Here is one of the good guys in pro football who is doing a great job this season and who you should root for over the final two weeks of the season: Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.
Arians is a blue-collar, no-nonsense guy who had to wait until age 60 to get hired for the first time as head coach in the NFL. That is incredibly rare, given the penchant in all sports to hire hot-shot, up-and-coming assistants.
How rare? Arians was the first 60-year-old to become a first-time NFL head coach in 13 years, since Cincinnati hired Dick LeBeau in 2000. It has happened only four times since the merger in 1970, according to our research.
Score one for the value of experience and paying dues.
Furthermore, Arians got a semi-raw deal in Pittsburgh in 2011 when he was shoved out the door after five mostly outstanding years as Steelers offensive coordinator. Arians helped the Steelers get to two Super Bowls and win one. They ranked 12th in his last year on offense and haven’t been better without him the last two seasons.
His departure from Pittsburgh was termed a retirement, but he stayed retired all of seven days before accepting a job as offensive coordinator for the Colts. Arians joked about it last month in assessing his career revival.
“From re-fired — uh, excuse me, retired — to this, I don’t think anybody would have dreamt it,” Arians said. “It’s a fairy tale. It truly is. I hate that to get an opportunity to be a head coach we had to go through what we had to go through last year, but it was the only way.”
Arians was referring to the fact he was forced to serve as Colts interim head coach for 12 games last season while head coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia. Arians went 9-3 in those games, helping the Colts to an improbable playoff berth. He earned the NFL Coach of the Year award.
This year he has an outside shot to win the Coach of the Year award again. The Cardinals have improved from 5-11 last season to 9-5. They still have a shot at the playoffs, but they would need to upset both Seattle today and San Francisco next week, plus get plenty of other help.
Arians is the son of working-class parents from York, Pa. His father was a machinist. His mom worked in the York Peppermint Patty factory. Arizona is his 13th coaching stop in 39 years.
A two-year gig under Alabama legend Bear Bryant taught him to embrace Bryant’s old-school philosophy: “Coach ‘em hard and hug ‘em later.”
That job landed him a head-coaching gig in 1983 at age 30 at his alma mater, Temple University. He managed to have two winning seasons in a three-year span, a feat that wasn’t repeated at Temple for another 24 years. He was head coach, coordinator, QB coach and the recruiting chief. He landed in the hospital eight times over six years, due to migraine headaches and stomach problems, before getting fired.
“I was only 36,” he said. “I felt like I was 80.”
It was a long road back to the head-coaching chair. But Arians has proven over and over he knows both talent and offense.
Eleven of the 22 starters in last week’s win were not even on the roster last season. Arizona has gone from 31st in scoring last year to 15th. Over the last seven games, the Cards are 6-1 and QB Carson Palmer has completed 68.9 percent of his passes with 13 TDs and four interceptions.
Besides LeBeau, the only other first-time, 60-year-old head coaching hires we found since ‘70 were Rod Rust by the Pats in 1990, Dick MacPherson by the Pats in 1991 and Bud Wilkinson by the Cards in 1978. Wilkinson and MacPherson entered the NFL after many years of success as college head coaches.
It’s amazing Dallas (7-7) still is in the playoff hunt, given how awful its defense is performing. Dallas is allowing 297.4 passing yards a game. The worst ever in a 16-game season is 299.8 by Green Bay in 2011.
Overall the Cowboys’ defense is allowing 427 yards a game. The 16-game record is 440, yielded by New Orleans last season.
Dallas ranks last in the league in sacks. Besides edge rusher DeMarcus Ware, linebacker Sean Lee and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, nobody in the Dallas front seven is playing well. Receiver Dez Bryant probably would be better at safety than the current duo of Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox.
Owner Jerry Jones has given coach Jason Garrett a vote of confidence, although he said after the collapse against Green Bay last week it’s “not appropriate” to talk about Garrett’s future.
While Tony Romo threw another late interception to help secure the loss to the Pack, Garrett owned a big share of the blame.
In building a 23-point halftime lead over the Pack, DeMarco Murray had rushed for 93 yards and averaged 8.5 yards a carry. Murray got just seven carries in the second half.
It’s hard not to like Eagles coach Chip Kelly, given his unconventional approach. Analytics have shown that coaches are too conservative on fourth down. The numbers show they should go for it more often than is customary in the NFL.
Kelly took the philosophy to an extreme last week. His Eagles trailed Minnesota, 24-9, with 21 minutes to play. Kelly faced a fourth-and-1 from his own 24-yard line. Actually, it was less than 1. He went for it. LeSean McCoy was stopped for no gain. The Eagles forced the Vikings to settle for a 38-yard field goal on the ensuing possession to make the score, 27-9. Philly then scored touchdowns on its next two possessions to pull within 27-22 (if not for a failed two-point try it would have been 27-24). Minnesota won going away, 48-30.
The Eagles are in the middle of the pack in fourth down attempts, going 6 of 12.
Cleveland has tried the most, going 13 for 26. Next is Jacksonville, at 9 of 22. Buffalo is 4 of 11 on fourth-down tries.
Leonhard plays big
Backup safety Jim Leonhard only got 10 snaps last week in Jacksonville, after getting none in Tampa. But he made the most of them. Leonhard stuffed Jordan Todman for a 4-yard loss on a first-and-goal play from the 1 with 3:59 left. It’s worth re-visiting.
Leonhard actually was substituting for injured Aaron Williams on the play and had to flip sides of the defense, going from the defensive right side to the left at the last second, just before the snap of the ball. The Jaguars had lined up an extra tight end on the defensive right but ran a toss sweep to the left. Leonhard knifed through the line, avoided the lead-blocking fullback and dumped Todman. It was huge, because it forced the Jaguars into passing mode, and Stephon Gilmore intercepted in the end zone two plays later.
“Obviously it took us a little bit longer to get lined up than we probably should have,” Leonhard said. “Just having a couple guys get injured throughout the course of the game caused us to have to mix and match our personnel. It’s not something you get a whole lot of work on, if guys get hurt in the goal-line defense. I knew I was kind of that next guy up, but I had to figure out which spot I was taking. As soon as the ball was snapped, I saw the play and just tried to hit it as far in the backfield as I could.”
• Manning Update: Peyton Manning has 47 TD passes, three shy of Tom Brady’s league record of 50. His 4,811 passing yards leave him 665 shy of Drew Brees’ single-season record of 5,476.
• Seattle is on the verge of setting the record for fewest punt return yards allowed in a season. With eighth-year Canadian Jon Ryan doing the booting, the Seahawks have allowed only 19 punt return yards all season. The record is 22, by the Packers in 1967. The 16-game record is 49 by Atlanta in 2008. Buffalo allowed only 51 in 1991.