If you've read this column with any regularity this year, you know that I wasn't always Bruce Arians' biggest fan. As a head coach, I questioned his lack of aggression, along with his decision making on 3rd and 4th downs, and his usage of timeouts and challenges. As an offensive coordinator, I loved his willingness to go deep, but grew frustrated with the resulting hits to his QB – I desperately wanted him to develop a short and intermediate game to go along with the vertical attack.
And as the season ended and Arians' name was thrown out there as a hot commodity in head coaching searches, I was not-so-secretly okay with him moving on. But as the season ended, as I had time to digest what I had watched, what the Colts had been able to do, I started getting mixed feelings. I really did love the vertical aspects of Arians offense, his connection with the players on the roster was undeniable, and, most importantly, I had some major fear of the unknown. There are some seriously bad OC candidates out there, and some of them have ties to Pagano, and, oh, forget it: I was afraid they would hire Cam Cameron.
In the end, when I got down to it, the nits I was picking with Bruce Arians weren't to make him a good coordinator, they were to make him a darn near perfect one. Maybe my standards are too high.
So when it started to look like Arians may not get a head coaching job after all – as the Chargers, Browns, and Bears (oh my!) hired head coaches NOT named Bruce Arians – I was okay with it. Think about it: Grigson is almost guaranteed to make wholesale changes along the OL, and Arians, like every other coach in the league, will take a look at what did and didn't work in 2012 and continue to tweak and adapt things to make it work better. There's a chance the 2013 Bruce Arians-Andrew Luck offense could have been record setting.
Then, out of the blue came the Cardinals: "What a bad fit," I, and the rest of the triple-digit-IQ universe, thought. Still, Arians rightly accepted the job. I say rightly because, look, head coaching jobs don't grow on trees. 2012 was a perfect storm for Bruce Arians, he developed a rookie QB into a star, he got head coaching experience, he lead his team to a 9-3 record, and due to all of the circumstances surrounding the Colts season, not one negative thing was said about him the entire year.
But, and make no mistake about this, it was now-or-never if Arians wanted to become a head coach. First, he's 60 years old, definitely on the wrong side of hiring beliefs that see owners going younger and younger each season. Second, it took this perfect storm to really put Arians on the head coaching candidate map. Third, there's no way Arians could improve his stock in 2013: he (hopefully) wouldn't get a chance to show off his head coaching ability again with the Colts, and the most he could hope for as an offensive coordinator was to continue to lead a great offense. Finally, Bruce Arians doesn't have enough cache to turn down jobs. If he had said no to the Cardinals, it would have – wrongly – created a negative buzz for him next off-season. So, if Bruce Arians ever wanted to be an NFL head coach, he had to take this job.
That night, as I was coming to terms with the situation, I began reading some of Arians' quotes on the Cardinals job. I won't bother copy-and-pasting a wall of text, let's just say that Arians spoke very highly of the Cardinals, their team, and their organization. I believed about 25% of what he said. Not because he's a liar, but because he said what you have to say when you're taking a job you have to take with an organization who doesn't have a reputation for always doing things the right way.
It was during this quote-reading session that I thought: did the Cardinals just do the Colts a huge favor?
Here's what I'm getting at: during his 12-game run as interim head coach, Bruce Arians became a bit of a legend around Indianapolis. Everyone in the city loved him, everyone wanted him to win Coach of the Year, and everyone thought he'd be the best head coaching candidate on the market.
So the first concern: would it be hard for Arians to take a step back from his head coaching stint and become just a coordinator again? Would there be any friction there? Arians and Pagano obviously have a deep affection for him, and I'm not suggesting Arians would harbor any ill-will or resentment towards Pagano. But Arians is human, and he proved that he could do the job, I just wonder how that dynamic would have played out.
Second, and more important in my mind: what happens if the Colts – as I believe may happen – take a step back in 2013? I don't know that anyone would argue that the 2012 Colts were a great team, 11-5 record or not. So what would happen if the Colts started 2-4? 2-5? 1-6? Would there be no mention, not one, from media and fans, that Arians went 9-3 with this same team, and that maybe the Colts needed to make a change?
I wouldn't have been among the people asking those questions, by the way. I think Pagano will be an excellent coach, and if the Colts take a step back next year, it won't be because of any deficiencies he has as the Colts leader. But I think we can all admit that someone would have asked those questions, and it would have made for an unnecessarily uncomfortable situation.
Despite my love-hate "relationship" with Bruce Arians, I'm going to miss him. For all of the bad that came with his coaching, there was far more good. I hope his tenure in Arizona is a success, and that he finds that franchise a QB and takes them to the Super Bowl – where they can lose to the Colts. And while breaking up is hard to do, sometimes it's for the best.