By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — There's a special emphasis on Sunday's game for Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians.
But it has nothing to do with the team on the opposing sideline and everything to do with his club's suddenly fruitful postseason chances.
"We're in a situation where we're tied for that last wild-card spot, and every week's a playoff game," Arians said during a recent conference call at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. "We can't get behind with Carolina winning again."
The Panthers (7-3) beat New England on Monday night for their sixth straight victory. That leaves them one game clear of the Cardinals (6-4) and San Francisco 49ers, who are tied for second place in the NFC West and the sixth and final playoff seed.
All of that is just to say Arians doesn't have time for sentimentality this week.
The Indianapolis Colts (7-3) are coming to town, and that's certain to bring back a host of memories on both sides. Arians, of course, was the offensive coordinator for Andrew Luck's record-setting rookie season.
He famously left the light on in Chuck Pagano's office as the first-year head coach was treated for leukemia, and he led the team to a 9-3 record as interim coach in his close friend's absence.
When the season was over, Arians' name was mentioned in connection with several jobs. But only the Cardinals came through with an offer, and he's led a similar turnaround effort in the desert.
The plain-speaking New Jersey native's no-nonsense approach already has led to more victories than last year's 5-11 season for Arizona.
"I really haven't met or played for a guy like him," Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said. "He's not a man of a ton of words, but when he talks there's always meaning behind it. He doesn't let anybody get away with anything, no matter who they are or what their salary is or any of that stuff.
"You get a sense that he knows there's not five or six more head coaching jobs down the road in his career. You get a sense that he's going to make this one count. And he knows he doesn't have a couple years to work his way into it. He came in right away expecting to win and planning on winning, and not building but planning on winning today."
At 61, Arians is a head coach in the NFL for the first time, though he's been in the league in some capacity for all but four seasons since 1989. His only previous head coaching experience came at Temple from 1983 to 1988, and it looked like his career was over in 2011.
The Pittsburgh Steelers finished 12-4 that season and lost in the divisional round against Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. Arians' contract expired at the end of the year, and he wasn't asked back after eight seasons of tutoring Ben Roethlisberger and helping to win two Super Bowl titles.
He was on his way to a retirement cabin in Georgia when Pagano called and asked if he'd like to be the offensive coordinator in Indianapolis. The two coaches had met through Chuck's brother, John, when he and Arians were on Jim Mora's staff with the Colts, and they later worked together under Butch Davis in Cleveland.
Indianapolis was coming off a 2-14 season but had the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Arians would get the chance to tutor Luck. He said yes, and the rest quite literally is history.
"You've got to love it," Pagano said of his friend's unlikely rise to a top job in the NFL. "It's a great country we live in. We laugh about it, but (it's) long overdue. Like Bruce said, because of the circumstances and everything, how you get opportunities is one thing, but he's certainly taking advantage of it. I think everybody in the coaching profession knows that was long overdue."
The Colts have improved from 18th in scoring offense under Arians (22.3 points per game) to ninth under his sucessor, Pep Hamilton, (25.2) this season.
But the former coordinator's fingerprints still are all over the locker room. To a man, the players who were here a year ago express respect and admiration for the job Arians did keeping them together when Pagano went down.
But like their former coach, they don't have time to get lost in those feelings this week.
"I feel very fortunate to have played under him for a year," Luck said. "I matured a lot football-wise (and) outside of football, largely because of him. It's hard to sort of reminisce now. I don't know if this is the time. Hopefully, after I'm done playing this game, I'll look back and I'm sure I'll have a lot of fond memories of playing under B.A."
Arians makes no effort to escape those memories.
He has a picture of himself alongside Pagano in his office, and it rests near a game ball from last season and his Coach of the Year trophy. So, at least in some small fashion, he relives the 2012 season — and all it's unlikely glory — every day.
"It's just like, 'Wow, did this really happen, or did I just dream all this and I'm still fired?'" Arians said. "You can't not think about it. But then you got to put it away and get to work."