Colts' call got Arians' 'juices flowing' again
An emotional season in Indianapolis ended with an emotional hug between Bruce Arians, right, and Chuck Pagano a week ago == the day Pagano returned to the sideline == after the Colts defeated AFC South champion Houston in the regular-season finale.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Bruce Arians was leaning back in a chair at Mesh, a trendy bistro on revitalized Massachusetts Avenue, and laughing because his daughter wants him to get new glasses that make him look younger.
It is Wednesday night, five days before the team he helped revitalize will make an unlikely appearance in a wild-card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. But the man who has become an instant hero in this town is not worried about appearing antiquated.
In any other city, with any other coach, maybe what has transpired in the past 3 1/2 months with the Indianapolis Colts would be enough to age a normal person. But not Arians. He is wearing a Ben Hogan-style cap, wind-proof vest and looking very much unlike a person who pumped life into a team and, in effect, his own professional career. Not that it should have needed resuscitation, anyway.
"Winning the Super Bowl, calling those plays in the two-minute drill in Super Bowl XLIII does not compare to this," Arians was saying. "Beating Pitt at Temple for the first time in 45 years one sunny day at the Vet is the only thing that comes close to what this year has meant to me."
It would be one thing if Arians merely performed the coordinator job he was hired to do, if he took an offense that featured five rookies and turned Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, into the most prolific first-year quarterback in league history.
But he did that while also stepping in for new head coach Chuck Pagano, taking control of the Colts for 12 games when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September. The Colts were 1-2 when Pagano was hospitalized for treatments. Arians had not been a head coach since his days at Temple in the mid-1980s.
But in one of the more improbable but heart-warming stories of the year, the Colts went 9-3 under Arians and became only the second team in NFL history to win 11 or more games one season after having only two or fewer victories. And they did it with a roster that included 14 rookies or first-year players.
"This is a bunch of kids that nobody wanted," Arians said. "I mean, these guys are off the street. But they're winning games because they believe and they trust each other. They trust the coaching staff. They trust the message that was put in place by Chuck that we continued and they galvanized over his illness."
It started, miraculously enough, in the very first game without Pagano against the Green Bay Packers, a game in which the Colts trailed at halftime, 21-3, and Arians feared "we were going to get beat, 50-3."
But cornerback Jerraud Powers intercepted Aaron Rodgers early in the third quarter, the Colts converted the turnover into a touchdown, and the magic began. The Colts came back to win, 30-27, when Reggie Wayne caught a 4-yard touchdown with 35 seconds remaining. And the Colts haven't stopped being a surprise since.
"That was it, that turned it around," Arians said. "It just continued to snowball."
To be sure, Pagano's spirit appeared to inspire the team and carry them through all their fourth-quarter comebacks. But it was Arians who did more than just relay Pagano's inspirational messages to the players. He led them into battle and made all the right moves on the sideline, a performance that could earn him the league's coach of the year award -- the first time an interim coach would be so honored.
It also earned the Colts (11-5) a spot in a wild-card playoff game today against the Baltimore Ravens.
"B.A. just reassured us that everything was in place," said former Steelers running back Mewelde Moore, a third-down back with the Colts. "Certain things happen in life that bring families closer together. And that was one of those things."
It has been one surprise after another for Arians.
A bitter pill
It has been almost a year since Mike Tomlin phoned Arians and told him he could not renew his contract for the 2012 season.
That conversation came three days after Arians left Pittsburgh for his offseason home in Georgia, armed with an assurance from Tomlin -- several, actually ----that he wanted him to return for another season. With that commitment, Arians was intent on returning for his sixth season as the team's offensive coordinator.
And why not? The Steelers offense had produced a 4,000-yard quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, two 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, and a running game that averaged 4.4 yards per carry, highest since 2001. What's more, their third-down conversion rate of 45.9 percent was higher than any of the previous three Super Bowl teams and the second highest of Arians' tenure.
The phone call was so shockingly unexpected that Arians had to tell his wife three times that the news was true.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow," Arians was recalling the other night, unwinding at the restaurant that is just several blocks from the furnished apartment he rents. "I was at peace my career was over. I could look myself in the mirror and know I did everything I could possibly do in Pittsburgh to get to three Super Bowls and win two of them, to make those players the best they could be."
The Steelers did not announce that Arians would not be rehired. Instead, they issued a statement saying he had decided to retire.
But, less than 10 days later, as he was driving back to Pittsburgh to move his furniture, he received a call from Pagano, asking him if he wanted to be the Colts' new offensive coordinator. Pagano knew of Arians from coaching against him with the Baltimore Ravens but also because Arians had worked with Pagano's brother, John, when both were assistants with the Colts in 1998.
"When Chuck called it was, like, wow, maybe it's a chance to do this again with a rookie quarterback," Arians said. "It was a huge factor. Coaching Peyton Manning again or Andrew Luck, or Peyton and Andrew, yeah, that got all the juices flowing again."
Now here he is, the toast of Indianapolis and ready to interview for several head-coaching positions, beginning this week with the Chicago Bears. But, first things first: He has another chance to knock the Ravens from the postseason, something he managed to help do in 2008 and 2010 with the Steelers.
Arians, 60, has never interviewed for a head-coaching position in the NFL, despite being a part of three Super Bowl teams with the Steelers.
"I thought it was over; I thought football was over for me," Arians said. "When Chuck called, I got excited about it again. As I was driving back to Pittsburgh to get the rest of my furniture, all I thought about was, am I going to get on that plane [to Indianapolis]?
"I knew how excited Chuck was about this opportunity. I knew how great Mr. [Jim] Irsay was. But coming back to the Colts organization, I've never walked back into a building in my 37 years of coaching more respected or more [appreciated] by the people for being there. That's a great feeling."
Especially after what happened with the Steelers.
A help to rookies
One of the overlooked aspects of what Arians did for the Steelers was his ability to quickly integrate young players such as Wallace, Brown and Emmanuel Sanders into the lineup and have them develop.
Wallace, in particular, had his production climb each of his first three seasons under Arians. And Brown made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist in his second season after becoming the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
Arians is doing the same with the Colts. He will start four rookies on offense against the Ravens -- Luck, running back Vick Ballard, tight end Coby Fleener and fullback/tight end Dwayne Allen. A fifth rookie, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, is the No. 3 receiver and the Colts' dynamic version of Antonio Brown. All five players were on a wish list of nine players Arians was hoping to select in the April draft.
Hilton leads the team with seven touchdowns and a 17.2 yards-per-catch average. He grew up in the same Miami neighborhood as Brown and is his longtime friend.
"He told me when I came in for visit, he told me he wanted to use me like that," Hilton said of Arians. "Right now it's working. He makes sure we know his offense and once we know his offense, we're good."
All told, the Colts have 14 rookies or first-year players on their roster. Twenty-eight players will be making their first playoff appearance today against the Ravens. But Arians has not been afraid to use any of them. And they have responded.
On the winning field-goal drive in a 23-20 victory against the Miami Dolphins, the Colts had seven players on the field who were rookies or first-year players.
"He's a great teacher, but he's also a great motivator," said Moore, who is in his second stint this season with the Colts. "He gets everyone's attention. It's something he has that's natural. He has a natural swag that gets the young guys' attention and guys respect him."
Close to his QBs
"Play great. Great players do."
That was the text message Arians sent quarterback Ben Roethlisberger before every game this season, a saying the two shared when they were together with the Steelers.
Arians still maintains a close relationship with Roethlisberger. They live near each other in the offseason in the same golf community in Greensboro, Ga., and exchange text messages frequently in the season. Arians' son, Jake, is one of Roethlisberger's friends.
Arians, though, said he has always had that kind of relationship with the quarterbacks he has coached, including Peyton Manning in his first stint as an assistant with the Colts.
"You have to have a bond," Arians said. "As a coach in the National Football League, you're only as good as your quarterback. Your head coach is tied to him, that's your future. As an offensive coordinator, that's your only chance. You have to have a relationship built on solid trust. You can't do that hollering and screaming at a guy because that's not saying a lot about trust.
"You coach him as hard as you can, you prepare him, but on the sidelines you got to trust he's telling you what he's seeing. That's the kind of bond you have to have with your quarterback, one I've always had with Tim Couch, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and now Andrew Luck."
That relationship, though, was among the reasons the Steelers decided to dismiss Arians a year ago, feeling their quarterback, at age 30, needed someone who would be more demanding and force him to "tweak" his game. The Steelers wanted Roethlisberger to be more judicious about holding on to the ball and less reliant on merely trying to make a play.
That was one of the objectives for Todd Haley when he was hired to replace Arians as offensive coordinator. Haley's reputation was much different: He was known to be confrontational with his players on the sideline and not afraid to scream at them, if necessary.
"I hate to think that," Arians said when asked if he was not rehired because of his relationship with Roethlisberger. "I would hate to believe anybody was that naive to think we were too close because they obviously weren't in the [meeting] room when I was coaching him. The fact that I allowed him to call plays in no-huddle situations ... I know how much he studied the no-huddle and I knew how successful we were in it when he was calling the plays. We always had a little side bet that, when I was calling the plays, I'd score more points than him."
Luck said he was aware of Arians' relationship with Roethlisberger and "I see why.
"He's an infectious personality, someone you want to be around. He has a special ability to relate to anybody, especially quarterbacks.
"And, football-wise, he sort of throws everything at you -- here you go. He's going to walk you through it, but he's not holding your hand the whole way. He's going to let you learn. To me, I appreciate that because you feel like you're not being babied."
Arians' impact on Luck is unmistakable.
The No. 1 overall pick in the draft set a rookie record with 4,374 yards passing and broke Roethlisberger's rookie record (5) with seven comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime. That also tied the league record by any quarterback in a single season since the 1970 merger.
His late heroics are especially evident in the final two minutes when he has passed for 884 yards, more than any other quarterback this season. Since 1966, only Roethlisberger won more games as a rookie (13) than Luck (11).
And, after throwing 18 interceptions in his first 13 regular-season games, Luck has not had a pick in the past three.
"Peyton I always called the piranha because you couldn't feed him enough information," said Arians, who was Manning's first quarterback coach with the Colts in 1998. "Ben was just the opposite. The more information, he said, 'Here's our book, play football.' He was the ultimate gunslinger and swashbuckler.
"Andrew is a combination of those guys. He has the information ability to decipher like Peyton and regurgitate it like that and go out and execute it. And he's got Ben's swashbuckler in him. Throw the ball away? No way. Go make a play and throw a touchdown."
Despite taking over for 12 games, Arians did not receive a bump in salary to serve as interim coach. The Colts, though, have offered him more money to remain on their staff for next season, knowing it's entirely possible he could leave if he is offered a head-coaching job elsewhere.
That could happen.
Arians will interview this week with the Bears and reportedly is a target of the San Diego Chargers to replace Norv Turner. And it's possible he will become a candidate with the Cleveland Browns with the help of Manning, who knows new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, a former Steelers investor. Haslam's brother, Bill, is the governor of Tennessee and a friend of Manning, who played at the University of Tennessee.
Asked what he would say to someone if they asked if Arians was a good head-coaching candidate," Luck smiled and said, "Terrible things. Terrible, terrible things."
Make no mistake, Arians' success with the Colts has put the franchise in something of a ticklish situation.
He has proven he's head-coaching material by going 9-3 with a young, inexperienced team that was minus-12 in turnover differential, seventh worst in the league. What's more, the Colts had 13 players on injured reserve.
But the Colts were 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and the credit goes to the man on the sideline -- Arians.
The Colts still do not know what they have in Pagano, who was 1-2 before he was diagnosed and will have to prove what he can do in a full season on the sideline. While his fight against leukemia galvanized the team, it was Arians who was orchestrating their improbable run to the postseason.
"Obviously he's earned any phone call, he's earned that right," Pagano said. "Let me just say this: We do not want to lose Bruce Arians. We know what he is and we know what he means to this organization and to this football team. I would just tell [a team] that, if you're interested, you're getting a guy that's a great leader, a great football coach, a great man, and, if that happened, you'd be getting a great football coach."
And someone who never imagined any of this 12 months ago.
First Published January 6, 2013 12:00 am