Bruce Arians changing culture in Arizona

Bruce Arians has led the Cardinals to their first winning season since 2009 and into the playoff hunt. Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. -- After his first game as an NFL head coach, a 27-24 loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 1, Bruce Arians turned to Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and made a sweeping assessment of the men on his team.

They're out there hoping to win, Arians said.

One sentence perfectly nailed the futility of Arizona's last three seasons when losing streaks were commonplace and it described why there was an opening for Arians to get his first head-coaching opportunity at age 60.

Winning hasn't been a frequent result for the Cardinals since the franchise joined the NFL in 1920. Heading into 2013, they had just 27 winning seasons in the league and three after the team relocated to Arizona in 1988 -- the last coming in 2009, when the Cards were 10-6.

At 9-5 with two games left, Arizona has already clinched its first winning season since 2009, and Arians has put his name in the team's record books with the second-most wins by a head coach in his first season. But there's an asterisk, because Arians still has two more games to move into a tie for first with Norm Barry's 11 in 1925.

Almost four months after Arians made his comment to Keim, the sentence has been revised. The Cardinals don't hope they can win anymore. They know they can. It's evident in the team's play during this latest stretch, in which they've won six of their past seven.

“I don't think there's any doubt,” Arians said this week. “A couple of games early in the season that we gave away, we didn't learn how to win.

“We've learned how to finish games.”

It's a new era in Arizona.

The last time that feeling swept through the desert like a haboob in August was 2009, when Kurt Warner led Arizona to the Super Bowl. It lost that game to the Pittsburgh Steelers on a play called by Arians, who was then Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator.

Arians' first season isn't in the books yet, but it's safe to say he's changed the way things work in Arizona. A winning season isn't good enough, even getting 11 wins -- which is still possible -- isn't good if the Cardinals don't make the playoffs.

Winning coach of the year can be viewed as a wins and losses award, or it can be delved into deeper, examining how a coach has changed a culture yet again.

Turning franchises around has become old hat for Arians. Since joining the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, every team he's coached has had a better record in his first or second season than the year before he arrived. The Colts went 3-13 in 1997, a year before Arians was hired as the quarterbacks coach. In Arians' first year, Indianapolis posted the same record as it went through growing pains with a rookie under center named Peyton Manning. In Arians' next two seasons with Manning and the Colts, they went 13-3 and 10-6.

It happened again in Cleveland. The Browns were 3-13 in 2000 and 7-9 with Arians as their offensive coordinator the following year. The season before Arians became Pittsburgh's wide receivers coach in 2004, the Steelers were 6-10. A year later, they were 15-1.

Flipping records with four consecutive teams might be a coincidence, but Arians proved it wasn't a fluke when he was named the interim head coach in Indianapolis three games into the 2012 season. He finished with a 9-3 record, again with a rookie quarterback, and helped lead a Colts team that was 2-12 in 2011 to 11-5, while earning coach of the year honors. Arizona was 5-11 in 2012.

So it's no surprise then that Arians is being widely considered for his second straight coach of the year award after taking over the Cardinals, a franchise mired in losing seasons the past three years, and leading them into the playoff hunt in Week 16.

Winning, however, is one part of it. A lot of coaches can win.

What's more impressive than his turnarounds is how Arians does it. As Keim put it, Arians inherited a fractured team in January. Then he recruited a band of castoffs such as quarterback Carson Palmer, linebackers Karlos Dansby and John Abraham, safety Yeremiah Bell and right tackle Eric Winston, paired them with a slew of young rookies and talented returning Cards such as Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Patrick Peterson, and molded them into a playoff-caliber squad.

When he arrived, Arians knew the defensive talent was there and thought the Cardinals would “be able to scratch points out once we learned the system.”

“I probably didn't think we'd do it with this many injuries,” Arians said. “But I'm very confident. When you put a team together and you talk about a team winning games and next man up, it's not B.S., and these guys really believe it.”

He got them to buy in despite using a complex offense with a “coach ‘em hard, love ‘em later” philosophy that's built around accountability, Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said.

“It doesn't matter if you're a star player or a player who's just been signed up from the developmental squad, he's going to expect the same from you, from an intellectual standpoint and from a physical standpoint,” Bidwill said.

When the Cardinals began offseason workouts in the spring, Arians posted an accountability sheet. Every day since then, it lists every mental and physical mistake that occurs during that day's practice. Everybody can see who screwed up.

Almost overnight, the culture around the Cardinals had changed.

Once the players bought in, they began holding each other accountable and the Cardinals were playing as much for each other as they were for their coach -- who, according to Bidwill, acts like he's still 35. That's been obvious the past few weeks, when Victory Monday has been anything but a day off. The veterans have called the team in to watch film and start planning for the next game. That hasn't happened in Arizona before, Bidwill noted.

Players at his stops have loved playing for Arians because he rules with tough love. He doesn't sugarcoat. If you're playing badly, he'll tell you -- and not always in a nice way. He yells. He screams. He loses his temper one second and he hugs you the next. It's a rare trait, Keim said, but Arians has mastered the art of having a short memory.

“You respect that as a player,” Campbell said.

Kicker Jay Feely, who's in his fourth season with the Cardinals, said the coaches who knew Arians warned the players about him from day one.

“Don't take it personal,” Feely said they told the players. “He's going to call you out and you've got to be able to take it like a man and move forward.”

While the players bought into who Arians was, they didn't always buy into the offense.

Outsiders saw the Cardinals struggle to understand his complex scheme through the first seven weeks. They saw Palmer's interceptions and holes in the offensive line, but what they didn't see was Arians' football genius at work.

“He understands the game so well, everything comes so easy to him, so he expects everybody else at times to be as smart and understand concepts as well as he does,” Keim said.

When they don't, Arians has been known to get “hot,” Keim said. But Arians won't let his ego get in the way of winning. He simplified the offense to a level for everyone -- players and assistants, alike -- to understand.

Even then, Keim saw Arians' softer side emerge while he challenged players.

“You don't want to let him down,” Dansby said. “He comes off as a father figure and you don't want to let your father down. You never want to let your father down, so that's how we look at it. That's how we feel.”

But what makes Arians one of the best coaches in the NFL isn't his offensive ingenuity, his attention to detail -- one player said Arians harped on him about lining up five inches to the wrong side, which eventually was the difference in making a catch or not -- or his tactical skills.

It's his humility.

Arians will do things his way. He doesn't have a problem, Keim observed, telling his assistants he made a mistake or taking the blame if something didn't go right. He'll even stray from the foundation of his offense if it'll help the Cardinals win. He's been throwing fewer downfield passes during Arizona's recent run. Arians even used defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu as a fullback on Sunday -- a position not included in Arians' offense.

“That's a tough pill to swallow for a lot of these guys who have big egos,” Keim said. “Bruce is so confident in himself that he's not scared to tell you, ‘I made a mistake, I should have done this different or I could've done this different.'

“Now, he doesn't have to do this often, because he's done a fantastic job.”