A fascinating glimpse

Into the world of an NFL quarterback. It’s not hard to see why the athletically gifted, but less intelligent or less dedicated college stars reliably fail once they find themselves in the deep end:

In a conference room on the second floor of the Cardinals’ Southwest-motif headquarters in Tempe late Tuesday afternoon, Garver and assistant tight ends/special teams coach Steve Heiden sit at a long table, looking up at the whiteboard. Arians is seated at the end, wearing his trademark Kangol cap, pondering his practice plan for Wednesday. He wants to make sure every play counts in his three practices this week. Not only will the game plan be about 20 plays longer than the usual 150-play catalog he uses—Cleveland’s “rolodex of coverages,” as Palmer says, makes Arizona want more options in the game plan—but Arians will be coaching a team in a hurried week, against an opponent few on his team and staff are familiar with.

Observing Arians as the plan is being finalized, you realize there is no secret to the plays that are his pets. There is a section smack dab in the middle of the white board headed HOME RUN. It means exactly how it sounds: big shots, far downfield.

Arians picks out six Home Runs per week. This week, one of the Home Runs stands out above all: Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide. “I love the play this week,” Arians says.

Pistol means Palmer will take the snap four yards behind center. It’s a short shotgun snap. Strong tells the fullback (backup center A.Q. Shipley, in this case) to line up to the tight-end side of the formation. Right is the side the tight end will line up on, assuming the ball is spotted in the middle of the field or the right hash. Stack tells the two wide receivers on the play to line up in a stack to the opposite side of the formation from the tight end. Act 6 is the protection, telling the two backs which linebacker to block if the ’backers rush; the fullback will seal the tight-end side, while the running back will take the blitzer from the middle or weak side, if there is one. Y Cross Divide comprises the two routes run by the wide receivers. The Y, or slot receiver, will run a deep cross through the formation and hope to take a safety with him, while the split end in the stack will run a divide route; that means the split end, likely Larry Fitzgerald, will run a stutter-and-go, running maybe seven yards downfield, faking toward the sideline, then sprinting downfield. The route is divided into two segments, the first ending in the deke to the right, and then the go.

Just one of 171 plays the Cardinals installed for their game with Cleveland.

“You pretty sure you’ll run it this week?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” Arians says. “It ties into what we did last week running the ball. We’ll take one of the runs they’ve seen with A.Q. in the backfield, and we’ll run play-action off it instead of a run. It’s a concept, a play, our quarterback and receivers know, but we haven’t run it out of this formation or this set. Larry’s really good on the [divide] route. Plus, it’s a seven-man protection, so we’ve got probably 3 to 3.5 seconds for Carson to get rid of it.”

The play stands out for several reasons. One: Cleveland safety Donte Whitner is very aggressive. If he sees Shipley in the backfield, his study of the Cards is likely going to lead him to think it’s a running play. So Whitner could cheat toward the line, thinking it’s a run, or he could blitz to cram the line of scrimmage, or he could stay back in coverage. “He’s all over film, getting his eyes in the backfield when he never should,” Palmer says. Two: The Y receiver would be either of the two young Arizona speedsters, John Brown or J.J. Nelson, and the likelihood of one darting across the formation would cause the remaining safety, Tashaun Gipson, to shade toward helping the Cleveland cornerback over the top on Brown or Nelson. Three: Arizona tight end Jermaine Gresham, running a short cross opposite and underneath the Y cross, would likely be picked up by a linebacker and be open. Four: Fitzgerald isn’t the fastest receiver on the field, but as Arians says, he runs a heck of an out-and-up; if Palmer has the time, Fitzgerald on a corner would be tempting, because he’d likely gain half a step on the corner with the fake.

It’s very cool to see how little is left to chance… and yet how big a role chance nevertheless plays with regards to the eventual outcome. There are several important life lessons to be found there. Be sure to read both parts.