Bruce Arians, culture of ‘we’ lead to no concern over touches

Aug 4, 2016, 6:00 AM | Updated: 11:17 am
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians smiles as he watches his players during practice at the N...
Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians smiles as he watches his players during practice at the NFL football teams training camp, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball.

Every quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end who scored a touchdown in 2015 is back, and with another year in the offense, it stands to reason the Cardinals should once again rank atop the NFL in many offensive statistics.

At running back, the Cardinals have a player who once led the NFL in rushing and just last season was nearly on pace to do so again before an injury cut his season short. It also included a back who emerged down the stretch as both a dynamic runner and receiver, a player who set a franchise rookie record for touchdowns. And there was another who entered last season as the starter and a couple years ago was seen as a player who warranted 25 to 30 touches a game.

In the receiver room, there is a future Hall of Famer who had a renaissance 2015, a former first-round pick who is entering his contract year and a third-year pro who has appeared at times to be uncoverable. Each has reached the 1,000-yard mark once in the last three seasons, and in the right offense, each could be a team’s No. 1 option in the passing game.

The Cardinals have a tight end who has been to the Pro Bowl and not long ago was one of the to pass catchers on a playoff team.

It all sounds great on paper, though there is one potential pitfall that could come with having so much proven offensive talent: egos.

There is only one football on the field and only so many touches to go around.

Yet in Arizona, where opportunities to touch the football may be few, the idea that one might not get enough of an opportunity is not on anyone’s mind.

“We’ve got B.A., we’ve got coach B.A.,” running back Chris Johnson answered when asked if there is any worry over there not being enough touches.

Asked to elaborate, Johnson, who led the Cardinals with 814 rushing yards last season and in 2009 ran for 2,006 yards, said everyone on the team believes Arians, the offensive play-caller, knows how to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands.

Johnson said there was no issue with touches last season, so there is no reason to anticipate any problems this season.

It’s not just player-speak, either, because if Johnson really did not believe he would get a chance to contribute on the Cardinals, he easily could have gone elsewhere over the offseason and found a greater role. Not only did he re-sign with Arizona knowing second-year pro David Johnson is likely to be the starter and bell cow, but he did so for less money than he could have gotten elsewhere.

It stems from his confidence in Arians, the fourth-year Cardinals coach who has earned a reputation for being an offensive mastermind. Players love to play for him.

“Our first meeting, you check your ego at the door,” Arians said of how he lets players know not to worry about touches. “It’s all about ‘we’, not ‘me.’ As long as you can do that, your team is fine.

“Our guys have bought into that system; doesn’t force the quarterback to do anything different as far as getting somebody the football any number of times.”

That’s not to say Arians will not design plays with a goal of getting the ball into specific hands. While the hope may be for a certain player to spring open, if he does not, the ball is supposed to go elsewhere.

It’s part of what makes the Cardinals’ offense so potent. In the passing game, who does a defense focus on?

Last season, Larry Fitzgerald led the Cardinals in receiving yards six times, while John Brown did so five times, Michael Floyd four times and J.J. Nelson once.

If one of the team’s passing threats is covered, that likely means another one or two are open. And in that case, that’s where the ball will go.

“There’s not a Calvin Johnson-like system in place where the ball is going to get thrown to a guy, no matter what, a certain amount of times. I’ve been in that system,” QB Carson Palmer said. “I think it’s much easier to be in a system where you simply just play and react to what you see as opposed to trying to squeeze one in here to get a guy going or try to squeeze one here because this play’s designed for this guy.

“There is no play that’s designed to get a guy the ball, and that makes it that much more difficult to cover and to defend.”

It’s all great in principle, but again, these are football players, people, and not robots or video game characters. No doubt every player in that locker room wants to win, but at the same time, they all want to play well and make an impact.

The greater the impact the more accolades, and the more accolades one receives the more money he is likely to make.

You have to think with a 53-man roster there have to be a handful of guys who at the least feel like they deserve more of an opportunity than they will get, wins or not.

Andre Ellington, who in 2013 appeared to be the next big thing in Arizona and is now seen as the third-string running back, pointed to the leadership on the team and a singular focus on winning a Super Bowl as how selfishness and ego don’t permeate through the Cardinals locker room.

“In a way, you have to think about you when you’re out here practicing because it’s a job,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re still playing, trying to be a part of the Arizona Cardinals. That’s the main goal, the main focus, is being a part of this team and trying to win a championship.”

The idea that players should sacrifice individual glory for the betterment of the team is not new, and no doubt Arians’ message of “we” rings louder when the team wins as much as it has under his leadership.

The Cardinals have won 34 regular season games over the last three seasons, and last year’s mark of 13-3 was a franchise-best and helped propel the team to the NFC Championship Game.

So even if someone was upset about their role, who would listen to their complaints? That might be a moot point.

“If you just watch the Arizona Cardinals or you’ve been on this team, I don’t think there’s anybody ever really around here complaining about the ball because everybody gets their share,” Johnson said. “It might be one game it’s Larry, then another game it might be Mike and it might be John — anybody.

“One game it might be David, one game it might be me; there’s so many different guys and B.A. knows the right way to get us guys the ball and put the gameplan together. It always works out good and nobody is around here complaining. Everybody’s got one goal and that is getting to the Super Bowl, and however we’ve got to win, everybody’s down with that.”

According to Fitzgerald, who has played for three different coaches in Arizona, it’s not so much anything Arians does as it is the kind of people that fill out the roster.

“You put divas on the team and they’re going to always complain about their touches, but you’re not going to hear about guys upset about getting four catches and this guy got 10,” he said. “That’s not the kind of dynamic we have. We pull for each other.”

So, he said, if that means David Johnson is the centerpiece of the offensive attack one week or if it’s Chris Johnson in another, that’s fine.

“We want to feed the beast,” Fitzgerald said. “Whoever’s got the hot hand, just keep giving it to them. We don’t care, we just want to win. It’s just how we can get to the end of the game with a W, that’s all that matters to us.”

That the Cardinals fell just one game short of the Super Bowl last season certainly helps the cause.

Arians’ track record doesn’t hurt, either.

Like Johnson, Ellington also expressed confidence in his coach’s ability to dial up the right play at the right time.

“Any guy that he feels that’s got the green light, he’s going to feed him,” he said. “That’s why I’m excited to be a part of this team, because we have so many weapons and having so many weapons around a play caller like him, the sky’s the limit.”

Last season, the Cardinals set franchise records in points, touchdowns, touchdown passes, total net yards, first downs and first downs passing. They boasted the No. 1 offense in the NFL and topped 30 points nine times.

Entering 2016, there is a growing belief that the offense can take another step forward, and if true, the result could be scary and borderline unstoppable.

There has been some discussion about the team possibly surpassing the 500-point mark, which, over the course of 16 games, averages out to just more than 31 points per outing.

Arians said to get there would mean they’d be “pretty damn good,” though he admitted he would be “happy as hell” if the team scored only 300 points but finished with a 15-1 record.

Barring injury, there is no way the Cardinals finish around 300 points. There’s simply too much offensive talent that can be deployed by a coach who knows how to use it.

That coach has helped to instill a culture that places winning above all else, and everyone — from the veterans who are or have been stars to the younger players who are trying to establish themselves — is on board.

Asked if it’s tough to get players to buy into not concerning themselves with touches, Arians said not at all.

“It’s really easy because if you’re worried about it, you ain’t getting any,” he said.

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Bruce Arians, culture of ‘we’ lead to no concern over touches