Why Bruce Arians loves quarterbacks

The Bucs' new head coach has a love affair with the position and those who play it that goes back to Johnny Unitas.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roehlisberger, left, talks with backup quarterback Charlie Batch, right, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians on the sidelines during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/ Gene J.  Puskar)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roehlisberger, left, talks with backup quarterback Charlie Batch, right, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians on the sidelines during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/ Gene J. Puskar)
Published January 9
Updated January 9

TAMPA — For new Bucs coach Bruce Arians, success begins with developing a bond with his quarterback. And not only does Arians already have a history with Jameis Winston, he believes he's capable of winning a Super Bowl.

Winston stood out to Arians as a teenager, when Winston wowed him at the quarterback camps he held in Arizona. So in that context, the marriage between Arians — the known quarterback whisperer and a 25-year-old Winston still trying to reach his potential as he enters his fifth NFL season — is a fitting one.

Arians loves his quarterbacks. Some of the game's best quarterbacks enjoyed their best seasons under Arians' guidance, and in Tampa Bay, Arians' offense will center around Winston.

"There's no doubt," Arians said on The Rich Eisen Show on Wednesday, his first interview since becoming Bucs coach. "The whole thing is going to be built around him. I think he can win it all. He has the intelligence, the toughness and obviously the arm ability to lead a team. Now we've got to put the right pieces around him."

Arians is a self-described risk-taker. He loves the deep ball, and is always looking for an opportunity to move the ball vertically. He never wants to be confused for being conservative. He hates it when teams run out the clock on the ground.

And whether he's been a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator or head coach, he prides himself in getting the most out of his quarterbacks because he knows what makes them tick. He was one, so he knows that the quarterback is the connection to the sideline, the leader on the field and the key to success.

And he gives his quarterback free reign to go for the jugular.

He said he will always give his quarterback two options on every play — one to get a first down, and another to get a touchdown, no matter the field position, down or distance.

"Bruce is a gambler at heart," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said in Arians' book, The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback. "And he's always thinking about how he can set up a defense to deliver that knockout punch. That's why quarterbacks love playing for him: He takes as many shots down the field as any coach in the NFL. And he never — never — plays scared."

Arians' resume includes mentoring four All-Pro quarterbacks: Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.

Now, Arians will have another project in Winston.

Arians is known as the game's premier "quarterback whisperer," in part because he's managed to get the most out of his quarterbacks, even when they've been in different points in their careers.

• As the Colts' quarterbacks coach, he did deep research on Manning coming out of college and was a big part in Indianapolis selecting Manning over Ryan Leaf. He nurtured Manning through his NFL growing pains and confidence issues — sometimes with tough love — on his way to becoming one of the best to play the position

• As Steelers offensive coordinator, Arians helped Roethlisberger become less free-wheeling, improving his completion percentage and lowering his interceptions while helping Pittsburgh win Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

• As Colts offensive coordinator and later interim head coach, he helped a vastly talented but awkward Luck reach his potential during his rookie season, a year that saw Luck orchestrate seven game-winning drives and pass for 4,300 yards.

• And as Cardinals head coach, Arians guided Palmer to the best season of his career in 2015, when Palmer was coming off his second knee surgery at the age of 36.

In his book, Arians said a quarterback needs heart, grit, smarts, leadership accuracy and athleticism, and he draws up the prefect quarter back as a sum of those four signal callers: Manning's heart and mind, Roethlisberger's grit and leadership, Luck's athleticism and Palmer's arm.

So why has Arians had such success with quarterbacks? The answer lies in Arians himself. He loves the dynamic of the position. He's enamored with it. Since the age of 8, he was a quarterback. He played the position at Virginia Tech — sitting behind future 15-year NFL veteran Don Strock until getting the starting job his senior season — before getting into coaching.

Growing up in York, Pa., just north of the Maryland state line, Arians was a Baltimore Colts fan, and his first quarterback study was none other than Johnny Unitas. Even as a kid, he marveled at Unitas' patented over-the-top delivery. And it was studying Unitas when Arians learned you don't have to be the most athletic or have the strongest arm to be the greatest.

Arians studied Otto Graham's career. He saddled up to Joe Namath when Namath returned to his alma mater when Arians was an assistant at Alabama under Bear Bryant. He met Ken Stabler at a bar once in Alabama and picked his brain as a band played in the background.

Over his coaching career, Arians has been a sponge, taking in every detail he could about what makes quarterbacks great. He believes listening is more important than yelling. His knowledge of offenses is deep, and his quarterbacks can trust him. To be a quarterback under Arians, you have to have the same passion, the same commitment to film study, grinding in practice and passion for the game.

"I'd venture to say that B.A. knows more about quarterbacking and play calling than any other coach in the NFL," Palmer said in Arians' book. "Good luck if you're a defensive coordinator and you want to surprise him. B.A. has the answer to every question the defense throws at him. And if you're his quarterback and you're struggling with something in your mechanics, B.A. will know exactly what the problem is and what needs to be done to solve it."

But his best talent in connecting with his quarterbacks is getting in touch with their personalities and knowing what makes them tick.

When scouting Manning out of the University of Tennessee, he knew his pedigree as the son of Archie Manning. He knew Manning's penchant for film study, something he'd done as a kid as the son of an NFL quarterback. He also knew that Manning, the middle child of the family, needed a little pushing. When he was in his second NFL season, Manning asked out of a blowout against the Patriots after throwing three interceptions.

"(Expletive) no, get back in there," Arians told him. "We'll go no-huddle and maybe you'll learn something. You can never ask to come out. You're a leader. Act like it." Manning led the Colts to their only touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

Another time against the Patriots, Arians — sensing that Manning was nervous (Arians said whenever Manning adjusted his left kneepad, it means he was upset about something) fed into Manning's meticulousness, telling him before a game that his footwork was all off. Manning spent the pregame concentrating on perfecting his dropback and less on his nerves.

The Colts snapped their three-game losing streak against New England that day with a 20-15 win.

When Arians took over coordinator duties in Pittsburgh, he invited Roethlisberger to play golf with him in Georgia. Over beers, he invited Roethlisberger to help him rewrite the Steelers playbook to include more plays that he wanted to run. Roethlisberger jumped at the chance — overhauling the playbook and talking more ownership of the offense. Arians said that's something he'd done with all of his quarterbacks, empowering them to give input on the play scripting of every game, because he said, it doesn't matter how much he might like a play, if his quarterback doesn't, it won't matter.

Arians already has a history with Winston, who attended Arians' football camps in Alabama as a kid. He's known Winston for a long time, and that relationship has to be an intriguing part of the hire for Arians, Winston and the Bucs. His success in Tampa will be tied to that of Winston's.

"The most important relationship a head coach has on his team isn't with the other coaches, the owner or the general manager," Arians said in his book. "It's with the quarterback. He's the one who runs the show on the field; He's the ultimate extension of his coach. If there isn't a high level of mutual trust between them, both coach and quarterback will be doomed."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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