Bruce Arians Q&A: Cardinals HC on Teaching, Learning and Future After Football
PHOENIX — Bruce Arians didn’t get a chance to be a head coach in an NFL game until he had already turned 60 years old. Ever since that day in 2012, when he took over as the interim coach with Indianapolis, he has made owners around the league wonder why he didn’t get a job years earlier.
As Arians gets ready for his fourth season as the head coach in Arizona, he has compiled a 43-17 record in the regular season and led the Cardinals to an appearance in the NFC Championship Game last season. Arians has also coached the team to three straight years with at least 10 wins, a mark matched only once in Cardinals history. That was from 1974 to 1976, when legendary coach Don Coryell walked the sidelines for the St. Louis Cardinals.
In fact, in the 96-year history of the Cardinals organization, the team has won 10 games or more only nine times. He sat down recently to talk with Bleacher Report:
Bleacher Report: You were talking about how sharp the players were at practice recently and that it was a little unusual. Is there a reason for that?
Bruce Arians: Well, this is the fourth time around for the offense, and having almost everybody back, they should fly through it. Defensively, we have a lot of young kids out there who are doing really, really well. It’s really different for the college guys, but they did really well.
B/R: So how much is safety Tyrann Mathieu able to do at this point as he comes back from that knee injury?
BA: He’s still rehabbing out there. He’s going to be ready in training camp. He could be ready in minicamp, but we won’t do that. He’s out in the back end coaching, Pat [Peterson] is coaching the corners. [Tyrann] is coaching the safeties.
BA: No, really, because he is such a hybrid. They were true safeties. We can move him. Now, we limit his number of outside reps. But just his ability to play man-to-man on a slot separates him from them. Instinctually, he’s on the same level with them.
B/R: So the way that Ed Reed could react to a play, Mathieu has that ability?
BA: Yeah. Ed was an unbelievable film studier. As was Troy. So their instincts came from that. The more they studied, the more they saw tips. Ty’s instincts are like that. He has natural blitzing ability like them, too.
B/R: But he’s not as stout as Troy?
BA: No, he’s not as big as Ed, either.
B/R: Ed was never that big or bulky.
BA: No, but Ty is not his size. It’s close, but not quite.
B/R: So is there a comp for him?
BA: He’s a safety who plays nickel. Now what is a safety who plays nickel? He’s a safety. There are a million people out there who evaluate football, and they say that’s a corner. A corner is a corner. He plays out there on the corner. A safety is a nickel. Does he play man-to-man? Well, yeah, all our safeties do. So it’s semantics when you start talking about Tyrann.
Pro Football Focus or whoever, all these people who grade the players and want to put stuff out there that he’s the best corner in the league, he doesn’t play corner. He might line up at corner 2 percent of the time because his guy happens to line up out there. But he’s not a corner in the classic sense.
B/R: And he would get overwhelmed eventually if you left him out there.
BA: He could manage it, but I don’t think he’d be as outstanding as he is because he’s such a playmaker in the middle of the field. We want him where the action is. I mean, he’s our Jimmy Graham out wide. He has had other people out wide. So he can run and cover. But I don’t want him out there covering John Brown.
B/R: He has good speed though.
BA: Good, but not great. Not like [Peterson]. All our corners now are 4.4 [in the 40] or better. He’s a 4.5 guy.
B/R: The type of things that Tyrann was talking about after Will Smith was shot and killed in New Orleans, about how there’s not enough government support for recreation to keep kids out of trouble, made me think that this is a far different human being than the one who entered the league three years ago. His maturity level is so much higher.
BA: He wakes up every day proving that he’s a good person and wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing all the time. He got his chance. I’m a big believer in second chances, so he will be the face of the franchise whenever he is finished.
B/R: That’s a pretty big responsibility.
BA: And he loves it. He loves it, embraces it. He talks to a lot of guys we bring in. Rookie minicamp, installation meeting, he was rehabbing and went in and sat in the [defensive back] meeting room with the rookies. He wanted them to know how important it was.
B/R: He’s basically saying, don’t throw away this opportunity.
BA: Yeah, it’s all about that you have to learn this. It’s not just out on the field.
B/R: You have gotten that level of seriousness out of other players. I did a book with Plaxico Burress after the Super Bowl in which he caught the game-winning touchdown pass against New England. He talked extensively about his first meeting with you and how you got his attention and trust in a very short time in Pittsburgh. He said that was a key to him becoming a better player. Why is it that you have that ability to bring that out in people?
BA: I don’t know. I remember that first meeting vividly. He was a good player and basically said, “How are you going to make me better?” Well, I said, “First thing I’m going to do is change that [messed]-up stance you got.” I looked at him and said, “Your foot is pointed this way, so you’re wasting a step on every play. You have to straighten your damn leg out and then run straight.”
A little thing like that. I look at your out route and I look at Hines [Ward’s] out route and you’re a yard short of him because your legs are so long that you ain’t running. “I can’t run that,” [he said]. “Sure you can, trust it,” [I said]. It was good from then on.
B/R: So you talk really straight with people right from the start.
BA: Especially players. I think they appreciate honesty, even if it’s not what they want to hear. I tell them what I think, and it’s not criticism, it’s coaching. I make that clear from the start. I’m getting on your ass, I’m not criticizing you. I’m coaching them to be better.
B/R: You’re basically saying, “If I didn’t talk like this, I wouldn’t care.”
BA: This is how I talk.
B/R: Has there ever been a time when a player didn’t get that right away and then came back and told you later that he appreciated it?
BA: My gosh, so many kids from Temple. (Arians was head coach there from 1983 to 1988.) It’s amazing how close we are still, 30 years later. I had a couple of the guys who left the team, became successful and called to thank me for the time that they had, how they screwed up by leaving, but how they learned while they were there to get to where they are now. They learned how to become successful.
B/R: Do you have an example?
BA: I had a guy in mind, but he [passed away]. I look back at those kids, and I haven’t gotten a chance to go out to their spring game, but they’re all there. There’s a group of 20 of them that come out to a game every year. This is Temple West. When Todd [Bowles] was here, Todd, Kevin [Ross], Amos [Jones] and Nick [Rapone] were all guys on my staff from Temple. Amos and Nick coached most of those kids at Temple. They were on my staff there.
B/R: So those guys from Temple come out for a game every year.
BA: They come out to see practice and we get together, and I really enjoy it.
B/R: That’s a pretty strong connection 30 years later.
BA: Oh yeah. If we go out and play the Giants or especially if we play in Philly, I tell them all, “I can’t see you all individually, let’s just all get together.” We’ll have a walkthrough at Temple, everybody come. There’s 30 guys who show up.
B/R: Let me switch gears a little. With Carson Palmer, I know everybody has had a bad game in their life and there’s a process by which you go through that game, learn from it and then put it behind you. Do you take him through that process, or does he do it on his own?
BA: He does that himself. If he were a young player, you’d help him through that. But he’s great. It took him maybe 10 days to get headed on to next season. He’s the most resilient guy I have ever been around.
He won me over the first year against Detroit. He throws a pick-six in the third quarter and we go down eight. He comes over to me and says, “Just tell me how we can win the game.” I tell him, “We’ll do this.” He gets the guys rallied and we go win the game. It was gone. He didn’t sulk about it. He didn’t fret about it. Just wanted to know how to win the game. He won me over that day.
B/R: Some guys get intimidated in that situation?
BA: Some guys sit on the bench, wrapped in a towel or something, looking at pictures. He said, “[Crap], I screwed that up. Let’s go.”
B/R: Does it help that he has gone through the knee problem twice?
BA: Oh God, yeah. Last year, he knew what to expect. Just like Ty is going through it now, it’s a breeze for him the second time. He doesn’t have that forlorn, woe-is-me face.
B/R: What about the hand? How bad was it really?
BA: (chuckles) He came out, [the finger] was all crooked. They straightened it out like always, and he must have thrown three of the most beautiful balls that we’ve had all season. He had to change his throwing motion a little bit on his release, and his shoulder got a little sore, but as soon as the finger healed up enough, he could go back to letting that finger come off last. He was fine.
B/R: So when people were taking pictures of the finger and comparing it to before, that didn’t have anything to do with his performance against Carolina. He just had a bad day.
BA: We all did. We did not play very well as a team.
B/R: There aren’t a lot of quarterbacks who win a Super Bowl, particularly their first one, in their late 30s. John Elway has done it. More recently, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but they both won Super Bowls early. Most quarterbacks do it early in their careers. What gives you the confidence that Palmer can win one for the first time late in his career?
BA: Because he got us there. Getting there is more than half the battle. Now, getting back, there’s experience there for him, that we all have as a football team. We missed a run in the first quarter that should have been an easy touchdown run. We missed a touchdown pass by this much that would have changed the outcome of that game.
B/R: You think the momentum shift of those two plays would have been enough to shift the game?
BA: It would have been huge for us to be even. So it’s always little things, and that was the first time this team has been down by 10, but they were acting like it was 20 on the sideline ‘cause Carolina is a good, front-running team. [The Panthers] relax and have all their fun and we had talked about keeping it close, not falling where Seattle fell so early.
We were down 10 in the second quarter, but if we make that run, we’re in good shape. Make that pass, it’s a tie game. There’s enough good to look at in that game. Eight [bad plays] in that game, you’re not going to win. It wasn’t all turnovers, but we had the interceptions, we gave up sacks, got blindsided. So it was a lot of people’s hands in that one.
B/R: Where is football going to go from here? Can it get any more pass-heavy than it already is?
BA: It can if they continue to make rules where you don’t practice tackling and expect you to do it in a game.
B/R: So this is more than just making it easier for quarterbacks to throw it by restricting the cornerbacks or by putting out players wide all the time. What you’re saying is that the defense isn’t ready to perform.
BA: The NFL game itself I don’t see going to the college game because, mainly, of the screen. In college, linemen can run down the field on screens, so all those damn jailbreak screens where they are blocking the safeties instead of those guys blitzing. They have tried to sneak that into the NFL game, but they referee it better. Every once in a while, you see an offensive lineman three or four yards downfield, but they call it. I think more pro coaches do not want to see that in pro football.
B/R: Because you want to give yourself a fair chance to play real defense.
BA: You won’t be able to play man-to-man defense.
B/R: So that will keep it short of the complete sellout to pass like Baylor and Texas Tech have been doing recently.
BA: I think against a really good defensive football team you’re going to carry the quarterback out boots-first if he throws that many times. They’re not playing high-quality pass-rushers. They’re playing against one or two or maybe three coverages and maybe one kid who can pass rush. In the NFL, you just can’t do that. You have to run the ball some.
B/R: So it can’t get any more pass-oriented.
BA: I don’t think so. You’re going to have times when Tom Brady will throw it 55 times because they have a matchup they like. Then the next week, they’ll run it 40 times.
B/R: But New England’s passing attack is really an elaborate run game. It’s like what Joe Gibbs did in the 1980s with Washington. Depending on the matchup, you throw it to receivers. Art Monk became the secondary run game, just like Bill Walsh did with guys like Tom Rathman and Roger Craig. You, on the other hand, like to attack downfield a lot more with your passing game.
BA: I don’t mind dumping it down to our back. The biggest thing is to get it out of your hand. There’s always a shot to take in everything we do against the right coverage, and you have the freedom to do it as the quarterback. Now, if that’s not there, get it down to the back at the next level. Get it out of your hand. Of course, the last three quarterbacks (Palmer, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger) I’ve had all think they’re tougher than bullets. They hold onto it a little longer.
B/R: Luck is learning the hard way that’s not necessarily true.
BA: Yeah, but he thinks he tougher than everybody on the other side. Ben is the same way. Carson has a lot of that to him. They think, “Let’s get this [ball] down there.” [Palmer] will get it out of his hand a little sooner than they will, but [Luck and Roethlisberger] can both run more, to a point.
B/R: This is the third year you’re going to have your top three receivers together. How much better can they get as a unit?
BA: You always believe that you can get better as a unit and we can coach them better at what they do best. We can put them in better position to do what they do best to be successful.
B/R: I thought how those three worked together was the biggest growth in your offense last year.
BA: They all stayed healthy last year. (Knocks on wood.) This was the first time Larry [Fitzgerald] has been healthy since I got here. He had two hamstrings the first year and then two MCLs that he fought through. Malcolm [Floyd] has gotten better, and Smoky [John Brown], he’s a vet now.
B/R: How long did it take Fitzgerald to feel comfortable in this offense?
BA: Two solid years to learn all the things that are there for him. He had always been the X receiver. When you get in the middle of that hash-mark area, there’s so much more to learn and more balls to catch.
B/R: But there’s also a process of learning to trust that you are being put there to catch the ball and not being put out to pasture.
BA: Oh no, it was to get him the ball.
B/R: And how long did that part of it take?
BA: Over a year…for Carson to trust him to make the decisions the same way. If [Fitzgerald] had two-way goes or three-way goes, which one was he going to take? That’s the hardest part for the quarterback and receiver, when I give you three-way options, up, out, in or out. At first, it was like, “Where’s he going?” Now, it’s like “Pop, there he is, he’s going this way.” Carson sees his body language, and they see it the same way.
B/R: In your offense, is everything seen through the quarterback first and then the offensive line?
BA: Yes, it’s the quarterback and the guys up front. We may have a run called, but if it’s a bad run, get us the [freak] out of it. Or if we have a pass called and there’s a really good looking run, get us into that.
B/R: So the quarterback has final say, meaning this is a little bit of Dan Henning and a little bit of Don Shula with Howard Schnellenberger.
BA: Yeah, I played for Dan. Dan was my offensive coordinator in college. It really is a lot of [assistant coach] Tom Moore, who just happens to be sitting next to me all the time. He did it with Peyton in Indy, some Joe Pendry, a little Steve DeBerg in Kansas City.
B/R: So do you guys come to the line with the whole playbook ready?
BA: It’s not quite that level. It’s a matter of three ways to go. Might be two runs and a pass to get out. An easy pass to get out. It might be, “Hey, against this damn coverage we want to throw the [freaking] ball.”
B/R: You recently said this is your last stop in coaching. But it also took you a while to get to be a head coach in the NFL. I’m watching what Tom Coughlin is going through, and he still wants to do it. Why are you so able to talk about this being the end of the line?
BA: Tom don’t have any other hobbies.
B/R: That is part of the issue with Tom.
BA: I have things I think I wouldn’t mind doing when I’m done with this.
B/R: When will you know it’s time?
BA: When I don’t want to go to the office anymore, that’s when I know it’s going to be time. I was excited this morning for practice. I couldn’t wait to get up this morning to go to practice. If and when it happens that I don’t enjoy being around the guys, I don’t enjoy teaching…I have delegated more than I have in the past because I’m trying to help some coaches. Like [offensive coordinator] Harold Goodwin. He’ll get a chance to call plays in at least two of the preseason games. He has run the installation and the postseason breakdown.
B/R: Do you teach your coaches play-calling?
BA: Yeah, during training camp, at the end of practice, we’ll have a series where we have 20 to 25 plays where we have defense on one side and offense on the other where we’re calling out down and distance and calling plays. No tackling, but to get people ready because I want all these guys to be head coaches.
B/R: Who did that for you?
BA: Tom [Moore] and Joe Pendry. Those guys did so much for me.
B/R: To me, that’s an underdeveloped skill. There are a few guys who are really good at calling plays, but the league as a whole doesn’t develop play-callers enough. There’s not enough mock games where you have coaches on a clock in a given situation and they have to call a play and be ready for the next one.
BA: That has been incorporated in our process. The 25-second clock in running, let’s get moving.
B/R: OK, so other things you might want to do when you retire. I’m thinking fashion designer with the clothes and the hats. One of your players said about you, “Nobody rocks the bald look like Bruce Arians.”
BA: (chuckling) I would probably enjoy television. I don’t want a studio spot, I’d rather call a game. When I got fired at Temple, that Saturday afterward they had the first Pennsylvania championship high school game at State College, and I did the call with Al Nelson, and it was fun. Be a color guy, do something where you kind of stay in the game. Go around, see the coaches, watch practice and then go play golf.