As Cmndt. Eric Lassard of the “Police Academy” series might say, there have been many, many, many fine coaches this year, doing many, many, many fine things. But taking everything into account, it’s hard to think of anyone but Indianapolis Colts interim head coach and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year. Not only did he install and run an entirely new offense with all kinds of new moving parts, and not only has he helped a team that went 2-14 in 2011 to a 10-5 record and a guaranteed playoff berth, but he’s done all this while his head coach, Chuck Pagano, has been fighting leukemia.
It’s a true testimony to Pagano’s strength and faith that he’ll be returning to the sidelines before the season is over, but the job Arians has done should not go overlooked. With no head coaching experience, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator seemed to have an innate understanding of how to keep a very young team on track through all sorts of emotional highs and lows. The Colts were 1-2 when Pagano was diagnosed during the team’s bye week, and they ran off a 9-3 record after that. We can now see why Pagano wanted Arians on his staff so badly when he was named to replace Jim Caldwell in January.
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“The first phone call I made after I got this job was to Bruce to see if he’d be interested,” Pagano remembered when he announced his return to the team on Dec. 24. “I thank God he was available and interested, and I thank him again today. He was the first phone call I made on the Sunday after I was admitted to the hospital. I told him my circumstances and asked him if he would lead this team and this ballclub and this organization and take over the reins. What a masterful, masterful job you did, Bruce. You carried the torch and all you went out and did was win nine ballgames and get us our 10th win, and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity and with class. You’re everything I always knew you were and more.
“When I asked Bruce to take over, I said, ‘You’ve got to kick some you-know-what and you have to do great.’ But damn, Bruce — you had to go win nine games? That’s a tough act to follow. I’ve got my hands full.”
The inspiring stuff is great, but from a pure football perspective, Arians did as well — and as much — as any coach in the league. For over a decade, the Peyton Manning-led Colts were a three-wide, single-back offensive skeleton into which Manning would breathe life before every snap. Arians changed everything around. Now, trips and bunch concepts the Colts had rarely seen became the order of the day, and veteran Reggie Wayne added a heretofore unknown and thoroughly delightful gift for blocking on Indy’s run plays. It wasn’t just Andrew Luck who benefitted from Arians’ acumen — other rookies like tight end Dwayne Allen and receiver T.Y. Hilton have thrived in the offensive concepts Arians used and expanded during a five-year stint as the Steelers’ offensive mastermind.
The fact that he’s kept the Colts on track as a franchise without minimizing any of his responsibilities to the team’s offense further strengthens his case.
“I know we had a talk right after the situation [with Pagano] unfolded where he said, ‘Nothing concerning my offensive coordinator duties will be sacrificed. If anything, I’m going to have to stay in for five extra hours doing the head coaching job,’” Luck said in mid-December. “So our communication hasn’t changed, and I think it’s accustomed to him putting in however many extra hours.”
If his work with the Colts isn’t enough to sway momentum in his favor, look at what Pittsburgh’s offense became after his departure. The Steelers announced on Jan. 20 that Arians had “retired,” though Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin later admitted that it was he who made the call.
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“He didn’t,” said Tomlin at the NFL owners meetings in March, when asked whether team President Art Rooney II told Tomlin to make that move. “I don’t know where some of these perceptions come from. I don’t break my neck and try to combat them in any way. I don’t know where they come from, I don’t. And I hired Todd Haley as well. Was that your next question?”
No, coach, that was not our next question. Our next question was: Why did you can a guy who led the Steelers to a top-10 finish in Football Outsiders’ offensive efficiency metrics in four of his five seasons in favor of an offensive coordinator who clearly isn’t on the same page with his quarterback?
No matter. That’s not the Colts’ problem. The only issue the Colts may have with Arians is the number of NFL teams who will call on him and ask if he can perform a similar magic act with their franchises in a higher position.
“We’ll listen to see if it’s right for me and my family,” Arians recently told WHIP Radio. “I’m not just gonna run away to be a head coach, I’m not gonna do that. I want to make sure they have a chance to win and see what the situation is, what city it is in. But I definitely would listen, yes.”
And there’s no question that teams should be asking. Bruce Arians has already proven that he has what it takes to be a head coach, and he’s done so by becoming the best coach in the league in 2012 … under the most unusual of circumstances.
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