Niyo: ‘Geritol Crew’ coaches add life, wisdom to Super Bowl party

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

We’re talking about the Super Bowl here, so we might as well start with the food. And begin with what the two coaches are bringing to the party as the Chiefs and Buccaneers meet Sunday in Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

On one side, you’ve got Andy Reid, Kansas City’s affable coach, who draws up trick plays with names like “Smoked Sausage” and celebrates wins by ordering cheeseburgers. With his Chiefs chasing history this weekend, trying to become the first team since 2004 to repeat as Super Bowl champs, Reid says with a grin, “I’m going to eat a double cheeseburger if that happens.”

Meanwhile, on the other sideline, you’ve got Bruce Arians, the swashbuckling leader of the Buccaneers, who says he survived a 27-day vegan diet a few years ago — doctor’s orders after a bout with kidney cancer — by sneaking bacon in with his brussels sprouts. Yet Arians is around to tell that story at another Super Bowl this week, at least in part because has spent most of his 45-year coaching career living — and dying, though not literally — by the mantra, “No risk it, no biscuit.”

“Oh, I’ve heard it quite a few times this year,” said Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who chose Arians and the Bucs in free agency after two decades of toiling in New England. “I really love his approach.”

And we all do, if we’re being honest. Which is why this just might be the perfect Super Bowl matchup to cap a contentious, COVID-confined 2020 season for the NFL. With two teams that promise to bring the goods when it comes to entertainment value, led by two coaches that seemingly everyone can root for, if only because neither is willing to act their age.

Conservative? Ha! Old school? Try again. No, this title game featuring Reid, who turns 63 next month, matching wits with the 68-year-old Arians – the oldest coaching combo in Super Bowl history – promises to be nothing like a boring game of bingo.

Did you see that fourth-down call Reid made in the Chiefs’ divisional playoff win over Tennessee? Or the one Arians dialed up just before halftime of the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field?

“We’re playing in a league with a lot of good young offensive-minded coaches,” noted Steve Mariucci, the former Lions and 49ers coach who is now an NFL Network analyst.  “But it’s the old-timers that got to the Super Bowl.”

Reid had a little fun with that storyline this week, as you’d expect.

“I’m still part of the ‘Geritol Crew,’” he insisted, when a reporter noted Arians has him beat by half a decade on the birth certificate. “We are a little bit older, and there is experience that comes with that. And I guess they say wisdom (comes) with age.”

Secret to longevity

But the secret to both coaches’ success — and longevity — is evident in the way their teams play. Sure, these are arguably the two most talented rosters in the NFL, led by Brady and Patrick Mahomes and cast of other All-Pro talents. (The Saints and Ravens and Packers certainly can make a case there, too.) Yet more than anything, Reid and Arians seem to understand their job is to teach — empowering their coaches and players in the process — and then get out of the way.

No risk it, no biscuit, remember?

 “It’s really just, ‘Attack,’” said Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, whom Arians has entrusted with play-calling duties to help lower his own stress level. “This is an aggressive league. This league is about scoring. This ain’t the same league where you ran the ball and got 2 yards on first down. This is a different league. And that slogan fits perfect for the way the game is being played now.”

For Arians, it has always been this way, though. Go back to his first game as a college head coach, at Temple in 1983, when he called a fake punt from his own 1-yard line. (The Owls converted and won, by the way.)

“When I was young, one of my coaches put the poem, ‘If,’ by Rudyard Kipling in our playbook and it just talks about not being afraid to throw your hat in the ring,” Arians said. “Fail or win, bounce back and keep on going. I do apply it to everyday life. You’re not guaranteed the next day.

“I hit a lot of balls in the water going for it in two knowing I can’t get there, but I ain’t going to get there unless I try. And that one out of 10 that makes it, it’s a great feeling. So yeah, that’s how I live life.”

And in this, the second act of Brady’s life as an NFL quarterback, that sort of approach surely feels refreshing.

“He coaches to win,” Brady said of Arians. “And I don’t think there’s any fear he has about things not going the right way. … He wants us to go out there and perform at our best, and he’s not gonna hold anything back.”

Reid won’t either, as we’ve all seen, watching him throw caution to the wind time and time again, which is admittedly easier to do with Mahomes at quarterback.

Free-for-all starts

Still, while most NFL coaches draw up trick plays and wait for the right time to spring them, none treat the process like a fifth-grade science fair project quite the way Reid does. The collaborative free-for-all starts with the conception and design of some of the trick plays that have become the Chiefs’ calling card under Reid. Like the homage to Michigan’s 1948 national champs — “Shift The Rose Bowl Right Parade” was the call that set up the Chiefs’ first TD in last year’s Super Bowl — or a tackle-eligible pass to Eric Fisher (“Catch and Release,” get it?) or a double-reverse pass dubbed “Black Pearl” they ran against the Buccaneers back in November.

“We try to have fun with it the best we can, and everybody contributes,” Reid said. “They have a blast with it. So I’ve always encouraged that, throughout my career and I don’t want to stop because I’m old.”

Arians won’t, either, because, as he puts it, “If you’re not looking for new things every year, you’re falling behind.”

And just as it is with the Bucs’ biscuit boss, when you listen to Reid explain what it means to be called a “players’ coach” in a league overrun by control freaks, you begin to understand why “everyone loves him so much,” as Chiefs All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce says, adding, “He’s just got an unbelievable way of getting the best out of everybody.”

“I know how I like to be treated, and that’s ‘Tell me what I need to do to get better at what I’m trying to get accomplished,’’” Reid said. “You don’t necessarily have to yell and scream at me to get me to do something better. I mean, I don’t think that’s the best approach. I think after a little while, I just would turn that person off and probably not listen to anything that they said. So I kind of go about it (a different) way.”

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His way has proven to be a winner, with 16 playoff appearances in 22 seasons as an NFL head coach. Throw in Reid’s time as an assistant in Green Bay, and it’s 22 postseason appearances in 30 years, half of those that included a berth in the conference title game. And yet until last year’s Super Bowl title, Reid, who’d won more games than any coach in history without a championship, was known mostly for his failures in the spotlight.

Maybe it’s no accident he and Arians both coach like they’ve got nothing to lose. Arians coached under Paul “Bear” Bryant when he was in his early 30s, made a name for himself in his late 40s as Peyton Manning’s first quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, and then won a pair of Super Bowls as an assistant with the Steelers in his 50s. But he didn’t get a shot to be a head coach until he was 60, when he took over the Colts’ job on an interim basis after Chuck Pagano took a leave of absence due to a leukemia diagnosis.

“I was the winning Super Bowl offensive coordinator and didn’t even get a phone call,” Arians said. “So the lack of opportunities has made me want to give more opportunities to more people.”

Indeed, all three of Arians’ coordinators in Tampa are Black, and the Bucs’ coaching staff also includes two women, an inclusive approach that’s not lost on the twenty-somethings in his locker room, either.

“I think Bruce has done a good job of relating to his players,” Mariucci said. “Different generation, but they ‘get’ him and he ‘gets’ them.”

And together, he and Reid get to go have some fun this weekend.

“Someone told me it’s the two oldest coaches combined to ever coach in the Super Bowl, and I’m not sure that’s a mark either one of us want,” Reid said, chuckling. “But we’ve got it now, so somebody else can come break that record.”

Then again, maybe they’ll just come back and break it themselves next year.

Twitter: @johnniyo

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