SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Bruce Arians found fountain of youth in Arizona with the Cardinals

Arians, 61, didn't get a head coaching job until last season, as a fill-in for the ill Chuck Pagano at Indianapolis. Now that he leads his own team, Arians feels rejuvenated.

A first chance has given Arizona Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians a second wind.

Arians was an interim coach last season when he led the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs, then became the first fill-in to be named NFL coach of the year. Ten months ago, the Cardinals became the first NFL team to hire him as a head coach, and clearly he's invigorated.

"There's no doubt about that," Arians, 61, said by phone Thursday. "The hours are still the same, but it doesn't feel the same."

Said his son, Jake: "When he was in Pittsburgh [as Steelers offensive coordinator] we'd go to dinner on a Thursday night and he'd be cooked by the time you get to November. But we got to the off week in Arizona and we played golf three days in a row. He had plenty of energy to do it. It's absolute paradise here after [the heat] breaks in September or early October. I think we went three weeks out here without seeing a cloud.

"It's kind of a fountain of youth, rejuvenation thing for him. This will be his last stop, there's no doubt about that, but he's loving it, wants to ride it out and win."

So far so good for Arians, whose team has won three in a row and, at 6-4, has already surpassed the win total of last season's 5-11 Cardinals. The franchise many people expected to be among the league's worst is tied for second with San Francisco in the NFC West heading into Sunday's home game against the Colts.

Already, Arians has made history. Before him, no one had won coach of the year with one team, then faced that team the next season. Then again, it isn't often that a coach of the year is gone the next season, although Arians' situation was different. He was filling in for the cancer-stricken Chuck Pagano and coached the Colts to a 9-3 record in his absence.

And to think it was only a couple of years ago that Arians "retired" for a day after Pittsburgh showed him the door.

"From refired — excuse me, retired — to this, I don't think anybody would have dreamt it," he said at a news conference this week. "It's a fairy tale, it truly is. I hate that to get an opportunity to be a head coach, we had to go through what we went through last year, but it was the only way."

Like their coach, the Cardinals have caught a second wind. They lost two of their first three games, then won two and lost two before putting together their current three-game winning streak. They have beaten three struggling teams in a row — Atlanta, Houston and Jacksonville — so Sunday's game should be a litmus test on how good the Cardinals actually are.

In each of its wins during this streak, Arizona has scored 27 points — more than in any of its first seven games. Quarterback Carson Palmer has been particularly strong, completing 71.4% of his passes against Jacksonville (30 of 42) for 419 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He's the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for at least 400 yards and complete at least 70% of his passes in a win.

"From day one, I've felt comfortable with the approach to this offense," Palmer said. "I like throwing the ball deep, and it's one of my strengths. I enjoy when we get those opportunities, and my eyes will light up a little bit right before I get the ball, just seeing the coverage and knowing that we're going to take a shot."

Palmer and Luck were No. 1 overall picks, selected nine years apart. Arians, who earlier in his career coached Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, said it's a very different challenge teaching a seasoned veteran his offense, as opposed to a rookie.

"Totally different," Arians said. "Because [Palmer has] got all these preconceived notions, having been with four or five other coordinators. 'This play is like that play, and we read it.…' Nope, you don't read it that way.

"When you get a rookie, you can just brainwash him real quick. 'Forget all that stuff from college and start learning at Page 1.' It was very simple when you have a rookie. It's much harder with a veteran player."

That said, Palmer and Arians have clicked — and it helps that the Cardinals have a stout defense that's ranked ninth overall and second against the run. Arians sees opportunity now.

"You get a sense that he knows there's not five or six other head coaching jobs down the road in his career," the quarterback said. "You get the sense that he's going to make this one count."

There's little doubt that Arians is in the final chapter of his career. But with his newfound energy and enthusiasm for his job, sometimes that's hard to believe.

Said Luck: "He's got an incredibly young soul."

And getting younger by the day.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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