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Byron Leftwich bids to be the right man for the Bucs’ hardest job

At 39, the first-time offensive coordinator is tasked with running the offense and helping Jameis Winston deliver a winner
Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich talks to reporters during offseason assistant coach availability Thursday in Tampa. [ONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published May 2
Updated May 3

TAMPA — When Byron Leftwich was in middle school, he wanted to catch touchdown passes. Once, the quarterback overthrew him in practice. He was supposed to run the ball back to the huddle, but frustrated, he threw it instead. The ball traveled a long way. Seeing the throw, the coach wanted to know who made the pass.

It was a Wednesday. By Saturday, Leftwich was the starting quarterback.

It seems coaches have always known when Leftwich was ready. They have known it before he did.

That brings us to Bruce Arians. Two years ago, the Bucs coach convinced Leftwich — who spent nine seasons in the NFL, one with the Bucs, the last in 2012 — to put down his golf clubs and pick up a whistle. Now Arians believes Leftwich, 39, is ready to call plays as the offensive coordinator in what is a make-or-break year for Jameis Winston.

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“(Arians) would’ve never given me this job if he didn’t think I could do it,’’ Leftwich said Thursday, “if he didn’t already see me doing it from a lot of aspects. There’s a lot of history there between me and B.A.

“I just want to win. The pressure is to win every year. I don’t know anything different as a player and as a coach.

“All those other things? Those things are for (media members) to think about on Wednesdays and Thursdays and give you stories throughout the year,” Leftwich said. “But as a coach and a player, you never think about that. All you see is the good. As a coach, I don’t know how I could think, ‘What if something doesn’t go right?’ That doesn’t make no sense to me. I see everything going perfect, and I’ll handle it when it don’t.’’

Things have been far from perfect for Winston. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2015 has had only one winning season. Last year he was suspended for three games for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy and benched for three more. Entering the final year of his rookie contact that will pay him $20.9 million, he is tasked learning a new offense and breaking in a first-time offensive coordinator.

Arians will be on the headset and spend plenty of time in the offensive meeting room with Winston, Leftwich and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen.

“I’ll be there, in full force, on the headset,’’ Arians said. “It will give Byron and me a lot of time together, too. We have to watch we don’t overcoach Jameis. Clyde is great at saying, ‘Coach, you’ve got awesome stuff, but I think we’ve got enough.’ Being able to sit with Byron and game plan, I really look forward to that.”

In some ways, Leftwich is the perfect man for this job on a staff of 28 assistants.

Leftwich was the seventh overall pick of the Jaguars in 2003. He had two stints with the Steelers, the last one early this decade with Arians as the offensive coordinator while Leftwich backed up Ben Roethlisberger.

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Leftwich just happened to watch Winston’s first start for Florida State, in 2013 against the University of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Winston reminded him of Big Ben.

Though Leftwich hasn’t spent much time on the grass with Winston since it’s only Phase 2 of the Bucs’ offseason workout program, he likes what he has seen.

“The best thing is we got to run the kid out of the building,’’ Leftwich said. “This kid, Jameis, is here all the time. He’s here all the time working on his craft. So as a coach, you appreciate players that go about it the way he goes about it.

“The first thing I told Jameis was, ‘I just need honesty. I don’t care what the answer is, just give me honesty.’ Because once I know how he’s wired and how he thinks, I can begin to call plays for him. The thing with me and Jameis, it must be truthful.’’

Christensen, who was a first-time NFL offensive coordinator for the Bucs in the final year under Tony Dungy, says Leftwich’s authenticity and resume will help him succeed in the job.

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“He has a great advantage that he played in this offense and he knows coach Arians, and that’s a huge advantage. But I always start with humility,” Christensen said. “People respond to humility, and people respond to teaching. Sometimes you get a false impression in coaching that ‘Hey, I got to set my turf,’ or ‘I got to be a tough guy’ or ‘This is my show.’

“It’s (a) team, and you’re the orchestrator, right? You got all your instruments out there, and you’ve got to bring them together. You don’t have to play any of them, you’ve just got to bring them all together so it sounds good, that the harmony is right.’’

The Bucs have pieces for Leftwich to work with on offense. The receiving corps is deep, led by Mike Evans. Tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate are matchup problems. The offensive line and the run game are works in progress.

“That group may not be looked highly at around the league,’’ Leftwich said of running backs Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. “But I like where we’re at there, to be honest with you.’’

But face it, Arians is taking a leap of faith with Leftwich. What is it based on?

“He’s the smartest quarterback I’ve ever coached, including Peyton (Manning) and Andrew (Luck),’’ Arians said. “Bugging him to get off the golf course and start coaching, I knew how good he was going to be.

“You just have to be able to recognize those guys that are going to be rising stars, and they’re not often. (Leftwich has) exuded that his whole career.’’

Sometimes, you just have to trust your eyes.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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