TEMPE, Ariz. — Fate made York High graduate Bruce Arians a head coach.
Had Chuck Pagano not been stricken with leukemia a year ago, Arians would not have stepped in as interim coach of the Indianapolis Colts, a job he did so well he was voted NFL Coach of the Year.
He would have remained what he's been for two decades, an assistant coach, and stayed an offensive coordinator. But his success with Indianapolis propelled him to head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Just past his 61st birthday, Arians finds himself exceedingly comfortable in the job. There's no interim tag. This is his team.
"It feels very easy, it really does," Arians said. "I don't feel any different than I have in years past, and I've really enjoyed the camaraderie and getting to know the defense and the special teams players more than I have in the past."
Halfway through his first season in the desert, he has begun to place the stamp of his personality and coaching philosophy on the Cardinals.
Arizona is 4-4 and, going into this bye week is coming off its most complete performance of the season, dominating Atlanta 26-13 last Sunday. After this weekend, the Cardinals have Houston at home, then travel to Jacksonville. Wins there might keep them in the discussion for a wild-card berth.
Arians has an endless supply of great one-liners. On Wednesday, he talked about warning the players to behave on their long weekend off.
"Too many times," he said, "when a guy gets days off, he gets tased in South Beach or something. We don't want any of that stuff."
Several players talked about the accountability Arians and his veteran staff demand from them.
"He's straightforward, not bipolar," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "You know what you're going to get. There ain't going to be too many gimmicks. He don't have no ego system. He's not trying to play games with you. "
No player is immune from Arians' criticism.
"He ain't got no problem telling you you're not accountable, he don't care who you is," added Dockett, who had some run-ins with Arians" predecessor, Ken Whisenhunt. "That's what everybody needs is a professional. We're all grown-ups and everybody's got a job to do."
Arians' language tends to the unprintable, but he said the players can be assured he's leveling with them.
"That's kind of how I've always tried to approach it," Arians said. "Honesty is the best way to approach a player. He might not like what you're going to tell him, but it's the truth."
When he doesn't like what he sees, the players will know it.
The Monday after an ugly Thursday night home loss to Seattle, he had the Cardinals in pads for what he called "a training camp practice."
The Cardinals responded with the impressive win over Atlanta.
A strong defense has been the dominant force of the Cardinals thus far. Arizona ranks near the league lead in takeaways, interceptions, yards lost by sacks and run defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has an array of talented defensive playmakers, from cornerback Patrick Peterson to inside linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby, and safety Tyrann Mathieu, the sensational "Honey Badger" who has thrived in the NFL and was just chosen the league's defensive player of the month.
But offense, Arians' area of expertise, has been a problem.
Finally, the team got on track a bit against Atlanta, especially on the ground, where rookie Andre Ellington rushed for 154 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown run. Carson Palmer regrouped from an early interception, his 14th of the season, to throw two TD passes.
The bye week might help star wideout Larry Fitzgerald more than anyone, giving extra time to heal a nagging hamstring injury that's bothered him for weeks.
Arians, in conjunction with new general manager Steve Keim, made a big change during the season.
With pass protection a problem, longtime starting left tackle Levi Brown was sent to Pittsburgh. The job went to largely untested Bradley Sowell, who is improving but has his difficult moments in such an important position. Running back Ryan Williams, a holdover from the previous regime, remains inactive week after week.
Palmer has struggled to grasp Arians' difficult offensive system. But the coach has stood by his quarterback and dismissed any thought of replacing him. Often, Arians went out of his way to blame interceptions on receivers for running the wrong route.
Like his teammates, Palmer praises Arians' straightforward approach. Everybody is treated the same, Palmer said, where "a lot of times coaches play favorites."
Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin has known Arians for years and sees no change in the man with a taste for the "Kangol" hat that he's now selling at the Cardinals team store, with proceeds going to his Arians Family Foundation charity, which is having its first big Arizona fundraiser on Sunday.
"To me he's still the same guy," Goodwin said. "It doesn't matter if it's a good day or a bad day as far as a win or loss, he's even-keeled all the time, which is what I think you have to be in this profession.
"He's never wavered in what he's talked about and he's staying the course — and we will stay the course and we will be a good team."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Bob Baum at www.twitter.com/Thebaumerphx