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Where Bruce Arians grew his roots as a quarterback whisperer

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Bruce Arians learned to coach QBs by being one himself (1:12)

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians admits he wasn't a very good quarterback but that helped him teach some of the NFL's best. (1:12)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- All Dave Marler wanted coming out of Forest High School in central Mississippi in 1974 was to play quarterback for Mississippi State University.

Former Bulldogs coach Bob Tyler wouldn’t recruit him because he was too slow. Marler enrolled in Mississippi College, a Division II school, where he played quarterback and kicker. After two years, he transferred to Mississippi State -- to be Tyler’s kicker.

In Starkville, Marler would meet a coach who wasn’t much older than him but would change the trajectory of his life. In the spring of 1978, Bruce Arians was 25 years old and the passing-game coordinator at Mississippi State.

Just three years into a coaching career that would lead to the Arizona Cardinals, Arians had already started establishing a reputation as a quarterback guru.

Marler was one of the first quarterbacks Arians groomed on a list that includes Denver’s Peyton Manning, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Arizona’s Carson Palmer.

A week and a half ago, Arians watched Manning win his second Super Bowl. Back in 1998 as Indianapolis quarterbacks coach, Arians started molding Manning into a future Hall of Famer. Arians can still see some of his teaching in how Manning holds the ball, the power angle in his right leg, the way his knee sets and how he releases his passes.

Arians called them little things. But they’ve shaped Manning into a legend. Arians won’t take credit for being a quarterback whisperer. He laughed off the moniker.

“I’m just a quarterback coach,” Arians said.

“[Manning’s] become one of the greatest ever. I can’t take any credit for him. Mom and Dad and God, they made him. Same with Ben and Andrew. But it’s nice to know you had a touch in their mechanics, things that they remember. That part of it makes it special.”

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After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1974, Arians was hired by head coach Jimmy Sharpe to be a graduate assistant in Blacksburg. One of Arians’ first responsibilities was to teach the Hokies’ leading rusher, Phil Rodgers, to be his replacement at quarterback.

In a year, Arians turned Rodgers into a wishbone quarterback who rushed for 762 yards and passed for 379 yards as Virginia Tech went 8-3. By all accounts, Arians still recalls Rodgers’ transition a success 41 years later.

“We made a quarterback out of him,” said Arians, who followed Sharpe to Mississippi State in 1978.

It was Arians’ second quarterback project -- Marler – that helped Arians build his reputation.

When the Bulldogs convened for spring practice in 1978, they had seven quarterbacks and Marler was No. 7. But when Arians saw Marler throw a pass, he knew he found his next quarterback. Over the course of four weeks, Marler scaled the depth chart, eventually becoming Mississippi State’s starter.

“He just had one of the most natural strokes,” Arians said. “So, I was like, ‘What do we have to lose? Let’s make the guy our quarterback.’ ”

Marler had the basics, but that was it. One of the first areas Arians began working on was Marler’s fundamentals. Arians and Marler stood on either side of a goal post, 10 yards back. The goal was for Marler to throw passes over the 10-feet high crossbar that would land square in Arians’ chest on the other side. At first, Marler couldn’t make it over the crossbar and sometimes hit the beam. But after throwing more than 200 passes a day, he got better. The zip of the ball increased with his accuracy.

Then Arians made Marler take the next step: Throwing over the crossbar from his knees. This promoted a high and quick release.

“You couldn’t pull a Tim Tebow and wind up with it,” Marler said. “It had to be pretty high up, like a Peyton Manning release.”

Once the fundamentals were down, Arians began teaching Marler the reads necessary to play in the Southeastern Conference.

“It was not as hard because Dave was so into it and it clicked for him,” Arians said. “He got it. He knew the types of reads we were running. It was one of those really weird fits.”

Arians showed during the 1978 season he could coach more than technique and process. After the Bulldogs started 3-0 while averaging 29.7 points per game, Arians changed his approach to Marler.

During the first three games, Marler said Arians was: “Basic, basic, basic on drills. He’s basic on communication. He’s basic on everything, just trying to get me through the game more or less.”

But when Marler started leading the SEC in the major passing categories, Arians’ approach shifted.

“His whole coaching philosophy changes as I have changed,” Marler said. “No longer am I a rookie quarterback, I’m the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. And he starts coaching me like I’m the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.”

Arians began installing game plans, devising strategies to attack and exploit weaknesses in the defense.

“He used to be telling me, ‘You’re the best guy at your position in this whole conference,’” Marler recalled. “I’m 21 years old and I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’”

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Yes, Arians was sure.

For as well as Arians can teach the physical position of quarterback, it’s how he communicated and related that helped his pupils blossom. He let Tim Riordan, his first quarterback at Temple University, call all his plays at the line of scrimmage in 1983 -- when it was unheard of it to give college quarterbacks such freedom.

Both he and Lee Saltz, the quarterback who succeeded Riordan at Temple, which was Arians’ first head-coaching job, said they learned more from Arians than any other coach.

“He was light years ahead of where he was at the time,” Saltz said. “I literally bounced around for eight year -- a couple years in the NFL -- and had some pretty achieved coaches and teammates and so forth, and I never learned more than Bruce Arians taught me in college. Even in the NFL and Canadian league, and so forth.”

Both Saltz and Riordan played professionally in the NFL, USFL and CFL.

Marler was named the All-SEC quarterback after throwing for 2,422 yards, 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, while completing 56.8 percent of his passes. He finished the season leading the SEC in 10 offensive categories and was among the top 10 in four NCAA categories. Mississippi State set 47 school records and 15 SEC records on offense in 1978. Marler jumped Ole Miss legend Archie Manning into fourth place on the all-time single-season SEC total offense list. He also broke Steve Spurrier’s consecutive completions record with 17 straight that season.

Yet, none of those statistics was either Arians’ or Marler’s defining moment in 1978.

That came in Week 9 against third-ranked Alabama. During pregame warmups in Birmingham, Marler tore a muscle in his right thigh. He told Arians, who advised Marler to stay on the field and act like nothing was wrong. Marler had his leg wrapped but aggravated the injury when he was sacked on Mississippi State’s first drive. He left the game, went to the locker room, got a shot of pain killers and was back on the field by the end of the first quarter.

Arians put Marler in the shotgun about eight yards deep and devised a game plan based around three running plays and 25 passes.

“He was just calling everything,” Marler said. “Believe it; we were just making up plays as we go.”

Marler threw for 429 yards and Mississippi State lost.

“We certainly gave Bear Bryant a run for his money,” Marler said.

***

That game helped push Marler further into the national spotlight and gave football a glimpse of a young coach with an ingenious offensive mind.

“What he did with me is turn me into somebody that probably I never would’ve accomplished on my own,” Marler said. “From a play-calling level, an execution level, he totally took me to levels of success that I, as a quarterback, had never visualized. All this happened through the course of the season.”

It led to a five-year career in the CFL for Marler, who retired from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1983. His stint in Canada, where he currently runs a wealth-management business, led to a wife and three children. He’s also the chairman of the board of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum.

But he wasn’t the only one whose play was raised by Arians.

Quarterbacks throughout Arians’ career have had their best seasons under him. This past year, that included Palmer, who had career highs of 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. Roethlisberger hit 4,000 yards twice during the final three years Arians was the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator.

Arians has proven he can coach great quarterbacks, but he admittedly wasn’t one himself. How did he learn what it took to become an elite signal caller? By being a backup quarterback for most of his college career, he was able to learn other systems and the roles of other quarterbacks.

“I’ve been fortunate,” Arians said. “I love the position.”

But, still, don’t call Arians a quarterback whisperer. He’s just a coach, who coaches quarterbacks.

“He has a gift,” Sharpe said. “He has a gift. That’s really what great coaches have. They have two things: they have a gift to be able to see and they have the ability to motivate and inspire.

“Bruce really is special.”