Bruce Arians is a polarizing force: you either love him or you hate him. If you know of Bruce Arians, it is hard not to have an opinion, even if its just about his choice of Kangol beret over ball cap. He's a unique coach with a predilection for keeping his coaching staff as current and fresh as his wardrobe by hiring a slew of geriatric assistants. It's fodder for a Hollywood movie. Cocoon Returns Again: This Time They're Coaching an NFL Team. Wilford Brimley is still alive and just about the right age to star as Cardinal's assistant Tom Moore.
As a head coach, Arians has had tremendous success. Filling in for ailing head coach Chuck Pagano while on staff with the Indanapolis Colts, Arians was honored as the 2012's AP Coach of the Year for leading the post-Peyton Manning Colts to a winning season under then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. That achievement landed him the head coaching job at the Arizona Cardinals. Had it not been for a spate of key-player suspensions and injuries that sidelined both Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton, the Cardinals would have been likely been serious contenders for a Super Bowl championship. Despite these personnel challenges, Arians was named Coach of the Year following the 2014 season.
Arians' path to the Kangol, Coach of the Year honors, and the head coaching position with the Cardinals started with his termination from the Steelers after the 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers. Arians recounted to ESPN's Tim Keown that when Mike Tomlin called to fire him, "I thought he was calling me about a raise." It's unclear whether he was serious or if that was just an instance of PBR-fueled hipster humor. In either case, it was the end of a relationship gone bad, that included two Super Bowl championships and much frustration and criticism over his leadership style and play calling.
Arians started his career with the Steelers as WR coach in 2004 before being promoted to the role of Offensive Coordinator in 2007. (And well before all of that, if you are into Bruce Arians trivia, he was JB Barber's college roommate. JB Barber is the father of Tiki and Ronde, whom Arians used to babysit.)
While Arians is clearly a talented coach, fans--- and clearly also the Steelers organization, because they fired him-- had grown weary of Arians bubble screens, first-down runs for no gain, and probably most distressing, Big Ben scrambling in the pocket and either winging it for a last-split-second play or getting crushed, literally. Fans shouldn't have to worry that they've lost their star quarterback to injury multiple times per drive. It is a health risk. If Ben wasn't getting hit, he was almost getting hit. "Noooooo get rid of the ball, hurry! Hurry up!" was a common refrain among armchair coaches during the Arians era.
While the Steelers offense wasn't horrible under Arians, it wasn't exactly dope either. It had become an odd mix of predictable and haphazard. It was as if Arians play calling consisted solely of: "Do the usual." or "Oh, OK, just do your thing, Ben." It also seemed that Arians' friendship with Roethlisberger clouded his judgment and compromised his authority with the QB. It was also suggested by Pro Football Talk that their friendship trumped the best interests of the team with Arians choosing a strategy for Super Bowl XLV that was focused on Roethlisberger being named MVP of Super Bowl XLV at the expense of the rest of the team. Roethlisberger was pissed and fairly vocal about Arians' departure, saying, "We feel like we are really close to being an elite offense. For your leader to be gone is kind of a shocker for us."
Despite Big Ben's calls to retain Arians, the Steelers moved on in 2011 to the relief of many fans. (Roethlisberger reportedly lobbied successfuly for Arians in 2009 when management was considering releasing him at that point in his stint as OC, so it was not the first time he advocated for Arians, and 2011 was not the first time the management was disappointed enough with Arians to consider terminating his employment.)
Enter Todd Haley, the leader who would elevate the offense to the elite level Roethlisberger felt was just out of reach. A former mediocre head coach for the Kansas City Chief and offensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, Haley also had experience as a WR coach for the Jets, Bears, and Cowboys. Though Arians was not universally popular at the end of his time with the Steelers, Haley did not receive a warm welcome.
The team did not see immediate results under Haley, and this, in part, was due to lack of buy-in by Roethlisberger. The early part of Haley's tenure with the Steelers was marked by a grumpy Roethlisberger who seemed annoyed and frustrated with the change of leadership, often displaying Eli-Manning-esque facial expressions during games. By December 2012, Big Ben found himself apologizing for his attitude, saying to ESPN, "I let my frustrations jump out after a game, I usually don't do that." The QB was so disgruntled, there were reports he was seeking a trade after the 2012 season.
Haley had Roethlisberger on a leash, and Roethlisberger was not the center of his universe. There were fewer haphazard and chaotic plays on the field. Instead, Haley introduced a dink-and-dunk offense that relied on a steady rhythm of short, quick-release, high-percentage passes that wore down opponents' secondaries and put Big Ben at lower risk for injury.
Haley's West Coast style system initially robbed Big Ben of the power and control he had been used to under Arians. Roethlisberger was not a fan of the Wildcat offense, reporting to Scout.com in 2013 that he gave feedback about it to Haley: "I just told coach I get physically tired running out to wide receiver all the time." I'm not sure it was happening "all the time," but that was Ben's perception, and he was displeased. He also had some coaching tips, "They need to throw it to me, but closer to the end zone so I don't have to run very far."
With eventual buy-in from Ben, an arsenal of offensive weapons, and magic Mike Munchak working with the offensive line, we've seen the Steelers offense go from a middle-of-the-road unit to one of the best in the league. After the initial years of dink-and-dunk purgatory, Haley was able to introduce some more innovative, exciting, high-reward plays that leveraged the strengths of his corps of players, and, increasingly, Ben's intuition.
In addition to stellar stats, Roethlisberger has stayed healthy. Haley's style is best for Roethlisberger in the long run. Had Big Ben played for more years under Arians system, it is safe to say he would have been much more likely to succumb to injuries.
Arians has proven himself to be an exceptionally competent coach, but he was a poor fit for the Steelers, especially given the nepotism he had going on with Roethlisberger. The transition to the Haley years was not smooth, but it has put the Steelers on the map as an offensive powerhouse, which is a strange adjustment after the Black & Gold's dominance on the defensive side of the ball for so long.
Haley is also part of a team. He is not the offensive dictator, he is the coordinator. Munchak, RB coach James Saxon, WR coach Richard Mann, head coach Mike Tomlin and other personnel all contribute to the Steelers success on the offensive, a success that did not seem likely at the end of Arians' stint as OC and the beginning of Haley's.