TAMPA — Among the assistant coaching hires that new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians made over the past several days, making former NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich a full-time offensive coordinator and play-caller is arguably the most intriguing.
Leftwich, who was formally introduced Friday afternoon, isn’t new to coordinating duties. He served in an interim role with Arizona last season when coordinator Mike McCoy was fired, but this will be the first time Leftwich will get to develop his own offense. Arians has gushed about Leftwich being a rising coaching star, and he’s made a quick ascent from being an intern with the Cardinals in 2016. He was promoted to quarterbacks coach in 2017, Arians' last season with the Cardinals
Leftwich, 39, played nine seasons in the NFL, including his first four with the Jacksonville Jaguars, posting a 24-20 record as a starter there. His connection to Arians dates back to his playing days — he was a backup quarterback for Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2010 when Arians was the Steelers' offensive coordinator. That’s where Leftwich’s coaching seed was planted.
It’s easy to see why Arians thinks highly of Leftwich. He’s engaging, thoughtful and seems to be a good fit for quarterback Jameis Winston in that he has an NFL quarterbacking resume and has seen the highs and lows as a player. He can relate.
Here are five things we took from Leftwich’s introduction Friday:
He has faith in quarterback Jameis Winston
Asked about last year’s quarterback carousel, Leftwich interrupted the question by succinctly saying, 'It’s Jameis." He seen a lot of Winston, but knows there’s so much more to learn. He’s intrigued to work with him because he knows the rare skill set and immense potential Winston possesses. He said that the quarterback and offensive play-caller should be “connected at the hip,” and he plans for it to be that way.
“I believe in this kid,” Leftwich said. “This kid can really play. I think there’s things we all need to get better at every individual player, but I’m really excited to work with him."
Winston opened Leftwich’s eyes when he attended his first game at Florida State. (The Seminoles were playing at Pittsburgh and Leftwich was playing for the Steelers), and he’s followed his career since then.
“He’s a playmaker,” Leftwich said. “It’s amazing, the situations he’s already been in, the experience he’s gained from being in this league. So I’m excited about that. ... You put your playmakers in the best position to make plays, and we’ll do that. We’re going to go that to the best of our ability. ... It’s hard to find better (personnel), especially on the offensive side of the football, anywhere, so we’re excited to get working with Jameis and excited to get working with the other guys.”
He’s had a coaching mentality for years
Leftwich said he established his coaching mindset during his days in Pittsburgh as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger when Arians was the Steelers offensive coordinator. As a player, Leftwich was a pocket passer, a self-proclaimed "X's and O's" guy who was a dropback passer who didn't leave the pocket much.
But playing with Roethlisberger and watching how he could move around and extend and make plays with his feet opened his mind to a different way of being a quarterback, and it stimulated him to think of different ways to look at an offensive playbook and run the quarterback position.
“I used to think it was luck,” Leftwich said of watching Roethlisberger in 2008, 2010 and 2012. "And then you watch him and you’re like, ‘Damn, it’s a skill set.’ This is really how he plays the football game. It’s him.”
Now, he inherits a quarterback more similar to Roethlisberger’s skill set in Winston.
OC trial by fire was most beneficial time as a coach
Leftwich opened last season as Arizona's quarterbacks coach, but was given offensive coordinator duties with McCoy was fired in after the Cardinals started 1-6. Arizona finished 3-13 and was ravaged by injuries, but Leftwich said those two months as interim OC were the most valuable he's had as a coach because of the adversity he faced.
“I got better as a coach last year just being in that situation, being in a situation that’s not ideal because everyone’s hurt,” he said. “Sometimes we had seven or eight rookies in the huddle. Those type of things were things that I learned that I never experienced in my early years of coaching. I got the opportunity to experience those things and I think I became a better coach.”
He’s humbled by Arians giving him playcalling duties
During his time in Arizona, Arians held on to play-calling duties, and he said last week that when he eventually gave them away, it would be with no restrictions. He's decided to give them to Leftwich, and Leftwich seemed to have a twinkle in his eye when describing what it means to him that Arians has handed that job off to him.
“It’s a great thing because you’ve got to know B.A.,” Leftwich said. “You know he’s not really doing this for anybody. You know he don’t care how close you are, how much of friends you are. He knows you’ve got to be capable and willing to do the job before he do something like this. That’s the amazing thing about it. I’m excited about it. I can’t wait.” Leftwich said his play calling will be somewhat different than Arians' but, “it will still be, ‘No risk it, no biscuit,’ just Part II. But the good thing is I’ll have him there.”
He learned plenty from his brief time with the Bucs
Leftwich’s brief Bucs career wasn’t successful in terms of wins and losses — he was benched three games into the 2009 season following an 0-3 start as the team turned to Josh Johnson — but Leftwich said he learned a lot from losing in Tampa Bay.
“You learn a lot more in those moments than when you’re going 12-4 or 13-3 to be honest with you. I’ve been in both situations, 12-4, 3-13, and trust me, 3-13, you learn a lot. Now you may learn what not to do, but you’re still learning. Sometimes it’s great to be in those situations. I believe you become a better player and a better coach because it forces you to look for other opportunities to be successful.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.