One of Lee Saltz's first starts as a 19-year-old redshirt freshman at Temple in 1983 was down in Athens, Ga., against the sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. The Owls had a first-year head coach named Bruce Arians who was looking to instill some confidence in the young kid from Randolph, New Jersey, and give his team -- one of college football's worst up to that point -- a chance against a roster full of blue-chip players.
Saltz had a cannon arm and had no trouble drilling an open receiver. He could also kick a little bit, and that's where Arians' genius came into play.
He knew Georgia would have Temple in plenty of fourth-and-18 situations that day, so when the issue arose, he placed Saltz deep in the shotgun and gave him total control of a pass/punt option.
If the deep safety ended up dropping back to return the punt, call an audible which would direct an outside receiver to run a 15- to 20-yard in route right where the safety was supposed to be. And if the deep safety stayed in to guard the 15-yard in, kick the ball over his head and get the type of field position Temple could only dream of otherwise.
The code word on the audible? "Omaha."
"I haven't seen anybody do it since," Saltz told Around The NFL this week. "And on the first one, I hit it for 68 yards net -- on one play. Against a team like that, to have a 68-yard change is huge. And of course, the next time the safety stays back, and he hit a pass right over the middle for 25 yards. So we got a first down there."
At 63, Bruce Arians is heading into his first conference title game appearance as a head coach. In his three years with the Cardinals, he has been pegged as a no-fear rambler who weathered decades as a football outsider before getting his chance. One of his famous phrases -- "No risk it, no biscuit" -- summarizes his high-flying style and explains why the Cardinals finished the season as the No. 1 offense in football, racking up more than 408 yards per game.
But those who know Arians insist his true genius lies in the ability to boil offense down to its simplest form. The wisdom of Bruce Arians is not that of a nerve-wracked scientist or idealistic software engineer. The wisdom of Bruce Arians is a simple nudge on a chessboard; the option to kick the ball over someone's head when they're playing too close.
"His overall knowledge of the execution of X's and O's is so far above anything I've ever seen. I played eight years of pro football in Detroit, New England and Canada and my learning curve, my growth was stunted when I went professional. I honestly and truly mean that," Saltz said.
"I remember literally, from mechanics to reading defenses, I don't think there's anybody better at putting their players in the best position to succeed than Bruce Arians."
A good Bruce Arians play-calling story tends to make the rounds.
There was that time in 1978 at Mississippi State when kicker-turned-quarterback Dave Marler pulled his groin before a bowl game against Bear Bryant and the Alabama Crimson Tide, so Arians designed an offense on the fly that didn't require Marler to move -- just throw. He was literally scrawling out plays in the press box as the game went along.
Bryant hired him soon after.
There were the many times with the Indianapolis Colts in 1998 when a manic rookie quarterback named Peyton Manning was flailing mentally and Arians would visit with him during warmups. In those moments, Arians would tell Manning that there was something wrong with his fundamentals -- the way he bent his knee or cocked his elbow -- so that Manning would spend the remainder of the pregame harping on something controllable instead of worrying about something he couldn't.
Arians skipped around the NFL and college like a wayward professor with no tenure, dispensing tidbits of advice and changing lives before another door would close and he'd get fired.
At Temple in the '80s, he groomed a Heisman finalist in running back Paul Palmer, an extremely rare occurrence for a school that made just two bowl games in its entire history before Arians arrived. He produced NFL talent like Saltz and current Jets head coach Todd Bowles, all while maintaining the same common-sense mentality that carried him from one gig to the next. Have a cannon-armed quarterback? We're a run-and-shoot team now. Have the nation's leading rusher and Heisman finalist? This year, we're a Veer option team.
He tutored Manning during his most impressionable window in the NFL and called the plays for the only Cleveland Browns team to make the playoffs since the organization's rebirth in 1999. He turned Ben Roethlisberger from game manager to offensive force, and has single-handedly rejuvenated the careers of Carson Palmer and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.
Simplicity, to Arians and his students, was beautiful. Owners looking for the next big thing were too busy blinded by something else.
Kelly Holcomb remembers his first "aha" moment.
Alongside Manning during the 1998 season in Indianapolis, Holcomb was struggling to understand the 4 or 5 belly check with me, a running play that would vary based on the position of the defense and one that would become a hallmark of the Manning offense for years to come. Understanding terminology is often one of the league's biggest pitfalls -- worse than soft tissue injuries or strength and conditioning.
"The good coaches have to be good communicators and that's what Bruce is," Holcomb told Around The NFL. "We didn't understand -- it was a belly check -- if they had three linebackers in the box and if the middle linebacker was in between both tackles, you go toward the tight end and tackle. If it was an under front, you want to go away from the shade."
The way Arians was able to strip the play to its bare essentials and diagram it on the fly was invaluable for two quarterbacks that would end up logging a decade's worth of games in the NFL. Holcomb credited his longevity to Arians directly.
Arians would bring Holcomb with him to Cleveland and the two developed a relationship that Holcomb described as almost unconscious. Arians was always two plays ahead of him. Holcomb could recite the words of the next call being loaded into the queue before it hit his headset.
One of Holcomb's first starts with the Browns was a last-minute loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd chucked his helmet at the end of a game, resulting in a Chiefs field goal attempt with no time left on the clock. Cleveland lost 40-39.
Before the following game against the Bengals, Holcomb walked up to Arians and said, "Hey, it's time to make people step up and recognize who you are.
"He looked at me and said, 'You need to show them who you are, too.'"
Holcomb was able to do so because of the way Arians transformed that offense, just like he did at Temple and just like he's done with the Cardinals. A rotating cast of characters like Dennis Northcutt, William Green and Andre' Davis were optimized and plugged into an offense that came within a few plays of beating the Steelers in the playoffs. Arians was fired a year later and the Browns have had just one winning season since.
In the years since, Holcomb has installed portions of that offense into the high school team he coaches. He gave the playbook to a buddy working at a private school in Atlanta, and that team now has multiple state titles.
But without the spirit of the offense, the one that has traveled with Arians throughout his career, it cannot truly function.
"It's not about the X's and O's," Holcomb said, recalling a favorite quote of Arians and fellow offensive guru Tom Moore. "It's about the Jimmy's and Joe's."