Concussions. Suspensions. A quarterback's torn ACL.... For the most surprising team in the NFL, such worries are easily wiped away with three little words
THERE HE WAS, Mr. August, King of the Mental Rep. Backup quarterback Drew Stanton stood in front of his stall in the Cardinals' locker room last Thursday, talking about yoga—his wife, Kristin, is a former instructor—and needling cornerback Patrick Peterson, who also takes snaps at QB, for his struggles in a particular passing drill.
Stanton was loose and smiling, befitting a career understudy. In eight NFL seasons he has started seven games. From 2011 through '13 he didn't take a single regular-season snap, but he always killed it in the preseason. (His QB rating in three warmups this season: a stunning 125.0.) This year's script has been more interesting. Carson Palmer, Arizona's starter, missed three games with nerve damage in his right (throwing) shoulder. Setting down his clipboard, Stanton led the Cards to September wins over the Giants and the 49ers. He was playing well against the Broncos on Oct. 5 but was forced from that game—Arizona's only loss of the season—with concussionlike symptoms.
By filling in with such aplomb, Stanton embodied the quality that has infused the most surprising team of 2014. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Seldom in the course of NFL history have so few excuses been tendered for so many devastating injuries. Despite the loss of former All-Pro defensive end Darnell Dockett, who tore his right ACL in August; despite the seasonlong suspension of middle linebacker Daryl Washington; despite missing, at several points, six players from last season's defensive front seven, Arizona has yielded just 18.9 points per game, fourth stingiest in the NFL. And while the Cardinals and the Patriots share the best turnover ratio (+12) Arizona leads the league in the slightly more subjective category of NMU: Next Man Up.
Much of the credit for that goes to second-year coach Bruce Arians, who seeks out backups before the season, in OTAs, telling them, When the guy in front of you goes down, I'm expecting you to play just as well. 'Cause a big game is gonna come down to you, and you gotta be able to hold the rope.
When a starter is felled, Arians exudes confidence in his replacement. God knows he's had enough practice this season. "When your coach is out front, unfazed by everything," Stanton explained, "it has this whole calming effect on everybody else."
That was last Thursday. Three days later, early in the fourth quarter of the Cardinals' home game against the Rams, there was Stanton, removing his ball cap, pulling on his helmet, taking a few hasty warmup throws. In trying to escape a tackler, Palmer had torqued his left knee, crumpled and had to be carted off.
The home crowd was hushed. Arizona trailed 14--10. Stanton promptly zipped three consecutive completions, the third of those a gorgeous, 48-yard strike to rocket-propelled rookie wideout John Brown, who came open on a nifty double move and made a sensational, full-extension diving catch to score what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown.
His ACL torn, Palmer is done for the season. (The cruel blow is softened for him, one hopes, by the three-year, $50 million contract extension that he signed just two days before blowing out his knee.) And the Cardinals, now 8--1, will go only as far as Stanton can take them.
Based on the jobs done by his fellow Next Men Up, that could be quite a ways.
LARRY FOOTE isn't on the downside of his career so much as he's standing on the edge of the roof of his career, his toes on the rain gutter, gazing out at Life After Football. It's not correct to say that Foote has lost a step. Arizona's 34-year-old middle linebacker has lost several steps since his prime with the Steelers, for whom he racked up 620 tackles between 2002 and '13, and who cut him last March. Two months later Arizona signed Foote off the street. It would prove to be an inspired (and prescient) acquisition.
On May 30, a little over a year after being voted to his first Pro Bowl, Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington received a yearlong suspension for his second violation of the league's substance abuse policy. Plugged into Washington's spot, NMU Foote has piled up 48 tackles, fending off lead blockers and Father Time alike while anchoring the league's third-ranked run defense (78.6 yards per game). Foote may lack his former foot speed, but he knows where to be and when. "The guy started for a long time in this league," says defensive end Frostee Rucker. "He's still got juice left."
As does Antonio Cromartie, it turns out. Cut by the Jets on March 9—the New York brain trust was put off by his advancing years and recurring right-hip trouble—Cromartie, 30, languished for the first week of free agency, generating little interest while other, less established cornerbacks found homes.
That's when Steve Keim pounced. Arizona's shrewd GM made Cromartie a one-year, $3.25 million offer. The D-back accepted, and he has proved to be one of the league's best bargains. Through nine games, according to Pro Football Focus, he's earned the NFL's third-highest coverage grade. For the majority of the season, he's also been outplaying his better-known—and considerably better-paid—corner bookend, Peterson, whose 11 penalties lead the league.
Peterson's subpar play came to an end in Week 9, when he all but erased Pro Bowl Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant (10 targets, two catches). He followed that up on Sunday with a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions of Rams quarterback Austin Davis, the second of those a 30-yard pick-six that gave his team breathing room. Not to be outdone, Cromartie tacked on an insurance TD—Arizona won 31--14—with a fourth-quarter scoop-and-score of a Davis fumble.
As he had done earlier, when he acquired Palmer from the Raiders for a mere sixth-round pick, Keim fleeced Oakland once more by signing coveted left tackle Jared Veldheer away from the Silver and Black in March. Sacked a career-high 41 times in 2013, Palmer had been bagged only nine times in six games through Sunday, due in large part to Veldheer minding his blind side.
And when Dockett went down, the GM quickly signed 6'6", 310-pound Patriots cast-off Tommy Kelly, who has complemented his solid run-stuffing with some serious NMU stuff, including blocking a fourth-quarter, 45-yard field goal attempt in the Cardinals' Week 3 win over the Niners. An 11-year vet, Kelly is grateful for the chance to show he's still got gas in the tank. While he respects Pats coach Bill Belichick, he says, "I didn't like the way he handled his business at the end. I was kind of blindsided."
All these pickups are eager to prove someone wrong. None, however, are hungrier than Foote. That, at least, was the case last week. Famished after practice, he suggested to a visitor, "Let's talk while I get some food." And so, while moving through the postpractice buffet line, the linebacker explained why Arizona has proved such a comfortable fit for him. The Cards' 3--4 defense, he says, is "very similar" to the scheme he played in Pittsburgh. But the biggest reason, he went on, is the man the Cardinals call B.A. "Just knowing the type of guy he is, his personality—he's the reason I'm here."
What type of guy is Arians, exactly? He's salty, unvarnished and a savant of offensive football. He's also an outlier among NFL coaches in the sense that, while many of his peers traffic in them almost exclusively, Arians seems incapable of uttering a banality. He's even colorful when clamming up, such as after Arizona's 24--20 win over the Eagles in Week 8. "No, not really," he replied, when asked if he'd care to share his insights on Philly's defense. "We play Dallas next week. I'm not giving them s---."
The same lack of politesse that endears him to players may also have cost him a few chances at head coaching jobs. "I think that's probably true," says cornerback Jerraud Powers, "because, trust me, [Arians] doesn't hold his tongue for nobody."
"He's not afraid to call guys out," says nosetackle Dan Williams, a first-round pick in 2010 who has slimmed down to 327 pounds—in the past he ballooned north of 350—and is playing the best football of his career. "There was some gray [under previous coach Ken Whisenhunt], but now it's black and white."
Arians has hired a sprawling staff—23 assistant coaches!—and not just because he remembers how exhausting it was to have too few hands on deck when he was the coach at Temple, aka Sisyphus on the Schuylkill, from 1983 through '88. He believes in "small classrooms" and "a lot of eyes on the players." That way, even backups get intensive coaching, which pays off when a starter goes down.
The man who espouses this New Age philosophy can be decidedly old school on the field. Early in his career, Arians spent two seasons coaching running backs at Alabama for Bear Bryant. "Coach 'em hard and hug 'em later," the legend advised him. And while it's not clear that Arians is a hugger, he still runs a tough practice. "He's gonna work your tail off," says Foote. "[This year's] was the hardest training camp I ever had."
Foote was holding his lunch tray, his sleeveless shirt making it easy to read the tattoo on his left arm: I'M THE ONE Y'ALL NEED TO BE WORRIED ABOUT.
IT IS THE NFL'S most surprising midterm story line: In a division stacked with the defending champion Seahawks and the formidable 49ers, who've played in three straight NFC title games, the Cardinals are the team to worry about.
Yes, they're remarkably stout on defense, especially when one considers the parts they're missing. But everyone in the NFC West is bringing it with a nasty, physical D. "What usually separates everything," Arians notes, "is quarterback play." Gulp.
Arizona last made the playoffs in 2009. Following that season Kurt Warner retired, triggering a three-year quest for a franchise QB that can best be described as tragicomic. Taking turns proving they were not the Guy: Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Lindley and Kevin Kolb.
That search appeared to end with the arrival of Palmer. But two weeks before they traded for the QB, rescuing him from the Raiders, the Cardinals had made a little-noticed acquisition. "When I first took the job," recalls Arians, "I told Steve, 'I want to get this guy. He can be our starter.'"
Keim's reply: "What?"
That guy was Stanton, who'd overlapped with Arians the previous season, in Indy, but who hadn't taken a snap that counted since 2010.
"I'm telling you, the guy can be our starter."
And now he is.
The sensible, conventional thing to do when you're pinned back on your own 11-yard line and your backup quarterback is coming in cold in the fourth quarter of a tight contest is to have him hand the ball off. Arians, naturally, called four straight passes.
By his estimate, it took the coach half of the 2013 season to get Palmer to "trust the system," to slay his inner CPA, to bypass the checkdown and take a shot downfield if it was there.
Stanton, meanwhile, looked supremely comfortable taking that shot. While the 6'3", 243-pound ex--Michigan State Spartan lacks Palmer's elite skill set, he seems more simpatico with his swashbuckling coach. As Fitzgerald noted after Sunday's game, Stanton "has been with B.A. longer than [anyone else]. He understands this offense the best out of all us."
It was telling that Fitzgerald served as a decoy on Stanton's scoring pass to Brown, a third-round pick out of Pittsburg State whose circus catch marked his third fourth-quarter, long-bomb, game-winning touchdown of the season. While Fitzgerald remains a frequent target, he's no longer the straw stirring the drink in Arizona's offense. Upon the coach's arrival, Arians asked the eight-time Pro Bowler to leave his comfort zone. Instead of lining up exclusively outside as the X receiver, Fitzgerald now situates himself all over the formation, often going in motion.
"It was a challenge initially," admits Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Famer with 11,992 receiving yards and 89 touchdowns in his 11-year career. "But I think I'm a better player because of it. My route tree has expanded, I'm a much better blocker, a more complete player. It would have been easy to fight it"—to resist Arians's overture—"but I chose to embrace it. And it's worked out."
As a wishbone quarterback at Virginia Tech in the mid-'70s, one of Arians's favorite plays involved drawing the defense up to defend the run—"eight, nine guys in the box"—and then throwing it over their heads. "It was like stealing," he recalls, with a smile. And as he rose through the coaching ranks (he was offensive coordinator for the Browns, Steelers and Colts before the Cardinals gave him his first real NFL head job) that gunslinging, quick-strike capability has been a constant feature in his schemes. Arians's message to his quarterbacks: If the choice is between "a checkdown or a touchdown," feel free to swing for the fences.
Beneath the wisecracking veneer, there is a chronic aggression and impatience. That demeanor appealed to Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, who recalls that in January 2013, he and Keim "were looking for [a coach] who was going to be aggressive, and who wasn't going to settle for a two- or three-year plan."
Their first meeting was at a Phoenix restaurant called Tarbell's. "He was a great storyteller," recalls Bidwill. "Lots of colorful language. We had a great dinner." In fact, Arians was so persuasive and charismatic as he sketched out his vision—Arizona would throw deep, would not have a fullback, would move Fitzgerald around, would return to an attacking-style defense—that Bidwill found himself wondering why it had taken this guy so long to become a head coach.
The reality: Success had worked against Arians. The offenses he coordinated tended to take teams deep into the postseason, and by the time he was available to interview, the jobs were often gone. Later, his age worked against him.
Arians was the Steelers' OC for a pair of title game appearances. "After Super Bowl XLIII," in 2009, "I said, 'O.K., the phone's gotta ring,'" he recalls. It didn't. "After Super Bowl XLV, still no calls. I said, 'O.K., I guess this s--- ain't happening.'"
Nor would it have, most likely, had he not crushed it as Indianapolis's interim coach in 2012. With Chuck Pagano on indefinite leave while he received treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia, Arians guided the Colts to the postseason with nine wins in 12 games, becoming the first interim chief to earn the AP's NFL Coach of the Year award.
Having finally landed his own gig, he's leading with verve and abandon, as if to say, It took me 40 years to get this job—damned if I'm not going to have some fun doing it.
Yes, the man behind the most surprising story in the NFL this season is 62. "But he's 62 going on 34," says Bidwill. Arians may be the fourth-oldest coach in the league, but, like Arizona's Next Men Up, he's got juice left. He's the one that other coaches need to worry about.
Before every Next Man Up, there was a First Man Up. Here's how they've fallen
Darnell Dockett, DE
TORN ACL, IR
Daryl Washington, LB
Matt Shaughnessy, LB
Carson Palmer, QB
TORN ACL, IR
John Abraham, LB
Calais Campbell, DE
MCL SPRAIN, MISSED 2 GAMES
Dave Zastudil, P
Jonathan Dwyer, RB
Photograph by Mark J. Rebilas USA Today Sports
WHAT A RELIEF Brown's 48-yard TD haul, off the arm of reliever Stanton (above), was the rookie receiver's third game-winning, fourth-quarter catch.
NORM HALL/GETTY IMAGES
RISING ARIZONA If someone not named Fitzgerald ends up as the Cards' leading receiver (like say, Brown, with the veteran, below) it will be just the second time that has happened in eight years—and that's a good thing for a suddenly balanced air attack.
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ARIANS)
BRUCE ALMIGHTY Arians is known as an offensive aggressor, but his bullishness on D and in signing outcasts like Foote (above, on the ground) have helped paved the way to 8--1.
ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP
HOUSE OF CARDS Arizona leaned on the likes of Cromartie (returning and celebrating a fumble-recovery TD) to keep its home streak alive on Sunday: The Cardinals haven't lost—or allowed more than 20 points—in five games at University of Phoenix Stadium.
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED