There’s an NFL coaching makeover afoot in the Heartland — and a heartfelt farewell lingering in the Arizona air.
The Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts have all fired their head coaches, and the Green Bay Packers have parted ways with their esteemed defensive coordinator.
Meanwhile, Bruce Arians tearfully announced his retirement Monday, a day after becoming the winningest coach in Cardinals history with a season-ending victory at Seattle.
“It’s been a great ride,” Arians told reporters at his news conference. “I will miss the game. Hell, I’ll even miss you guys. I might even join you.”
The colorful Arians, 65, is investigating TV opportunities as an NFL studio analyst. He’s cleaning out his office at the same time as Detroit’s Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis’ Chuck Pagano, Chicago’s John Fox and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Oakland’s Jack Del Rio lost his job after Sunday’s loss at the Chargers, and the Raiders have turned their attention to hiring Jon Gruden, whose career as a head coach began with the Silver & Black.
Those close to Gruden say he’s not entirely motivated by the money or even a reported piece of the franchise — he’s believed to make about $8 million per year as a “Monday Night Football” analyst, combined with various other sponsorship deals — but he only wanted to return to coaching if he had the right quarterback. Evidently, the Raiders’ Derek Carr satisfies that requirement.
That Caldwell, Pagano and Arians all became free agents on the same day is notable because they all have Indianapolis in common. Pagano replaced Caldwell as coach of the Colts, then Arians — Colts offensive coordinator at the time — stepped in as interim coach when Pagano underwent cancer treatments. Arians would win his first of two coach-of-the-year awards that season, the first interim to receive that honor.
Arians was an NFL assistant coach for two decades before he got his head-coaching break, and had briefly retired after Pittsburgh fired him as offensive coordinator in early 2012. Pagano talked him back into football before the next season, launching the next chapter of Arians’ career.
“I hit the lottery,” Arians said by phone Monday. “It’s just a shame that it took Chuck to get ill. I thank God that he got healthy, came back, and did that great job he did. But he gave me that opportunity.”
When Pagano returned to health, Arians moved on to Arizona and coached the Cardinals to 10, 11 and 13 wins in his first three seasons, guiding them to the NFC title game in 2015.
In large part because of injuries, the Cardinals took a step backward the past two seasons, finishing 7-8-1 and 8-8. Counting a postseason victory, that pushed Arians’ win total to a club-record 50, one more than Ken Whisenhunt.
Arians is the first Arizona coach to leave on his own terms.
Phil Dawson made four field goals for Arizona in Sunday’s 26-24 victory, the last a 42-yard game-winner with 2:21 left.
“I probably truly didn’t know until that kick went through that I was going to retire,” Arians said. “I know everybody speculated. Everybody speculated for months. Everybody had a story. You now have the story.”
Arians informed his players of his retirement immediately after the game but asked them not to tell the press. They didn’t.
“We built this program on three words: trust loyalty and respect,” he said, his voice wavering with emotion. “I told the team [Sunday] night that I’m retiring… and they lied to you. Because of that … there’s no greater feeling in the world than knowing your players have your back.”
Elsewhere, players weren’t able to save the jobs of their coaches.
Fox was shown the door in Chicago after going 14-34 in three seasons, the second-worst winning percentage (.292) of any coach in Bears history but Abe Gibron, who won 27.4% from 1972-74.
Although Pagano’s Colts won their finale, they finished 4-12, their worst record since going 2-14 without Peyton Manning in 2011.
Del Rio’s Raiders were a vogue Super Bowl pick but fell hopelessly flat and finished 6-10, losing their finale to the Chargers at StubHub Center. The coach was fired in the immediate aftermath of the game.
The Lions had winning seasons in three of Caldwell’s four years, but they missed the playoffs in two of the past three years, including this one. The Lions have not won a playoff game since Jan. 5, 1992.
Oddly, some of the most glowing endorsements of fired coaches come from the teams that just fired them.
“I believe Jim is one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach,” Lions owner Marth Firestone Ford said in a statement.
“Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful.”