Bruce Arians made his reputation working with some of the best QBs in the game. As quarterbacks coach of the Colts he worked with Peyton Manning, as offensive coordinator with the Steelers he coached Ben Roethlisberger, then he returned to the Colts as offensive coordinator, working with Andrew Luck. Finally, he spent five seasons as head coach of the Cardinals, coaching Carson Palmer. He retired from coaching after the 2017 season.
This book is part autobiography, part guide to passing game strategy and part memoir of working with some football legends. In trying to do all those things – in a little over 200 pages – it doesn’t really succeed in any of them. Even so, Arians is an entertaining storyteller and that makes for an engaging book.
The story begins with his childhood and it’s a wonder that it didn’t end there. Young Bruce jumps off the porch with a towel tied around his neck in an attempt to be like Superman. Later, frustrated that a milk allergy is depriving him of bone-strengthening calcium, he drinks paint. “Sure, I had to get my stomach pumped twice,” Arians writes, “but I had to try to put something down my throat that looked like milk and might make me harder to tackle when playing in neighbourhood football games.”
From there the narrative flits between Arians’ career and his thoughts on coaching. In the first chapter, we hear how Arians played football in the park, in Pee Wee games and worked his way to college and at the same time, we get his thoughts on the challenge of quarterbacking in the NFL, building trust with a QB and including them in developing the game plan. In other words, we’re hearing the story of Arians as a novice alongside his observations from a stage of his career that we haven’t reached yet. It’s an awkward juxtaposition.
Still though, how often do you get to sit down with a guy who has 40 years of coaching experience and wants to share? Arians’ explanation of just how much a quarterback has to think about before the snap provides a good insight into why the job is the most difficult in sport:
“A quarterback has about twenty-five seconds from the moment he walks to the line of scrimmage and scans the defense to when the play is over. Dozens of decisions need to be made by the quarterback in those twenty-five seconds: Do I change the play based on how the defense is lined up? If so, what should I change it to? If the play is a pass, what receiver will be my hot receiver – the one that should be open – if there’s a blitz? Is my offensive line in the right protection? Does my running back know where to pick up the potential blitzing linebacker? Are the defensive backs playing zone or man coverage? Are the safeties creeping toward the line of scrimmage or are they hanging back? Where is the most vulnerable spot in the defense that I can exploit? Where are the strongest spots in the defense that I need to avoid?”
For an experienced quarterback, a lot of these questions are answered instinctively. A glance confirms the position of the safeties and is factored into decision making with little conscious effort. For an inexperienced QB, the learning curve is extraordinary – and despite years of high school and college football experience, most QBs need time to adjust to pro-level football. After the snap, the decision-making doesn’t stop:
“Then once the ball is snapped, as the quarterback is dropping back – let’s say he sees no blitz is coming – what must he do? He needs to quickly analyse the coverage. Is it zone or man? Are the safeties in the middle of the field or on the edges? The quarterback has to go through his progressions of potential receivers – one, two, three, four, five. If the safeties split to the edges, the quarterback’s progression is from the inside out. If the safeties rotate inside to the middle of the field, his progression is just the opposite, outside in.”
Arians describes his playbook and shares diagrams of the nine basic patterns that form the core of his passing principles. He talks his playcalling strategy and how he coached his QBs to stay aggressive. He even talks about his enthusiasm for virtual reality as a training tool for players.
There’s plenty of fascinating stories in here. It might not be a great football book, but it’s certainly an enjoyable one.
Photo: Gage Skidmore