The Arizona Cardinals seem to exist only sporadically even as that's not true technically. Sometimes they turn up on a game update six hours into an NFL Sunday and you realize it's the first time you thought of them all day. Sometimes you'll also have forgotten the team playing them as if that team just spent the afternoon behind a large curtain. Sometimes it seems the Cardinals might be an odd-numbered team who on any given day might not have a bye yet might not be playing anybody.
They shout their presence only in giddy spasms such as 1998 or 2008-09 or Super Bowl XLIII where their near-win seemed fabulously funky. Sometimes you have to check the record to make sure they played a certain season and even then you can't be sure; maybe it didn't happen but somebody just typed it in. They're seldom graphic, never 15-1 and also never 1-15. Seven times out of 26 seasons since they moved to Arizona they've gone 5-11, five times 4-12, four times 7-9, thrice 8-8.
Noise-wise, they're the anti-Dallas. Maybe we should thank them.
Eight NFL franchises needed head coaches last January and seven filled their spots with Andy Reid and Mike McCoy and Marc Trestman and Rob Chudzinski and Chip Kelly and Doug Marrone and Gus Bradley. That seemed to do it but oh no, wait, we've still got Arizona out there in the desert. Arizona still has to choose.
Arizona chose on Jan. 17. Some people noticed.
And partly because it's Arizona, which had just gone 5-11 for the second time in three years and the fifth time in 11, nobody much speculated that another Arizona bob upward would come, and it would come fast by the ensuing December, and it would come as a matter of fine and utter National Football League delight.
What's your favorite part of the Cardinals standing 9-5 under Bruce Arians? You could choose from so many. I think I know mine.
Maybe it's a tip of the cap to the Cardinals for giving Arians his first NFL head-coaching job at age 60 and bucking a human culture that unwisely tends to cast aside its most richly experienced. Maybe it's the appealing idea that Arians did get such a shot after all that time for five previous franchises, one of them twice, and four U.S. universities, two of them twice.
Maybe it's Arians' typically blunt sharing of his own introspection. He said, "I never thought it was going to come, and I appreciate it so much." He said, "I didn't know if it would ever happen, and I was fine without it." He confessed to his own uncertainty before his interim stint for leukemia-stricken Chuck Pagano last year in Indianapolis and said of that 9-3 flourish, "It answered all the questions I ever had." Usually we don't get such peeks behind the veneer and into the feelings of NFL coaches unless, of course, it's Belichick.
Maybe it's that two years ago after a 12-4 Steelers season ended in Denver with Demaryius Thomas catching it over the middle from Tim Tebow on the first play of overtime, Arians retired. The Steelers didn't retain him as offensive coordinator, and he retired. He figured he'd call it a great run through life to age then-59. Eight days later in one of those plot twists that make life worth the hassle, the Colts hired him as offensive coordinator. Twenty-three months later, look here.
Maybe it's just that, since 1975 when he started as a graduate assistant, Arians and his wife Christine have moved from Blacksburg, Va., to Starkville, Miss., to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Philadelphia (Temple), to Kansas City, to Starkville again, to New Orleans, to Tuscaloosa again to Indianapolis to Cleveland to Pittsburgh to Indianapolis again to Arizona. Maybe he stands for all those coaching nomads who drift through the coaching places and wind up knowing a lot of a little something. Maybe you could say it's that a guy who got his first NFL head-coaching job at 60 also once became the youngest head coach in Division I college football at 30, when Arians took over at Temple after coaching under Bear Bryant at Alabama. And that as he finished six seasons there at 4-7 in 1988 toward the exit that has tended to befall Temple football coaches, his players sent him out by whacking Boston College 45-28 after which BC head coach Jack Bicknell said, "Their guys came out and played for their coach; I just wish our guys had played for theirs." Maybe you could say it's that Arians has coached so long and tried so many things that in that final year at Temple, he installed, for a short while, yeah, a wishbone.
I do know mine, though. It's that after he filled in for Pagano and went 9-3 for a team that spent the previous year 2-14, and after Pagano said, "What he did in my absence was truly remarkable," and after Arians took an Arizona team that had 26 new players out of 53, and after he has steered that from 3-4 to 9-5, and Carson Palmer to renewed prowess, this story has come to a curious, humorous juncture. As the Cardinals contend for the playoffs and whoosh into consciousness again, as they stare at hard, hard games at Seattle and home to San Francisco, just now, right now, Arians stands 18-8 as an NFL head coach, including winning Coach of the Year as an interim in a somber spot. So there's a chance, a delicious chance, here and now and today, that this eighth hire out of eight, this guy who waited until 60 for this job, might be not just good but tremendous.