The Bruce Arians Effect
There are three teams currently above .500 in the NFC West after Week 15. Prior to the season, the two teams that were locks for winning records were Seattle and San Francisco, as both were considered two of the top teams in the NFC. The up-and-coming-team was slated to be the St. Louis Rams, after a strong draft and a former No. 1 overall pick leading them at quarterback.
The Arizona Cardinals, who came in off of a 5-11 season, void of a win within the division, and personnel changes across the board, were widely considered to be the team sitting at the bottom of the tough division.
However, it is the Rams who were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention at 6-8, while the Cardinals, coming off of six wins out of their last seven games, are one game out of the final playoff spot in the NFC at 9-5. While the Cardinals defense has been a major strength of the team as expected, the offensive philosophy brought over by head coach Bruce Arians has propelled last season's struggling Arizona offense into one that, over the last seven games, has averaged just under 30 points per game.
Arians, last season's Coach of the Year, came to Arizona from Indianapolis, where he helped rookie quarterback Andrew Luck lead the Colts to a playoff berth, a year after having the NFL's worst record in 2011. Arians's first order of business as Arizona's coach was to find a quarterback that could be the leader of his offense.
The team had gone through four different starters at quarterback last season, struggling mightily to score points. They topped the 20-point mark once last season. In steps Carson Palmer, also a former No. 1 overall pick, immediately upgrading the Cardinals offense. They've scored 20 or more points in all but two games this season. Arians has a great deal to do with that.
Bringing Palmer in helped jump start an offense with one of the league's best receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and rising talent Michael Floyd. They've also seen consistent play in running backs Rashard Mendenhall and rookie Andre Ellington. Arians has also helped with the emergence of steady play from tight ends Rob Housler and Jim Dray, as well as reconfiguring the offensive line that has given up 38 sacks this season, a year after giving up a league-leading 58 sacks.
Arians has manufactured offensive success everywhere he's been. With Pittsburgh, Arians went to three Super Bowls, one as a wide receiver's coach, two as the offensive coordinator. He won two of those and had the Steelers offense in the top half of the NFL during his tenure from 2009 to 2011.
He then went to Indianapolis, and took over for head coach Chuck Pagano when he was diagnosed with leukemia early in the season. Arians led the Colts to a 9-3 record in Pagano's absence, helping Luck reach the Pro Bowl in his first season, and earning Coach of the Year honors after serving as head coach for only 12 games.
Look back at Indianapolis this season, and they clearly have taken a step back in regards to their offensive production. They have dropped from 10th in total offense to 22nd this season, have not won consecutive games since Week 5, and have put up futile offensive efforts in losses to San Diego, St. Louis, and Arizona.
They find themselves in the playoffs again this season, however, that's due in part to them playing in a division with a combined record of 11-31.
Arians has the Cardinals primed for a stretch run toward the playoffs. Their final two games are against the two teams ahead of them in the division, which poses a pretty daunting challenge. However, even if they lose both of those games, Arizona has played very well, and while the defense has lived up to their expectations, the offense has exceeded them.
Bruce Arians has the Cardinals moving in the right direction, which is exactly what he's done his whole career. The NFL's strongest division is that much stronger because of the improvements made by the Cardinals and Arians.