Sunday, December 01, 2013

Arians learns a valuable lesson as Eagles top Cards

PHILADELPHIA - Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has probably had enough of Broad Street in Philadelphia.

In another life, one he would evidently like to forget, Arians was the head coach of Temple University on North Broad in the City of Brotherly Love, compiling a 27-39 record on the field from 1983 through 1988.

Fast forward 25 years and Arians was just off South Broad, watching his playoff-hopeful Arizona Cardinals lose a tough 24-21 decision to the Philadelphia Eagles, thanks in large part to three turnovers from his quarterback Carson Palmer.

"You can't turn the football over," Arians said after the contest. "We lost the football game with self-inflicted wounds. We didn't create any turnovers and we obviously turned it over."

Since leaving Temple, Arians has spent all of the ensuing years, save for one three-year stint as the offensive coordinator at Mississippi State in the early 1990s, in the NFL. He's clearly forgotten his roots at the collegiate level and made the return trip to Philadelphia on Sunday as an "old school" NFL guy.

No, Will Ferrell wasn't there streaking through HeadHouse Plaza but Arians' superior attitude, along with his imposing defense, invaded Lincoln Financial Field with a bit of an edge.

Arians unexpectedly added a little fuel to an old rivalry which hardly exists these days. In fact, the only real animosity between these two combatants stemmed from the fact this was a really important December game for two teams that weren't expected to play meaningful football come Christmas time.

The reigning NFL Coach of the Year, however, played the old "Charlie College" card when taking aim at his counterpart, Eagles rookie coach Chip Kelly.

"I still think it's a great offense," Arians said of Kelly's purported love of the zone-read while talking on a conference call to Philadelphia-area media earlier in the week. "It's a great college offense when you put a great athlete back there.

"But when you're facing great athletes, with the speed that's in the NFL who are chasing these guys, unless you're superhuman, you're going to get hurt sooner or later -- not hurt, but beat up and bruised up. And you don't want your quarterback feeling bruised up when he's trying to throw and be

The Cardinals, of course, have plenty of great athletes with the speed to hurt or beat up opposing signal callers. The front seven is as impressive as it gets with difference-makers like Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, John Abraham and Daryl Washington standing out. Meanwhile, the back end, headlined by All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson, isn't too shabby either.

And to its credit, Arizona did slow down Kelly's offense a bit.

Coming into this game Chip's gimmick had amassed nine different 400-yard games in 11 starts with a chance to become only the second team in NFL history to put up 10 in 12 starts. Meanwhile,  Nick Foles arrived as the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, who put together a ridiculous 152.8 passer rating (932 yards, 10 Tds and 0 INTs) over the Eagles' prior three games, all wins. Since 1960 only one other player -- Craig Morton's 155.2 in 1969 -- had a better rating over the three-game span.

The Cards allowed only 307 total yards and Foles performed like a mere mortal, with only an Aaron Rodgers- or Peyton Manning-like passer rating of 112.0. He also finally threw an interception to Peterson at least for a moment before a very late flag for holding on  safety TDs Mathieu wiped it all away.

Foles finished with 237 yards and three more touchdowns on 21-of-34 passing. He now has 19 scoring passes on the season without a pick, the second-best start in league lore behind Manning's 20 and 0 kick off to this season.

The Arizona D stiffened in the guts of the game, however, forcing five straight punts and giving Palmer and Co. a chance to win it late. The Cards took over at their own 10-yard line with just over two minutes to play but Arian's offense managed only five yards on a quick four-and-out.

"It was such a tight game but it was a little setback for us," Arizona star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who had five receptions for 73 yards and a TD, said. "We would have loved to win this game but we didn't do enough but it's not the end of the world. It was a learning experience and I know we will bounce back."

Overall, while playing behind a shaky offensive line, Palmer was 24-of-41 passing for 302 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions and a fumble in the setback, one which really stunts Arizona's postseason hopes with both San Francisco and Carolina winning.

"We did not play as well as we would have liked," left tackle Bradley Sowell said of a unit which allowed five sacks. "They came out with more energy than we did."

It should be a learning experience for Arians, who is hardly the first old-school guy to voice a critical opinion on zone-read philosophies, And heck, in regards to the Eagles at least, Arians is right -- the ultra-mobile and oft-injured Michael Vick, a supposed prototypical fit for Kelly and his offense, has
been banged-up with an assortment of maladies.

Kelly's offense, though, has worked with Vick running things and got even better with the lead-footed Foles, a pure dropback passer who does not have a skill-set even remotely comparable to dual-threat signal callers like Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III. Yet, the former University of Oregon mentor has found a way to tweak his system and make things work.

On Sunday, it was getting the tight ends involved early. Talented rookie Zach Ertz had his finest day as a pro, catching five balls for 68 yards and two TDs, while veteran Brent Celek added four receptions and another score.

"We thought we would be used a little more this game in particular because of the way they play their defense," Ertz said. "They put a lot of safeties on us in man-to-man coverage. We think that against any safeties we can get open and fortunately Nick made some great throws today."

Ertz might as well been saying, Kelly adjusts. The Eagles are not employing a one size fits all offensive system, defined by two words -- zone read. So, instead of dismissing the latest fad, perhaps Arians should learn a little from it.

More than a few people in positions of power across the NFL feel the innovation in football, particularly offensive football, is going on outside the NFL in places like college, where Kelly developed his rep, or even the CFL, where the Chicago Bears went to pluck Marc Trestman.

Pointing to hiccups players like Newton have already undergone, and Kaepernick and RG3 are currently experiencing, is not an indictment of an entire philosophy.

In the end, Arians did have the athletes to slow Kelly down but not to stop him and that says a lot.

"We played good enough to play close," Arians said. "But, not good enough to win this football game in the fourth quarter. We didn't make enough plays."

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