The Secrets of Bruce Arians' Success: Style, Risk, an Open Mind...and Old Guys

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJanuary 14, 2016

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 03:  Bruce Arians, head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, looks on prior to their NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on January 3, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Night before the game. Hotel ballroom. All Cardinals players present.

Bruce Arians walks to the front of the room.

The noise stops.

He speaks.

"Tomorrow, are you going to be the guy who says, 'My bad?' Or are you going to be the guy who makes the plays?"

He walks out of the room.

Meeting over.

That's it. That's how he does it. That's how Arians reaches his team.

And that's a big part of how the Cardinals have achieved so much this season, winning 13 games, earning the bye and home-field advantage against the Packers on Saturday.

He hits the right message in the right way at the right time.

"He has a great sense of where the team is," Cardinals pass rusher Dwight Freeney said. "He connects. Sometimes you go in a team meeting the night before a game and the coach will talk for 30 minutes and not say anything. You are like, 'Come on. We've heard this.'

"You never get that with B.A. If he talks for a long time, it's because he needs to."

Bruce Arians coaching history
1975-1977Virginia TechGraduate assistant
1978-1980Mississippi StateRB/WR coach
1981-1982AlabamaRB coach
1983-1988TempleHead coach
1989-1992Kansas City ChiefsRB coach
1993-1995Mississippi StateOffensive coordinator
1996New Orleans SaintsTE coach
1997AlabamaOffensive coordinator
1998-2000Indianapolis ColtsQB coach
2001-2003Cleveland BrownsOffensive coordinator
2004-2006Pittsburgh SteelersWR coach
2007-2011Pittsburgh SteelersOffensive coordinator
2012Indianapolis ColtsOffensive coordinator
2012Indianapolis ColtsInterim head coach
2013-2015Arizona CardinalsHead coach
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It's an attitude, a style, developed over miles, wrinkles and scars.

He was thrown out of high school after he was caught drinking beer. He's been coaching since 1975, four years before Carson Palmer was born. When he was 30, he became the youngest head coach in Division I football, and when he was 60, he became one of the oldest first-time head coaches in NFL history. He was fired seven times and retired once. He is a cancer survivor. He has two artificial knees. He wears Kangol caps. He sips Crown Royal.

He's…distinctive. Especially as NFL coaches go.

And over the past three years, the Cardinals have become distinctive, too—a reflection of their coach, from personnel decisions to attitude to culture.

The Guy No One Saw Coming

When popular and successful Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was named head coach of the Jets last January, many anticipated Arians would hire an esteemed graybeard from the outside. He entertained Dick LeBeau, Mike Smith and Mike Nolan.

But he knew who his next defensive coordinator was going to be long before Bowles had his first interview.

In 2012, James Bettcher was hired as an assistant to the head coach by the Colts. Arians immediately recognized that he would be a riser. That year, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano missed 12 games to be treated for leukemia, and Arians took over. The next season, Arians was hired by the Cardinals, and he brought Bettcher with him to be his outside linebackers coach.

August 30, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher during the fourth quarter in a preseason NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Cardinals defeated the Raiders 30-23. Mandatory Credit:
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after Bettcher's hiring was announced, Arians received a phone call from Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, which was highlighted by a number of the seven words George Carlin said you could not say on TV.

"Why are you taking my guy?" Mathis asked Arians. "I love this guy. He made me better."

Mathis was a 10-year veteran at the time.

Last year, it was the same story, with 14-year veteran defensive end John Abraham telling Arians that Bettcher was making him better.

"I thought I had it all," Abraham told Arians. "But he gave me some more stuff."

Still, helping some pass-rushers was one thing. Coordinating a defense is something else. Bettcher was 36 years old and had never run a defense at any level. He had been in the league for just three years.

On the outside, it seemed Arians' "no risk it, no biscuit" philosophy was extending to his coach hiring as well.

But Arians was not operating on blind faith.

During training camp the previous season, Arians assigned Bettcher the responsibility of calling plays against him during team drills. Bettcher had up to 30 chances per practice to match wits with him. And he held his own.

Even though Bettcher was a position coach, Arians also assigned him special game-day tasks. He was the assistant stationed in the press box who was advising Arians on challenging calls and on clock management, and he also was charged with knowing all the rules.

On Thursdays, Arians often had Bettcher make presentations to the entire team about unusual calls or situations that came up during games the previous week.

"You can always tell a young star when he's in front of a group of guys," Arians said.

Under Bettcher's guidance, the Cardinals have been blitzing slightly more and using different blitz tracks. They went from the 24th-ranked defense in 2014 to the fifth-ranked defense this season. They also went from 22 takeaways to 33.

"B.A.'s most important talent is being able to absorb talent, recognize talent and get talent to work for him," Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. "Coach Bettcher is a very talented coach, very smart, very passionate and well spoken. B.A. knew he had potential to be a great coach."

A New Lease on Life

The role Arians shaped for Larry Fitzgerald is at least partially responsible for the wide receiver's surprisingly productive season.

Fitzgerald had been an X receiver, or split end, his entire football playing life. He played the position when Ken Whisenhunt was coaching him, when Todd Haley was coaching him and when Dennis Green was coaching him. He played the position at Pitt, and at the Academy of Holy Angels.

The position defined him as a football player.

One of Arians' first changes when he took over the Cardinals was to also use Fitzgerald at slot, or F, receiver, in addition to X.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

During Fitzgerald's first two seasons being used as a slot, his production was off—in part because of injuries.

This season, Arians changed Fitzgerald's role further. On those snaps in which he had been playing X, Arians decided, Fitzgerald would be playing Z, or flanker. He subsequently has lined up in the slot about 60 percent of the time and at flanker about 40 percent, Arians said. Arians is deploying Fitzgerald similarly to how he deployed Hines Ward in Pittsburgh.

The benefits? Fitzgerald has faced less press coverage, less coverage rolled his way and fewer matchups against premier cover men like Seattle's Richard Sherman. Instead, he has been treated to occasional matchups against linebackers, safeties and nickel defensive backs.

The Cardinals consider Fitzgerald the best blocking receiver in the NFL, and he has also been able to make a more critical impact in that area from the slot and from flanker than he ever could have from split end.

At the age of 32, Fitzgerald had a career-high 109 catches this season. He also had 1,215 receiving yards, his most since 2011.

"B.A. has prolonged Larry's career," receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "It takes time to get used to playing the slot, and now he understands it so much better. It was like moving to China and having to learn Chinese. But as time has gone on, his confidence has built. Now he can direct traffic for us, and when you can do that, you can play without thinking."

Keeping an Open Mind

In training camp, rookie running back David Johnson was struggling with a hamstring pull. The Cardinals signed veteran Chris Johnson.

In the early stages of the season, Chris Johnson was mostly used as a downhill runner, and he had some success at it. But he quietly was lobbying for more zone-stretch plays. A good portion of his yards during his glory days with the Titans came on zone-stretch plays.

Arians never had been a proponent of those plays. When it came to the run game, he was an old-school, downhill guy. But in the fourth game of the season, Arians listened to Johnson—and over the next two games, Johnson averaged 6.9 yards per carry. The zone-stretch was here to stay.

"We just said, 'Let's do what he does best,'" Arians said. "We changed. To me, that's coaching. You don't say, 'Here's our system, go learn it.' You say, 'What can this cat help us with?'"

Arians has even maintained an open-mindedness and flexibility within games. Johnson said Arians often came to him, Palmer, Fitzgerald and others during games asking which plays they thought would work.

During a game against the Ravens, Arians sought out Johnson's opinion about running a play called 10 Dive. Johnson endorsed the play, given the fronts the Cardinals were facing. Arians called the play a couple of times on the next series. Even though the runs really didn't go anywhere, they were a success because gains were made in trust.

GLENDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 22: Head coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals pats running back Chris Johnson #23 (left) on the helmet before the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on November 22, 2015 in Glendale,
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"He listens to his players," said Johnson, who has been out with a fractured tibia, but hopes to return to play in the Super Bowl.

Arians treats his coaches similarly. That might seem like a matter of course, but some head coaches only take advice from assistants when assistants are willing to tell them what they want to hear.

"He takes more input than any coach I've ever worked with," said Drake, a veteran of 30 coaching seasons. "He lets us all get involved and works our ideas into what we do. As a coach, that makes you work harder and be more confident."

No Expiration Date

Instead of shunning old players, Arians seeks them out—as long as the aging athlete is the right kind of person, he says.

Johnson had been cut two times in two years, and he had been out of the game for six months. A bullet was lodged in his shoulder, the result of an offseason drive-by shooting. Many suspected his skills had been depleted. Arians saw value in him, though.

Before signing Johnson, who is now 30, Arians asked around about him. Cardinals assistant head coach Tom Moore, who had worked with him in Tennessee, remembered him favorably. Fox Sports insider Jay Glazer also vouched for Johnson after training him in the offseason.

If Johnson had commitment and drive, Arians thought, he still could mine production from his abilities. Arians' instinct was on point, as Johnson led the team in rushing, even though he started only nine games.

Freeney had been one of the greatest pass-rushers of a generation, but in early October, he was just another out-of-work 35-year-old. Freeney had been cut by the Chargers in March after totaling nine sacks the previous three seasons.

Through training camp, Freeney was thinking about moving into the easy-chair phase of his life. He was playing a lot of golf and enjoying it. But Arians, who had worked with Freeney in Indianapolis, had been texting him. Other teams were interested, too.

At the time, he was not yet ready to commit to anything.

Then in September, Freeney began enjoying golf less as he began "shanking balls left and right." He texted Arians: "Please get me off this golf course. My swing is falling apart."

"Stay ready," came the reply.

Five games into the season, Freeney was tired of waiting and close to pulling the plug on his playing career. He had flown to Los Angeles to interview for a television job. He was sitting on a plane ready to fly back. The door was closed and the flight attendant asked passengers to put their phones in airplane mode. Freeney's phone rang.

"Bruce Arians," the caller ID said.

Freeney answered.

Flight attendant: "No sir, you can't take a call now."

Freeney: "Hold on one minute. Bruce?"

Arians: "You ready to get off that couch?

Freeney: "Absolutely."

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Eleven weeks later, Freeney finished the season with eight sacks to lead the Cardinals. Arians had been confident Freeney could help, but even he didn't expect eight sacks.

"From what I saw last year, I thought he could be disruptive because even though he wasn't getting sacks, he was getting pressures," Arians said. "I would have taken the pressures because we needed pressures, too."

Freeney knew the Cardinals were the right team for him.

"B.A. and [general manager] Steve [Keim] do a great job of finding older guys. Everyone else wants the young guys in, [thinks], Forget the older guys. He finds those guys."

Arians' quarterback is 36 and his leading receiver is 32. Much of his coaching staff also would be considered overripe by most standards. The assistant coach Freeney answers to, Tom Pratt, is an 80-year-old great-grandfather who has coached in the NFL in different six decades. Fifty years ago, he was on Hank Stram's staff with the Chiefs in Super Bowl I.

Right behind Pratt is Moore, 77, and offensive line coach Larry Zierlein, 70.

"Old guys," Arians said, "make me feel young."

Lovable…and Intimidating

The Lions had turnovers on their first two possessions of an October game in Detroit. The hurry-up offense the Cardinals had worked on all week responded with back-to-back three-and-out drives.

An agitated Arians gathered his offense on the sideline, his face matching the shade of his Cardinals ball cap. Arians berated his players with a speech that still may be ringing in some ears. The response: The hurry-up started humming and the Cardinals scored touchdowns on their next four possessions in a 42-17 victory.

Ten weeks later in Philadelphia, wide receiver John Brown got open deep on the first play of the game, only to drop what might have a been a 78-yard touchdown pass. As the game went on, Brown, who is called Smoke by teammates, kept struggling, with another drop and a number of misconnections.

Instead of railing at Brown, Arians took a different approach. He tried to call a play that would be a feel-good for Brown.

"He was thinking, 'I have to get Smoke's confidence back, so put him in a position where he can be successful,'" Drake said. "We were driving, about to go in. B.A. saw man-to-man coverage and called for a simple hitch where John would have one-on-one with inside leverage. John caught it and scored."

Arians, who learned from legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama, is part grizzly, part teddy, and he knows when to channel which in order to maintain his team's equilibrium. He speaks of coaching his players hard and loving them later.

You would not have wanted to be guard Mike Iupati after he gave up a sack to Mike Neal in the Cardinals' victory over the Packers. As he jogged to the sideline, Arians was blocking his path, and he let him have it.

Nov 15, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians reacts during a NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"To me, he's very intimidating," said Iupati, a 6'5", 331-pound four-time Pro Bowler. "It's his demeanor, the way he carries himself. You don't want to mess up with him. You want to impress him and give everything you have, because he is the type of coach who will take care of you.

"And if you don't give him your best, he's going to MF you."

Probably better than any coach in the NFL, Arians negotiates the line between being loved and being feared.

No Fear

Years ago, Arians was sitting on some cash. He made a big, risky play, putting it in an oil well. He lost big. His pragmatic wife, Christine, made sure that from that point on, he would leave the investing to others.

Getting burned taking a risk never affected the way Arians calls plays—with little regard for caution. But the difference is as a coach, he has an intuition about what to do when.

In Week 12, the Cardinals were trying to protect a six-point lead against the 49ers when they took over with 1:12 remaining in the game. Instead of running the ball on first down and figuring the 49ers would burn one of their two timeouts as almost any coach would, Arians called for a pass—Palmer to Brown for 11 yards. The first down put the victory on ice.

It was a trademark Arians play call—a little dicey, a little counterintuitive and a lot on the money. There were similar examples in almost every game this season.

"I've been around some great play-callers, and he's the best I've been around," Drake said. "His ability to see what's happening before it happens is amazing. It's a gift. In three years with him, I don't think I've ever seen a bad play call from him. If a play hasn't worked, it was the players' fault. And he's always in attack mode."

In part because of play-calling, the Cardinals led the league with an average of 6.8 yards per play. They also led the NFC in plays of 20 yards or more with 78. Palmer, meanwhile, had a career year, hitting highs in passer rating (104.6), yards (4,671), touchdown passes (35) and yards per attempt (8.7).

Even the Cardinals defense has benefited from the mentality.

"I love how aggressive he is on offense and that he goes for the jugular all the time," Campbell said. "It shows the confidence he has in us to stop everything, and it makes all of us have an attitude of trying to finish people. That's what we look to do."

He is not trying to impress a potential next employer. He doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. There is no element of self-preservation in his work.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Cardinals' window of opportunity will close. Arians will turn to the dark side and work as a football analyst a couple days a week. He will spend most of his days trying to hit them straight and stay out of the bunkers. And he will learn to fish, because, he says with a chuckle, "That's another reason to drink."

For now, he is coaching in the moment like no one else. And that's how the Cardinals are playing.

At the beginning of the season, Arians asked his players to sell out in every game, on every play.

All they had to do was look to the head coach to know how.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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