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For Cardinals, finding the coaching inside Arians’ criticism is key

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton (5) talks with coach Bruce Arians during NFL football training camp, Thursday, July 27, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
LISTEN: Bruce Arians, Cardinals head coach

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Of the many things that have made Bruce Arians a popular head coach, his willingness to speak bluntly ranks near the top of the list.

Since the day he was hired to be Arizona’s coach, Arians has rarely been bashful with regards to his assessment of his players, opponents or league issues. As is the case with any coach you can question his honesty at times, but still, his words have a tendency to not only bite, but reverberate.

Like Monday, when he decided to call out his receivers following a training camp practice.

“Not very pleased with our wide receiver room,” Arians said. “I must have been seeing things back in the spring when I said we had 12 guys that could play in the NFL. I think we might have two, but we’ll look around and see who’s available.”

Ouch.

In fairness, Arians’ critique did not exactly come out of nowhere. A few of the team’s wideouts have been sidelined with injuries, which would frustrate any coach, and the rest — save for Larry Fitzgerald and Jaron Brown — have struggled to consistently play well.

So while the comments may have been harsh, they were also, for the most part, accepted.

“We’ve got the rest of this week to go out and redeem ourselves, as well as the game against Chicago,” J.J. Nelson, one of the receivers, said Monday. “So we always encourage each other, don’t hold your head down. He’s just motivating us; that’s how we look at it, as motivation.

“Don’t look at it as what he’s saying or how he’s saying it. Just figure out the good things, the way that he’s saying it, and just go out and do you, make plays.”

With a coach like Arians, finding the good inside of the bad words is paramount.

The 64-year-old’s self-proclaimed “coach ’em hard, hug ’em later” philosophy is well known and effective. Arians has guided the Cardinals to a 41-22-1 record in four seasons as their coach, reaching the playoffs twice, winning the NFC West once and reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2015.

So while his style may be abrasive or uncomfortable at times, the result is what matters. And as far as Arians is concerned, whether his players like it or not is irrelevant.

“I don’t really give a s*** what they think,” he said Tuesday morning. “They (the receivers) were told real quietly, and that scared them.”

Arians said his message was that GM Steve Keim was upstairs looking at tape to find new receivers. The message being quiet, he said, was a clue of how serious he was.

“That’s bad,” he said. “If I’m hollering, I’m coaching them. When I’m not hollering, it’s not a good thing.”

The style is one he learned from many coaches, Arians said, and he noted some players have wilted under the circumstances.

Still, his style is also about helping players develop thick skin, putting pressure on them to see how they react. For the ones that have struggled, it is then imperative to pick them back up.

And that’s just it with Arians. For as much as he yells, as often as he seems to rip into players — both in the media and on the practice field — at some point, the vast majority of players realize their coach’s goal is to help them improve as players.

“He’s everything and then some,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “He’s like a father figure out there. You get out of line, your dad is going to cuss you out.

“He’s going to let you know where you’re at, where you stand and his expectation level of you.”

Dansby is about to play his second season under Arians after being brought back as a free agent. Drew Stanton, on the other hand, is entering his sixth season under the coach.

Really, if anyone has an appreciation or understanding of his style, it is the backup QB.

“More times than not, I’m just listening to what he’s saying as opposed to how he’s saying it,” Stanton said. “I think as an older guy sometimes you can decipher what he’s really trying to say, especially somebody like me that’s been fortunate to be around him for a time.”

Stanton said some of the younger players make the mistake of focusing more on how Arians is saying things rather than what the coach is saying, which is where issues arise. He understands how difficult it can be to gain that perspective, as no one likes being yelled at.

“That’s the hardest thing, is to be able to differentiate between those two things and being able to constructively apply what he’s telling you and not let it affect your confidence,” he said. “Because after a while you keep hearing all the words that he likes to use and it might start taking a toll on you.”

Stanton noted Arians is not going to change how he addresses players, so it is up to them to adjust if need be. He said he takes it upon himself to sometimes help his teammates in that regard, noting that as a backup QB many of the players he is practicing with are guys who are fighting for roster spots.

“More times than not, when he’s yelling at them I’m trying to encourage them and build them back up and lift them up,” he said.

So it’s like a good cop, bad cop situation?

“Exactly,” Stanton said. “He sees all that. He understands that and sees everything that’s going on, and what not. Sometimes that’s what helps bind a team together, is sometimes that adversity and being able to show the compassion for your teammate and try to lift them up, and then build them up and try and make them the best possible player they can be.”

Ultimately, that’s what it is all about. For all the noise and through some of the language Arians uses, an understood purpose emerges.

“When you’re out there on the field, I guess that’s his way of trying to get guys’ attention and getting the best out of guys,” safety Antoine Bethea said. “And once we’re in the meeting room, he explains ‘this is why I’m doing what I’m doing.'”

A veteran entering his 12th NFL season who played under Arians in Indianapolis, Bethea said he is used to that kind of coaching. When he’s being yelled at it’s coaching, and when there is silence, that is when it is time to be worried.

“Being in the league a while, you can’t take anything personal,” he said. “It’s all coaches coaching players. If you look at it from that standpoint, man, you just come in here and just try to get better.”

Easier said than done, yes, and while it was the receivers who bore the brunt of his criticism Monday, it could be any position or any player who is up next.

Such is life in the NFL. Such is life playing for Arians.

“It’s daily,” Stanton said of being on the receiving end of some Arians barbs. “I can think of three examples yesterday where he cussed me out and called me everything.

Stanton said when it happens he just shakes his head, shrugs and moves on to the next play. There are plenty of reps to be learned from, so there is no sense in dwelling on the past. And after watching the tape, corrections can be made.

And more often than not, the tape proves Arians’ assessment to be correct.

“There’s sometimes you feel like you were right, and, you’re like, ‘OK, I was wrong,'” he said, with a laugh. “So, it happens.”

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