TAMPA — As a backup quarterback for the Steelers, Byron Leftwich sat down one day to watch a 19-year-old redshirt freshman make his first start for Florida State against the Pitt Panthers. The kid couldn't miss.
Every pass had eyes as he connected on 25-of-27 for 356 yards with four touchdowns in a 41-13 win over the Panthers.
The size, the arm, the ability to extend plays? Watching Jameis Winston that day reminded him of Ben Roethlisberger.
"I've always said that," Leftwich said of the comparison to Big Ben. "I always remember watching Jameis' first game (at Florida State) in Pittsburgh when he was a college football player, and I won't say who was around the table, but we were talking about Jameis back then. We were talking about how for a kid to be able to come in and do what he did and in his first game, I remember like it was yesterday. The people that were sitting at the table, we knew this kid had a chance to be really, really good."
Now Leftwich is in charge of determining how good Winston can be for the Bucs.
A nine-year NFL quarterback who played one season in Tampa Bay, Leftwich was introduced Friday as the Bucs offensive coordinator. At 39, he will be the play caller for new coach Bruce Arians and "joined at the hip" with Winston.
When asked how important it is for the team to know who their starting quarterback is, Leftwich interrupted.
"It's Jameis," Leftwich said. "I think it's a very important thing. I've been in as a quarterback going through this league. I've been through the highs of highs and the lows of lows, right? So, I always tell guys that I've been through the blender. I've been the franchise quarterback and then I was the guy that nobody said can ever play and that's just part of playing quarterback in this business. As a team, the locker room knows who the quarterback of this football team is, we know who the quarterback of this football team is."
Arians has called Leftwich a "rising star" in coaching. In truth, his career choice began even before his playing days ended. He was the Jaguars' seventh overall pick from Marshall in 2003. But a series of ankle injuries derailed his career, and sandwiched between one season in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, Leftwich had two stints with the Steelers as Roethlisberger's backup.
In reality, standing next to Arians, who was the Steelers' offensive coordinator at the time, he had already begun coaching.
"I was the backup to Ben, so I was able to be an extra set of eyes and ears for Ben," Leftwich said. "(Arians) would talk to me about certain stuff and I would talk to Ben.
"Ben's a special guy, so he sees it in a unique way. To be in a room with a player that was that good, to really be in the room and see how he does things and executes things — I used to think it was luck, but then you watch it and you say, 'Damn, this is a skill-set. This guy can really play.' "
Leftwich hasn't studied Winston yet. Not the way he will on film. He knows only Blake Bortles has more turnovers than the Bucs quarterback in the past four years, but he isn't going to guess the cause of it. Every turnover has a story, but the book on Winston is that he doesn't protect the football. But he doesn't want to guess at the root of the problem.
"He's been a playmaker from the second he got in this league," Leftwich said. "This kid's played four years and he's only 25 or something like that? It's amazing, the situations that he's already been in and experience he's gained being in this league, so I'm excited about that."
The play-calling duties are a lot to heap on Leftwich, especially considering how important this year is for Winston, who is in the final year of his rookie contract and playing under the club option of $20.92 million.
"I'm quite sure there will be differences," Leftwich said. "It'll still be, 'No risk it, no biscuit,' just Part II."
If not for Arians, Leftwich may have been part of Dirk Koetter's coaching staff in 2016. Leftwich just wanted to get away after retiring as a player and had been offered a number of jobs.
"Dirk calls me, says, 'I need you,' " Leftwich said. "I was like, 'I don't know, Coach.' I was still playing a lot of golf. I had a relationship with Dirk and I had a relationship with B.A. B.A. was like, 'get your (expletive) butt out here so you can learn it!' "
Leftwich probably learned the most last year when he was asked to call plays for the first time in his career after the Cardinals fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
What everyone knows about Leftwich is this: maybe as much as Arians, he will be the coach most responsible for getting Winston back on the right path. He has to make him play in the NFL like the kid who couldn't miss that day in Pittsburgh during his college debut.
“Yeah, we are connected at the hip,” Leftwich said of Winston. “I think a team only goes as far as their quarterback can lead them … I am excited to learn things about Jameis that he doesn’t know I know. There are a lot of great things said about this kid and I am just excited to get an opportunity to work with him.”