When Bruce Arians left Halas Hall after interviewing for the Bears’ head coaching job in January of 2013, he thought he had a job. Two days later, Bears general manager Phil Emery passed on the soon-to-be NFL Coach of the Year to hire two-time CFL Grey Cup winner Marc Trestman.
“Yeah, I was [surprised],” said Arians, who will return to Chicago as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Soldier Field. “I thought when I left — I said, ‘I don’t think anything could have been any better throughout the whole day.’ And I didn’t look back thinking I did anything wrong in any way. It was just their decision.”
Indeed it was, and a fateful one at that for Emery. Trestman struggled to manage the awkward transition from the Lovie Smith era — and his two-year tenure turned into a disaster. After inheriting a 10-6 team and went 8-8 in 2012 and hit rock bottom at 5-11 last year — a season punctuated by one embarrassing episode after another. It not only cost Trestman his job, but Emery his as well.
Arians, meanwhile, couldn’t have landed in a much better spot. He was hired by the Cardinals the day after losing out to Trestman for the Bears job. Inheriting a 5-11 team, but with a play-making defense in place and a veteran quarterback he could manage in Carson Palmer, the Cardinals went 10-6 in 2013 and 11-5 in 2014 — losing a wild-card playoff game to Carolina with his third-string quarterback after Palmer had suffered a torn ACL in Week 10.
Arians was won the NFL’s Coach of the Year Award last season — technically the second time he had won the award since the Bears hired Trestman. After a 31-19 victory over the Saints at home in Week 1, the Cardinals are 22-12 under Arians — 17-6 when Palmer starts. In the same span, the Bears are 13-20.
Arians’ success with Palmer might make Bears fans rue Emery’s decision the most. The former Pro Bowl quarterback has been re-invigorated under Arians. Palmer had an 83.2 passer rating in six seasons with the Bengals and Raiders prior to Arians’ arrival. But in his last 16 games with Arians, Palmer has a 97.6 passer rating (30 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) and is 14-2.
It’s hard to say if he could have made that kind of impact on Jay Cutler. But it’s pretty certain that if he couldn’t, the straight-shooting Arians would have recognized that and acknowledged it as well.
Arians visited with Cutler during his Halas Hall interview. “We spent a good hour together and I was very, very impressed with him,” Arians said. “[He’s] a passionate guy that wanted to win.
“I think he gets misunderstood a lot. Sometimes when you care a lot your body can give different signals. Each person’s different. The guy obviously cares about winning.”
Arians never got that chance with the Bears. But for him, it has worked out for the best.
“There’s no doubt,” he said. “Things always do.”
And maybe, eventually, they’ll work out for the Bears, too. Unlike other mistakes the franchise has made, the Bears don’t appear to have compounded this one. The Emery/Trestman error was so egregious, it forced the franchise to finally think outside the suffocating Halas Hall box. They hired an outside source — former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi — to find a new general manager. He led them to Ryan Pace, who hired John Fox — the first former NFL head coach the Bears have hired since George Halas hired himself.
Fox hired a coaching staff with better credentials than Halas Hall has seen in decades — including defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell. The Bears haven’t hired a defensive coordinator with Fangio’s credentials since Mike Ditka inherited Buddy Ryan.
It’s too early to tell if it will make a difference, but at least the Bears no longer are conducting business as usual (their most important business, anyway). The Bears make more than their share of mistakes, but they have a chance to overcome this one. Every so often fate moves its huge hands in your favor. If the Cubs had hired Joe Girardi, would they have been able to get Joe Maddon? The Bulls lost Magic Johnson to a flip of a coin in 1979. Five years later, they were over it. The Bears missed on Bruce Arians. At least now, they have a chance to get over it.