Revived Cards reflect Arians’ age-defying resolve

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Revived Cards reflect Arians’ age-defying resolve

The Eagles on stopping Fitzgerald and the Cardinals' offense

November 28, 2013, 10:00 am
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Bruce Arians has guided Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals to four straight wins to tie San Francisco for second place in the NFC West. (AP)

Bruce Arians was headed down a path of reckless body destruction.

“I was only 36,” he said. “I felt like I was 80.”

This was in 1983, as head coach of the Temple football program. Back then, he wore more hats than he could count, until his body informed him that it could no longer handle the workload.

Arians checked himself to the hospital for migraines, upset stomachs, potential ulcers. You name it, he was examined for it. He realized he couldn’t do everything for everyone. He needed to let go.

“I learned to delegate,” Arians said. “When I was at Temple, I was head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterback coach, recruiting coordinator. I thought I had to do everybody’s job. After about eight stints in the hospital I learned to delegate.”

All these years later, Arians is delegating again, presiding over an operation for the first time since he left Temple in 1998 to coach running backs in Kansas City. At 60, he’s the NFL’s oldest first-year coach, and his white-hot Arizona Cardinals (7-4) are a reflection of his age-defying resolve.

His quarterback, 34-year-old Carson Palmer, is enjoying a renaissance with his third team in the past four years (see story). Palmer is completing 63 percent of his passes, his highest rate since 2007. His defensive coordinator, 50-year-old Todd Bowles, oversees a top-10 unit after having his image slightly tainted in a half-season as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who turned 30 this summer, has already tied for his most touchdown catches since 2009.

And then there’s Arians, less than a year removed from abruptly taking over for cancer-stricken Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and helping guide Indianapolis to an 11-5 season, an accomplishment that garnered the offensive coordinator an Associated Press “Coach of the Year” honor despite his interim head coach tag.

The Cards, who finished 5-11 last season, are in the thick of a postseason push, which continues against the Eagles at the Linc on Sunday as Arians, a native of York, Pa., returns to the city where he became a head coach for the first time.

“I never thought it would ever happen (again),” he said.

Why it took nearly 15 years of NFL coaching before someone finally offered him a head coaching job remains a mystery. For years, offensive players coached by Arians and teams that employed him were successful more often than not.

In Kansas City, Christian Okoye went to the Pro Bowl twice and led the NFL in rushing once during Arians’ four years coaching running backs there. In 2002, as an offensive coordinator in Cleveland, the Browns scored their most points since 1987.

From 2004-2011, Arians climbed the Pittsburgh coaching tree, ascending from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator. During his time there, a city known for producing some of the sports’ legendary defensive icons gave Pro Bowl berths to Hines Ward, Willie Parker, Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went to three Super Bowls and won two.

Still, nobody requested Arians’ services. Head coaching jobs were filled left and right, but Arians’ phone didn’t ring. He was 56 in 2010 when the Steelers lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV. In a league getting younger by the year, Arians abandoned the idea that he’d have an opportunity to be a NFL head coach.

“Super Bowl 43, we won it, didn’t get a call,” he said. “Super Bowl 45, with a lot of injuries and other things (during the regular season), with three different quarterbacks and six different (offensive) tackles, still didn’t get a call. So I figured, yeah, it was over.”

Arians moved onto Indianapolis last season to be Pagano’s offensive coordinator and to groom another first-round quarterback. The Colts had moved on from Peyton Manning and ushered in Andrew Luck with the first overall pick.

The Colts were 2-2 when they were rocked by Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis, a battle that would sideline Pagano for the rest of the regular season and propel Arians into the position he had long sought.

Indianapolis went 9-3 under Arians before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore in the first round of the AFC playoffs. Arians missed the game to be hospitalized for an illness.

Once again, it appeared that his best chance to land a head coaching job had eluded him.

The Eagles, fresh off firing Andy Reid and initially spurned by Chip Kelly, had requested to interview Arians but changed their minds. The Bears interviewed Arians but let him leave without a contract.

“I knew there would be doubts,” Arians said. “I think once the doctors found out what it was and that it was probably never going to happen again, it’s still hard to convince people. Nobody wants to hire anybody that’s 60 anyway, and along with somebody that missed a game. I knew it was going to be a factor for some teams.”

On Jan. 17, the Cardinals proved Arians wrong and hired him, signing him to a four-year contract. Arizona had impressive defensive personnel, but no quarterback and the league’s worst offensive line. Outside of Fitzgerald, Arians had literally walked into a desert for an offense.

It took some time for Arians’ system to be learned and adapted, but the Cards are rolling into their showdown against the Eagles. They’ve totaled 121 points in their past four games and stroll into Philly fresh off their 40-11 home trouncing of the Colts.

Only three NFC teams have more wins than Arizona, which has won four straight and pulled into a tie with NFC West rival San Francisco for second place in the division.

Had he not been granted this chance, and had he not taken over for Pagano last year, Arians said a coaching career that spanned five decades wouldn’t have felt complete. He started as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Virginia Tech, in 1975.

“If you’re including last year, no, I’ve fulfilled everything I ever wanted,” he said. “I didn’t like the way it happened. But as a professional you’d like to reach the top. If no other job would have came available I would have been totally fulfilled, because the job was done and they can’t take back that trophy.”