Typically, the NFL is no country for old men.
Except for Arizona. As it turns out, there’s a few there who can still play football at a high level, and a spirited coach without regard for stuffy conventions or coachly protocol.
A surprising key for the NFC West-leading Cardinals (6-2) has been the revival of 35-year-old quarterback Carson Palmer, 32-year-old receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and 30-year-old running back Chris Johnson.
That trio has lifted the Cardinals to the No. 3 overall offensive rating in the NFL, which joins the No. 3 defense to produce the most balanced squad in the league.
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But the most important gray-beard (goat-tee) of the not-quite-over-the-hill Cardinals is coach Bruce Arians.
Sixty-three now, Arians got his first full-time head coaching job at age 60, and since taking over in 2013, he’s put together a record of 27-13.
And now they’re all trying to depose the Seattle Seahawks (4-4) as the divisional powerhouse. The teams meet at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at CenturyLink Field in a game that will establish a tone for the second half of the season for both teams.
Arians is a tell-it-like-it-is coach who preaches aggressive play and play-calling on both sides of the ball. His players embrace his approach.
Characteristically, he doesn’t dodge or downplay the importance of Sunday’s game.
“They’re the defending champs and for us to become champions, we have to beat them; I think we’re all in that same mindset,” Arians said. “People ask if it’s a rivalry and I say ‘No, we haven’t won enough for it to be a rivalry.’ They’re the measuring stick because they’re the division champs and conference champs.”
The Seahawks have won three of the last four meetings between these teams, but the Cardinals have been limited offensively by the sporadic health problems of Palmer.
Healthy again, and with the diversion of the Johnson-led rushing attack, Palmer has thrown 20 touchdowns in eight games, the second-highest in the NFL.
Much of the success he credits to Arians, who has “as bright an offensive mind as I’ve ever been around.”
“We attack in every situation,” Palmer said, another of the ways in which Arians runs counter to NFL convention. “He’s calling offensive plays and being offensive … he’s very gutsy and not timid whatsoever. He doesn’t shy away from anything.”
Palmer said Arians doesn’t go in for theatrical motivational speeches, even on a week like this. He trusts professional players to get themselves ready to go.
But a slow start against the Cleveland Browns caused Arians to ignite at halftime.
“When he does get animated and raise his voice, there’s a reason behind it, and it’s very well-respected. When he does go off like that at halftime, and call you out, he does not sugar-coat anything. He’s very honest. Guys respect that,” Palmer said.
20Number of touchdowns Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown for in eight games this season. Second highest in the NFL.
Not just the players, but observers around the league respect it, too. Arians has been named the Associated Press’ NFL coach of the year twice in the last three seasons — once as interim head coach for the Indianapolis Colts before taking over the Cardinals.
So, what is the message he gives his team this week?
“I think the hype takes care of itself; I want them to come in with a lot of respect for their opponents, know what they’re getting into, and play smart and fast and physical,” Arians said.
They should know how, he said, they’ve done it before.
“I don’t think we lack for any confidence. We’ve won enough games the last three years that we have enough confidence to go into any stadium and win.”
If they can do it Sunday, they’ll have a strong hold on the division bragging rights.