NFL

Bruce Arians one win away from filling hole on resume after Bucs win NFC title game

Sometimes you do the wrong thing for the right reasons. For Bruce Arians, that meant walking away from coaching in 2018 because of health reasons.

Arians considered himself a lifer, the type who was going to have to be kicked out of the game. But three cancer surgeries and other health concerns over a 10-year period caused him to grab the hand of his wife, Christine, and walk away from his contract with the Arizona Cardinals.

It was a difficult decision, one he tried to soften by doing some broadcasting work. But the feeling wasn’t the same as being on the sideline or in the middle of a practice field. He missed the action. For individuals like him, football is a lot like the “Hotel California”: You can check out, but you can never leave. 

“I was with Bruce writing our book during his final two seasons with the Cardinals, and he repeatedly told me that he didn’t believe his career would be complete unless he won a Super Bowl as a head coach,” said Lars Anderson, who along with Arians authored “The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback” in a text Sunday evening. “We talked frequently during his time in TV and it was clear that there was this hole in his life. You could just feel this when you were around him; he felt like he still had unfinished business in the NFL.”

Today, in his second season since returning to football, Arians is as close to completing that business as he has ever been. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Green Bay Packers 31-26 on Sunday at Lambeau Field to advance to Super Bowl LV, where they will face the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Raymond James Stadium, home of Bucs.

It will be the first time since 1966 that a team has played for an NFL championship in its home stadium, and the fact that Arians, now 68, will be a part of it, seems fitting considering his wait for this moment feels just as long. His career has been the definition of patience and perseverance, at least on the professional level.

He spent six seasons as the head coach at Temple University in the 1980s and dreamed of one day being an NFL head coach, but one season in the pro game morphed into another, and after nearly two decades on staffs in Kansas City, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, he thought his time had passed.

Then Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Arians took over as the interim coach and led Indianapolis to a 9-3 finish, prompting the Cardinals to hire him the following season. He got them as far as the NFC Championship Game during the 2015 season, but one season later, his health began to deteriorate. In August of 2016, he was treated for symptoms associated with diverticulitis; in November, he underwent tests after experiencing chest pains following a game at Minnesota; and in February of 2017, he had surgery to remove cancerous cells from a kidney.

Asked Sunday to put his career journey into perspective, he said: “It’d be really hard. It’d probably take a long time. For me, there were times when I never thought (coaching a team to a Super Bowl) would happen. I never thought I would get a head coaching job. After the cancer scare in Arizona, sitting out that year and then coming back, this has been the most rewarding year of coaching in my life.”

The Bucs were a reflection of their coach Sunday: bold, daring, unrelenting. Arians has never been about conservatism. One of his favorite sayings is, “No risk it, no biscuit.” He coaches aggressively during practice and games, such as when he pulled the punt team off the field with 13 seconds to play in the first half and Tampa facing a fourth-and-4 from the Packers’ 45-yard line. He could have played it safe and punted to preserve a 14-10 lead going into the locker room, but instead, Tom Brady completed a 6-yard pass to running back Leonard Fournette. On the next play, the veteran quarterback, who will seek to win his seventh Super Bowl, found Scott Miller deep down the left side for a 39-yard touchdown.

“It was an awesome play,” said Miller, whose only other catch went for minus-3 yards. “The coaches made a great decision going for it there. We were just going to try to heave it, just like a Hail Mary-type thing, but they played me man-to-man and my guy didn’t get too much depth so I was able to just run by him. Tom put a great ball on me like he always does. It was just a special moment. I don’t know if I could have dreamed of it as a kid.”

The Bucs eventually went up 28-10 before turnovers allowed the Packers to make a run. Brady, who had thrown for three touchdowns to that point, was intercepted on three consecutive possessions that bridged the third and fourth quarters. A game the Bucs seemed firmly in control of was suddenly 28-23 entering the fourth quarter.

But, once again, the Bucs took on the personality of their head coach, showing a resiliency against the top seed in the NFC playoffs. Following each of the final two interceptions, the Tampa defense forced the Packers to punt. And after Green Bay had a first-and-goal at the 8 with just over two minutes to play, trailing by eight, the unit broke up three consecutive passes to force the Packers to kick the field goal, a decision for which Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur second-guessed himself after. 

“Anytime it doesn’t work out you always regret it, right?” he said about not going for it. “It was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards, and not only needing the touchdown but the two-point.”

The decision proved disastrous because the Packers never regained possession. Brady and the Bucs’ offense controlled the ball for the final 2:05, picking up three first downs to run out the clock. There seemingly were as many storylines as there were players on the field: Brady, who finished 20-of-36 for 280 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, advancing to the Super Bowl in his first season after leaving New England; Aaron Rodgers, who was 33-of-48 for 346 yards and three scores with one interception, failing to advance past the conference final for the third time in four starts; the Bucs’ defense harassing Rodgers with five sacks and eight hits; Fournette running for 55 yards and a touchdown after questioning his role earlier in the year; LaFleur reaching the conference final for the second time in as many seasons leading the Packers but coming up short again.

Then there was Arians, finally taking a team to the Super Bowl, earning an opportunity to fill that one hole on his resume.

“I don’t think about what it means for me,” said Brady, who is going to his record 10th Super Bowl. “I do think about what it means for everybody else. It’s an amazing achievement for BA. I’m so happy for him.”

Arguably few people know the emotional temperature of Arians as well as Anderson, who spent two years working on the book with him. The coach could not find the right words to describe his journey to this point — or perhaps chose to keep them to himself — but Anderson had a pretty good idea of what Arians was feeling.

“This is his dream,” he said. “BA is truly one of my favorite people in the world — who couldn’t love a guy who wants his quarterbacks to view him as the cool uncle you’d like to have a drink with? And if you really study his story, you’d be hard-pressed to root against him. Winning this Super Bowl, put simply, means everything to BA.”

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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