wouldn't want to be the fourth-string QB on this team in camp, because Bruce will MF him to death," Palmer said. "But I understand that he's really talking to me. He's coaching me through the fourth-stringer. It seems to work for us, though I'm not sure how the fourth-stringer feels about it."

"I can't be the cool uncle to Carson, because he's older," Arians said. "I'm trying to be the cool older brother."

In his six starts last season, Palmer threw 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His 95.6 passer rating was the second-highest of his career.

The quarterback in Arians' offense carries three possible play calls to the line scrimmage. After diagnosing the defensive alignment, the quarterback selects what play to run based on what he sees, yelling the actual play to his teammates at the line. In theory, if the quarterback picks wisely, the play will exploit the weakest part of the defense.

"I feel like I'm going to have the best year of my career this season because now I understand Bruce's offense," Palmer said as he stood outside the locker room before a recent practice. "What we do totally depends on how the defense is trying to play us. That's what's so great about this offense: We attack you at your weakest point."

Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim watch a practice in 2014.
Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim watch a practice in 2014.AP Photo

Inside Suite 1036 at the Renaissance Hotel, the clock neared 2 a.m. The fashion designer who is creating a suit for Arians had long since disappeared into the night. But her mere presence reaffirmed Arians' status as the most fashion-conscious coach in the NFL.

Arians—who, for the record, has elevated the Kangol hat the way Tom Landry elevated the fedora and Bryant the houndstooth—has prided himself on clothes since his first date with Christine in the ninth grade.

"I wanted something nice to wear, but we didn't have much money," Arians said. "So I got a job washing dishes in an Italian restaurant. I bought three suits, and damn, they were fine suits. Very fine. I was proud of them."

Minutes after Arians shared this tale, the assistant coaches in the suite scattered to their rooms. Now, it was just Steve Keim, the team's general manager, and Arians reminiscing.

They recalled the day they first met face to face. It was at the Marriott Buttes Hotel in Tempe in January 2013. Arians, serving as interim coach of the Colts for the leukemia-stricken Chuck Pagano, had just led Indianapolis to the playoffs with a rookie quarterback—a feat that would earn Arians his first AP NFL Coach of the Year award.

Keim, a Pennsylvania native whose father was also a machinist, wanted to gauge whether Arians was ready to become a full-time NFL head coach at the age of 60.

"Bruce dropped his first f-bomb within minutes because our drinks didn't get there fast enough," Keim recalled, laughing. "But we spoke the same language because we're both blue-collar guys from Pennsylvania. I wanted someone with experience.

"Bruce has been through a lot in his life. I'd heard he was great with players, and he is. I've never been around a coach who could MF a guy in practice and put his arm around him afterward like Bruce. He can relate to everyone. It's uncanny. That's why, bottom line, he's been so successful with so many different quarterbacks."

Minutes later, Arians rose from his seat. He looked out the window as darkness fell on the desert. He knew he should head to bed—a team meeting was only hours away—but he wasn't ready for dreamland just yet.

"I've waited a long time for this moment," he said. "I'm going to savor it."

Never checking his watch, Arians then turned around and slid into an easy chair. The night was still ripe with possibility.