TAMPA — Bruce Arians has proven there is plenty of tread left on his tires, even if the wheels carrying him around at Bucs practice are bolted to a golf cart.
All that matters is the 69-year-old coach has his team rolling toward a possible repeat as Super Bowl champion despite enduring an injury-riddled, drama-filled season.
Leading up to Sunday’s NFC division playoff game against the Rams, Arians has spent as much time as injured Pro Bowl offensive linemen Tristan Wirfs and Ryan Jensen in the training room, getting treatment on his partially torn Achilles tendon.
“I call it the petting zoo,” said Arians, laughing. “The zoo is full right now.”
Consider the bout with COVID-19, a debilitating injury, and sanctions from the league after slapping safety Andrew Adams on the helmet last Sunday — and that’s just what the Bucs boss personally was dealing with this season.
Fourteen Bucs players landed on injured reserve, and even after some were recalled, they combined to play only eight games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Has the job of coaching the Bucs ever been done better than what Arians did this season?
The team won a franchise-record 13 regular-season games and beat Philadelphia 31-15 in an NFC wild-card game last Sunday.
Arians is quick to deflect the praise to general manager Jason Licht and his front-office staff, and rightfully so.
But players take notice when their head coach is the embodiment of resiliency.
“As you know, a team often takes on the personality of their head coach,” Licht said. “BA’s personality is transparent. He’s tough, bold, honest and adaptable. He also loves his family, and we have created a family environment here.
“Tough love goes along with that. He gets the most out of our vets because he treats them like men. He values young players and practice-squad players. He treats them as if they are on the 53-(man roster) because he knows their time will come when they need to step up.”
Arians tells practice-squad players when their number is called, they don’t have to play like starters. They just need to be the best version of themselves.
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That’s how an LSU track star such has Cyril Grayson, who never played football in college, catches a game-winning 33-yard touchdown with 15 seconds remaining to beat the Jets. It’s how a vagabond receiver such as Breshad Perriman, on his fourth team in two years, catches an overtime winner to topple the Bills.
“I think as you get these guys like Cyril, you see a redeeming quality in a guy and you just keep trying to grow it and build that confidence with each and every guy that’s on your roster,” Arians said. “So in training camp, with (cornerback) Dee Delaney, ‘Hey man, who is this guy? Great job, great job. You make special teams, you’re going to turn into a player.’
“And you just try to build it individually so that the collective is always confident. It’s kind of always been easy for me to pull out good things.
“Even in staff meetings. It’s early and someone will say, ‘This guy can’t do this.’ I say, ‘Don’t tell me what the hell they can’t do. I want to know what the hell they can do and let’s do that.’ So our coaches, they live that way, too, now, so they start coaching that way. It’s like a culture you build.”
The season began with the injury bug biting the Bucs’ young secondary, necessitating a call to three-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. After only three days with the team, he played nearly every snap in a 19-17 win at New England in Week 4 and attempted to start three games in 12 days until his hamstring gave out.
Arians said the toughest stretch was the team losing three of its biggest weapons on offense — receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, and running back Leonard Fournette — in about 10 minutes during a 9-0 defeat to New Orleans on Dec. 19.
“It was so much so fast,” Arians said. “But as you’re standing on the sideline, you realize it’s just one game. So we’ve got to be able to get to the next one. And what is the next one? Who’s up? Who can play? What can they do to win the game?
“I think about that Jets game and Cyril, Le’Veon Bell — guys who just came in and won the game for us. Just give a guy a job he can do.”
Arians’ inability to make excuses meshes perfectly with quarterback Tom Brady. Even after receiver Antonio Brown was released for refusing to play the second half of the Jets game, Brady never blinked and rallied his team from 14 points down to win.
“It’s so easy because I’ll ask Tom, ‘Which one of these guys do you like? Who do you want up?’ " Arians said “He’ll say, ‘I think he’s ready.’ When he knows that’s coming, he’s just like me. He’s like he’s going to go build him up. He’ll tell them, ‘Hey, run it like this. Run it like this. If you come out of the break like that, the ball is going to be here.’
“When you’re a coach and you have your players, especially your quarterback, in the same mindset? It helps a bunch.”
The Brown situation, which played out nationally after the veteran receiver stripped to his waist and left the field during the third quarter, had the potential to become a bigger distraction if not for Arians’ deft handling.
“Just treat it like an injury,” Arians said. “It was more than that because of the distraction it was nationally, but guys knew what was going on. There was no locker room problem because they all knew what was happening.”
No keeping him down
Arians lost more than 40 pounds in the offseason while working out mostly on the team’s underwater treadmill. But he likely overdid it, partially tearing his right Achilles.
Yet he never missed a day of work until testing positive for COVID-19. Even then, Arians was back in five days coaching against the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
He might have wished he had stayed home. It was Arians who answered all the tough questions after Brown accused the Bucs of cutting him for being injured. This week, Arians was fined $50,000 after he said he tried to push Adams off Eagles players to avoid getting a penalty. He will appeal the fine, but he didn’t do his Achilles any favors by leaving the sideline.
“I think it’s the biggest reason why you don’t hire guys in their 30s. They’ve never paid their dues to the point where they’re in pain, but they show up every damn day,” said Arians’ son Jake, who also serves as his dad’s agent. “And they’re back from COVID in five days. If the head coach is doing it, coaching with a torn Achilles, you don’t really have a damn excuse, at least not to be in the training room every time of day. Get the treatment you need and get your ass on the field.
“That permeates when you’ve got guys like Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul playing through injuries, and Tom Brady, who’s 44 years old and takes better care of himself than anyone on the planet, but he’s 44. He’s feeling the stuff. He’s doing everything he can to feel as good as he can. I think that permeates. But you’ve got pro’s pros who are coaches.”
The best ally for Arians is Brady.
“We all see the kind of pain he’s going through this season,” Brady said of Arians. “He’s shown a lot of toughness. I know he’s had some different issues with his lower back and now his Achilles a little bit. But he’s hanging in there. He’s doing a good job.
“His leadership, he cuts to the chase, he gives his great expectations and he cares real deeply about what we’re doing. We’re in a great position to succeed, and we love to go out there and play for him.”
Win or lose Sunday, Arians says he plans to coach the Bucs in the 2022 season.
“Oh, yeah, I’ll be back,” he said.
That’s good news for the Bucs, who are ready and willing to limp if need be all the way to Los Angeles for Super Bowl 56.
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