Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is an aggressive playcaller, and that's not about to change.
Bruce Arians would have gotten roasted if his risky late-game call against the Saints fell flat.
The 55-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to David Johnson sealed Sunday's win and cemented the Cardinals coach as one of the most aggressive late-game tacticians in the NFL. While the play-design looked foolproof, one missed block, a bad throw or a drop could have given Saints star quarterback Drew Brees an extra 40 seconds to lead a late-game comeback.
Many NFL coaches don't want to take that chance, and for most of his career, Arians was an offensive coordinator without the power to overrule the coach's decision. Now he has the final say, and he's enjoying every minute of it.
"I have nobody to answer to," said Arians, a wide smile creeping across his face, "other than (team president) Michael
Arians understands game flow and will tweak his play-calling based on the situation, but he never coaches scared. He takes shots from deep in his own territory. He takes them with the lead or when trailing. He trained Palmer to always look big before settling for shorter completions, which is how John Brown caught a 75-yard game-winning touchdown last year against the Eagles.
"He's not shy about it," Palmer said. "He lets you know. We talk about it all the time. Touchdown (then) check-down mentality. But there's a touchdown, big-play capability within just about every play in the offense."
Arians admits it doesn't always work. Palmer threw a pair of long incompletions intended for wideout J.J. Nelson at the end of the first half against New Orleans. The Cardinals were about five yards outside of field goal range, so on third down Palmer scrambled instead of throwing the ball away, and the clock ran out before he could spike it on the next snap.
"We got a little too greedy and gave up three points," Arians said.
Still, Arians would rather be overzealous than conservative, and the late-game aggressiveness may be correlating to success. The Cardinals are 10-4 in one-possession games in Arians' tenure, and he's 18-4 in those situations as a head coach. Many of the games have come down to who executes best in the fourth quarter, and by playing to win instead of not to lose, the Cardinals have often come out on top.
"We talked about it since day one, about finishing games," Arians said. "Most games in this league are decided in the fourth quarter, and if you want to be a contender in this league, you have to win the fourth quarter."
It helps schematically when the opponent can't rely on conventional wisdom to counteract a plan.
While Arians doesn't call the defensive plays, he was in lockstep with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles when they sent full-house blitzes after Nick Foles to secure last year's win over the Eagles. Johnson has tremendous hands for a running back, but Sunday was still his first career NFL game after playing at small-school Northern Iowa in college. A drop due to nerves wasn't out of the question.
"The same way I play golf, I don't ever lay up," Arians said. "I've hit a lot of balls in the water, but you can't hit a good shot if you don't try. There are times to run it and use the timeouts against certain teams, and times when you think you have a good play you use it."
The highest of stakes hasn't deterred Arians. In the 2011 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers had the ball and a 24-19 lead on the Jets as the clock dwindled down. New York was out of timeouts, and Arians, then the Pittsburgh offensive coordinator, had a call to make on third-and-6. His quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was 9-of-18 for 119 yards and two interceptions. Running back Rashard Mendenhall had 121 yards rushing.
"This is the game to go to the Super Bowl," said Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, then an assistant in Pittsburgh. "Their defense was doing some good things toward the end of the game and we needed a first down to close it out. Same issue: Are you going to run it to keep the clock running, or are you going to throw it?
"We dropped back and we threw it. Got the first down. He's always telling me, even when he lets me call plays (in the preseason), be aggressive. He's going to be that way until the day he dies."
Past images of the Cardinals and Bears facing off