NEW ORLEANS -- The Arizona Cardinals may not have a lot going for them these days, but at least they know that they have a Coach of the Year in their midst. Former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator and interim head coach Brice Arians, who accepted the Carinals' offer to replace Ken Whisenhunt on January 17, was named the NFL's Coach of the Year on Saturday by an overwhelming margin. Arians, the only interim coach ever to win the award, grabbed 36.5 out of a possible 50 votes.
Chuck Pagano, the man Arians replaced when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September, took second place with 5.5 votes. Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks finished third with five votes, and Leslie Frazier of the Minnesota Vikings finished fourth with three votes.
As far ahead as Arians was in this vote, he probably should have swept the thing.
With no head coaching experience, Arians 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. The 11-5 Colts lost in the playoffs to the eventual AFC champion Baltimore Ravens, but that was a small dent in a year that nobody expected. The team that went 2-14 in 2011 and rebuilt from the studs in the offseason became a competitor again much sooner than anyone expected. The move to get Arians, who had been let go by the Pittsburgh Steelers, was one of the smartest in the history of the Colts franchise.
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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 was 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 thrived in the offensive concepts Arians used and expanded during a five-year stint as the Steelers' offensive mastermind.
The fact that he kept the Colts on track as a franchise without minimizing any of his responsibilities to the team's offense further strengthened 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."
When I talked with Andrew Luck this week, the rookie quarterback -- who finished second in the Offensive Rookie of the Year vote to Robert Griffin III -- gushed about the effect his former coach had on him. Luck and Arians starred in a season that no other team could ever say they had.
"I don't think it hit me until after the season was over," Luck told me. "Because you're so focused about what's going on. But having some time to digest it, and realize what we went through, it was great what Coach Arians did coming in and stepping in for Chuck. The foundation that Coach Pagano built was so great, and it was a special, special season to be a part of."
Arians and Pagano getting 42 of 50 Coach of the Year votes between them says a lot about just how special that season really was.
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