Steelers off. coordinator Arians stays flexible
By John Harris, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, January 3, 2010
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Long before he dialed up the winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIII, Bruce Arians was crafting a wide-open offensive system that makes him either the most beloved or hated person in Western Pennsylvania.
Concluding his third regular season as the Steelers' offensive coordinator with today's 1 p.m. game against the Miami Dolphins at Land Shark Stadium, Arians doesn't dwell on his job status or how he's perceived by the general public.
After all, he's generated enough goodwill over the years that he knows another good job is only a text message away.
Arians has been working in the NFL or college since his first job as Virginia Tech's running backs coach 1977.
For more than three decades, he has dodged the slings and arrows that accompany the unexpected twists and turns of his chosen profession.
Each time he's been knocked down — and he's been knocked down plenty — Arians has gotten back up, seeking another challenge.
"I don't feel one ounce of failure," Bruce Arians said when he was fired as Temple's coach following the 1988 season based on his 28-38 record at the school. "You never know what will be the next opportunity or the best opportunity. If you lose trying, that's OK."
Eight jobs and 21 years after leaving Temple, Arians, 57, is still doing what he loves.
And still doing it his way, no matter what his critics may think.
Asked about an increased emphasis in the passing game this season — a departure from Steelers teams of previous eras, which ran the ball first, last and always — Arians offers no apologies.
"The philosophy is to take the players you have, put them in positions where they can do what they do best, and then build your offense around that," Arians said of his new-look offense, which features a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in franchise history.
At Temple, Arians coached running back Paul Palmer, the Heisman Trophy runner-up behind the University of Miami's Vinny Testaverde in 1986. Palmer created headlines when he rushed for 349 yards against East Carolina and 206 yards against Penn State.
"(Palmer) got it 40 times a game because it ain't very heavy, you know?" Arians said. "Each team's so different. You start in the spring, you see what pieces you have, and you try to mold it into the best unit.
"Our offense this year is what we do. Next year, it'll be different, because we'll have different pieces to the puzzle."
Does that sound like Arians is concerned about his coaching future with the Steelers?
Asked about his next stop after being fired at Temple, Arians, then 36, replied confidently: "I know I'll land on my feet. I'll be coaching somewhere next year.''
"Next year" became four years as the Kansas City Chiefs' running backs coach, where Arians met a young assistant named Bill Cowher. Years later as coach of the Steelers, Cowher put Arians in charge of wide receivers. When Cowher left the Steelers, new coach Mike Tomlin promoted Arians to offensive coordinator.
To understand who Arians is, as well as his decision to move the Steelers' offense into the 21st century, it's important to know his coaching influences.
As Mississippi State's offensive coordinator under former Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill from 1993-95, Arians learned how to blend the run and pass in equal doses.
Arians' 1994 offense at Mississippi State featured a 450-yard passing game (quarterback Michael Taite threw for 466 in a 66-22 win over Tulane) as well as a game with 60-plus rushing attempts (62 in a 21-17 win against Mississippi).
When Sherrill made the decision to let Arians go, it wasn't a reflection on Arians' coaching abliity as much as it highlighted the head man's impatience. Arians was among four offensive coordinators that Sherrill hired and fired during his 13 seasons at Mississippi State.
Arians' second stint as an offensive coordinator lasted only one season. In 1997, he directed Alabama's offense under coach Mike DuBose.
It was at Alabama where Arians learned the importance of not losing faith in his system.
Recalling his decision to call a screen pass for fullback Ed Scissum that resulted in a fumble which rival Auburn converted into the game-winning field goal, Arians said in 2008: "It's funny because it's not like it was intercepted. We missed a block and fumbled the ball. I never regretted the call because you drive yourself crazy if you start regretting calls.''
Following his Alabama experience, Arians re-made himself again, this time as Peyton Manning's first quarterbacks coach with the Indianapolis Colts under offensive coordinator Tom Moore.
Arians, who played quarterback at Virginia Tech, taught Manning the nuances of the ball-fake that makes his play-action passes so effective.
"Bruce and I really spent a lot of time trying to make the run and the pass look the exact same,'' Manning said.
Arians' star was on the rise when he became an NFL offensive coordinator for the first time with Cleveland. Under coach Butch Davis, Arians developed a pass-first mentality that led the Browns to a playoff berth in 2002.
Quarterback Kelly Holcomb, who came over from Indianapolis with Arians, nearly engineered the upset against the Steelers in a wild-card playoff game, as Holcomb threw for 429 yards and three touchdowns.
Cleveland, which led 24-7 but rushed for only 38 yards on 28 carries, couldn't control the clock and lost, 36-33.
The following year, Cleveland's offense fell to No. 26 in total yards, went from No. 18 to No. 25 in passing and scored just 15.9 points per game after averaging 21.9 in 2002, prompting Arians' dismissal.
When he was named Steelers offensive coordinator in 2007 after three years as their wide receivers coach, Arians took heed of what happened to him in Cleveland.
Initially, Arians' offense was similar to former coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's ball-control attack.
Two years ago, the Steelers featured the NFL's No. 3 running attack under Arians. Willie Parker led the league in rushing before breaking his leg in the next-to-last game of the season. The Steelers averaged more runs than passes that year, the only time that has occured in Arians' six years as an NFL offensive coordinator.
Asked why the Steelers' offense changed in 2008, Arians said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's rapid development and changes in the offensive line were responsible for the running game dropping from a No. 3 ranking to No. 23, while the passing game improved from No. 22 to No. 17.
"When (guard) Alan (Faneca) and (center) Jeff (Hartings) were gone, we started building a new offensive line,'' Arians said. "Plus, Ben's growth as a player. He was ready to make the step."
In a 37-36 victory over Green Bay two weeks ago, Roethlisberger marched the offense 86 yards in 11 plays for the winning touchdown pass on the game's final play. Every play called by Arians on that final drive was a pass.
"We had to go over 80 yards with one play before the two-minute warning and one timeout,'' said Roethlisberger, who passed for a franchise-record 503 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against the Packers.
When Arians called for runs on the Steelers' first three plays to open last year's divisional playoff game against San Diego, it was Roethlisberger who joked: "That's got to be a Bruce first.''
A year later, Roethlisberger was serious when he said: "It's not a run-first team anymore. That's not a bad thing.''
The Steelers possess an explosive passing attack, featuring a No. 7 ranking entering their final regular-season game. It's their highest output in that category since being ranked seventh under coordinator Mike Mularkey in 2002.
The Steelers are averaging 22.5 points, compared with 21.7 points a year ago when they won Super Bowl XLIII.
Roethlisberger's game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes led to Holmes being named Super Bowl MVP.
The play was an Arians creation featuring receivers bunched at the line of scrimmage. Several receivers ran underneath routes, while Holmes ran to the corner of the end zone to make a spectacular catch.
This year, Roethlisberger and Holmes are having their best seasons. Roethlisberger is eighth in passing yards, and Holmes is tied for third in receiving yards.
"We're having fun," Holmes said. "We're making plays. Ben is trusting his guys.''
What's more, the Steelers are finally trusting their Arians-led offense that's been years in the making.
How Bruce Arians-led offenses have fared in the NFL:
Total offense: No. 9
Points per game: 22.5
Total yards: 369.2
Passing: No. 7
Passing yards per game: 263.1
Passes per game: 33.9
Rushing: No. 22
Rushing yards per game: 106.1
Rushes per game: 26.1
Total offense: No. 22
Points per game: 21.7
Total yards: 311.9
Passing: No. 17
Passing yards per game: 206.3
Passes per game: 31.6
Rushing: No. 23
Rushing yards per game: 105.6
Rushes per game: 28.8
Total offense: No. 17
Points per game: 24.6
Total yards: 327.4
Passing: No. 22
Passing yards per game: 191.9
Passes per game: 27.6
Rushing: No. 3
Rushing yards per game: 135.5
Rushes per game: 31.9
2003 Cleveland Browns
Total offense: No. 26
Points per game: 15.9
Total yards: 281.5
Passing: No. 25
Passing yards per game: 177.1
Passes per game: 31.8
Rushing: No. 20
Rushing yards per game: 104.4
Rushes per game: 25.8
2002 Cleveland Browns
Total offense: No. 23
Points per game: 21.5
Total yards: 314.2
Passing: No. 18
Passing yards per game: 213.2
Passes per game: 34.5
Rushing: No. 23
Rushing yards per game: 100.9
Rushes per game: 25.4
2001 Cleveland Browns
Total offense: No. 31
Points per game: 17.8
Total yards: 259.5
Passing: No. 28
Passing yards per game: 175.1
Passes per game: 29.1
Rushing: No. 31
Rushing yards per game: 84.4
Rushes per game: 26.1