After not having his contract renewed despite three Super Bowl appearances in eight seasons with the Steelers, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians temporarily contemplated retirement before an old friend called, offering him the offensive coordinator position on his new staff.
The chance to work with head coach Chuck Pagano and develop top pick Andrew Luck, paired with Arians’ affinity for Indianapolis, where he coached another pretty good Colts QB between 1998-2000, was too much to resist.
“The timing with what transpired in Pittsburgh was right … it was something that must have been meant to be,” Arians told PFW last week.
“I have never felt more appreciated — more respected — than when we walked into the building back in Indianapolis; so many friends from years past.”
Suffice it to say, Arians is even more appreciated and more respected after the Colts’ miraculous 2012 season, and that helped earn him the honor of being voted PFW/PFWA’s Coach of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year in the same season for the first time ever.
He would have his work cut out for him from Day One. Luck was a rookie only in name, but there is no denying how green the rest of the offense was.
“Andrew was the easy piece,” he said. “It was fitting the other pieces. … It was about trying to give them enough without overloading them — but we had to have enough to win.”
The young Colts fought their way to a 1-2 start, coming from behind to beat the Vikings late in Week Two, before suffering a gut-wrenching defeat in Jacksonville the next week.
But not even the shock they felt in watching Cecil Shorts jet 80 yards for a game-winning score in the final minute of Week Three could prepare them for what would happen next.
“It was our open date and we were at our house in Georgia. … The phone rang and it was Chuck. He said, ‘… I’m in the hospital. I have leukemia.’
“I just almost fell over.”
Arians, who beat prostate cancer years ago, was told by Pagano that he would handle head-coaching responsibilities while his friend received treatment. Immediately he told his team that the only goal was to extend the season long enough for Pagano to return. The Colts left the light on in Pagano’s office as a reminder.
They fell behind to the Packers 21-3 at halftime in the first game with Arians at the helm.
“I thought we were gonna get beat 50-3,” he said. “I just had to say, ‘look fellas, we’re trying too hard. All we need to do is go out there and have one good thing happen.’ ”
CB Jerraud Powers set things in motion with an interception on the opening possession of the second half. The Colts scored a touchdown “and the snowball started rolling.”
Arians’ troops pulled off the most emotional victory of the NFL season. His offense, which rolled out the no huddle for the first time, piled up 89 offensive plays and 464 total yards.
Following a setback the following week, a 35-9 road thrashing courtesy of the Jets, the Colts won nine of their final 11 games and clinched a wild-card berth.
One season removed from 2-14, with the head coach leaving the team in Week Four to be treated for leukemia; with one of the younger rosters in the NFL; playing with street free agents on defense he barely knew the name of by the end of the season, Arians directed the grief-stricken Colts to nine wins and a playoff berth.
“Every single person in that locker room, from the equipment managers, scouts, trainers, everybody had a hand in the season, and for me to get an award, I don’t know, it’s hard to take it because so many people had so much to do with winning,” he said.
Hardly surprising coming from the man whose ego was never once visible this season. After leading the dramatic comeback against Green Bay, he didn’t blink before handing the game ball to Pagano.
Arians said the suddenness of the transition to interim head coach was difficult, but also smooth because Pagano’s message and foundation were already in place and his job was to carry that torch. He made sure his players were abreast of Pagano’s progress at all times. He empowered his veteran leaders and coaching staff, keeping his sole focus on building the offense. Though it was the first time, he handled his increased head-coaching responsibilities — such as dealing with the media — like someone with years of experience.
“I never wanted to be called the head coach because I wasn’t the head coach. We had a head coach and he was coming back and I wanted to make sure our players knew that every single day.
“His seat on the bus, his locker was ready every Sunday, no one ever went in his office — that light stayed on until he turned it off on Christmas Eve.”
Arians made good on his promise.