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Bruce Arians rides to Indianapolis Colts' rescue

Stepping in for his friend, leukemia-stricken Coach Chuck Pagano, Arians has his team in contention for a playoff spot a season after it was 2-14.

December 14, 2012|By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times

What might have been a tale of woe for the Indianapolis Colts now reads like a Hollywood story.

The franchise, among the NFL's most successful over the last decade, was coming off a 2-14 season and had parted ways with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. After his team started 1-2, first-year Coach Chuck Pagano learned during the bye week that he had a treatable form of leukemia and handed the coaching reins to Bruce Arians, his offensive coordinator.

Arians, 60, who five years ago successfully battled prostate cancer, will never forget the call from Pagano during the team's week off.

"He had missed Thursday in the office, so I said, 'Where'd you guys go? Did you have a good time?'" Arians said. "And he said, 'Well, I went to the doctor.' I said, 'Yeah, how'd that go?' He said, 'I'm still in the hospital. I've got leukemia.' I was like, 'What do you mean, you've got leukemia?'

"Floored me, just floored me."

Then, Pagano delivered the second piece of news: Arians would be taking over as coach. By every indication, the Colts were in a downward spiral. The forecast called for nuclear winter.

"He called me as soon as he got off the phone with Chuck," said Jake Arians of his father, who is his best friend and was the best man at his wedding. "As soon as the bluntness and the shock of that wore off, it was, 'I'll be there tomorrow.' My wife said, 'Get out of here. You've got to go up there.'"

Hours later, Jake hopped in his car and made the seven-hour drive from Birmingham, Ala., to Indianapolis to help however possible.

It was the first NFL head-coaching opportunity for the elder Arians, who was abruptly dropped as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator after last season despite playing a key role in getting the Steelers to three Super Bowls.

"So my dad and I kind of bounced ideas off each other all week," Jake said. "I was a sounding board as much as I could be."

Arians took a big gamble in his debut. He decided to go with a no-huddle offense. It was a bold move in light of his team's inexperience.

"If it had been his third or fourth week as a rookie coach, I'd have said, 'OK, whatever you think,'" said his son, who had a brief NFL career as a kicker. "But this was like his third or fourth hour. This was Monday afternoon after lunch; he goes, 'I'm thinking about making a big decision.' No huddle with a rookie quarterback against the [Green Bay] Packers is not what I thought would come out of his mouth."

Six days later, the Colts pulled off a stunning victory, 30-27. Andrew Luck brought the team from behind late in the fourth quarter, converting two third downs with passes to Reggie Wayne, and scrambling for another third-down conversion, before hitting Wayne again for the go-ahead touchdown.

"I've maybe seen my dad cry twice in his life; one of them was at his dad's funeral," Jake said. "And the week of Green Bay, I saw him cry five or six different times. It was on the sidelines before the game. We cried in each other's arms after the game, just the relief that they actually pulled it off, the emotion of all that. Just thinking about Chuck during the week. My dad's a cancer survivor himself, so the reality that one of your best friends and your boss is struggling with something that you've been through in the past.

"It was a crazy week emotionally."

The whirlwind of success was underway. The Colts would win seven of their next nine games, and now, at 9-4, can secure a spot in the playoffs Sunday with a victory at Houston. Even if they don't beat the Texans — their opponent in two of the final three games — the Colts are in prime position to earn a wild-card berth.

"People thought we were going to win one or two games," Colts owner Jim Irsay said in a phone interview. "To play the type of football that we've played has been incredible. Bruce, Chuck and I have had long talks, and I've said, 'Bruce, you're the head coach right now. You've got to take this thing by the reins and go with it.' Chuck and I have talked about how everything's waiting for him as soon as his health returns."

Rookie quarterback Luck has been essential to Indianapolis' success. From the start, the No. 1 pick has been ahead of the learning curve. So much so, Bruce Arians said, that "we've had to slow things down just so the other guys can catch up."

Said Luck: "It's been a blast playing for him. I do feel — and I think all the guys in the locker room feel this — that he doesn't hold anything back in his play calling, in his play design, just because we're a young team or in our first year in the offense.

"He's put the whole shebang on us, and he expects us to run it well. We're trying to live up to our end of the bargain."

The Colts' rally to beat the Packers doesn't seem so unusual now. Counting Pagano's win in Week 2, the team is 8-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and Luck has led six fourth-quarter comebacks.

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