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Bruce Arians is a master of the coach-quarterback relationship. What about this one?

Bucs 2019: Will Jameis Winston respond to the cool uncle in the kangol cap?
New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians may be whispering to Jameis Winston, left, but Byron Leftwich will be calling the plays. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians may be whispering to Jameis Winston, left, but Byron Leftwich will be calling the plays. MONICA HERNDON | Times [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 30, 2019

TAMPA —Think of him as the cool uncle. He doesn’t want to be a father figure. At 66, he’s a grandfather. Cool uncle suits him better.

He’s got all the answers to the test when it comes to offensive football after more than four decades on the sidelines. He still voices his instructions with unnecessary roughness.

But Bruce Arians also wants to be the guy you can join in the parking lot for a tailgate after the game and throw back a few cold ones.

“I wasn’t pining to come back to coaching,’’ Arians said. “But I love it.’

“It was like, ‘Oh, yes, I’m ready to do this again. And Jameis. I really believe in Jameis.’’

This is a very big year for Jameis Winston, a quarterback who has been known to run his life as it were a two-minute offense.

Arians is the self-proclaimed Quarterback Whisperer, which is the title of his autobiography. He’s mouthed instructions into the helmets into Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.

Winston will be his last — and arguably — biggest challenge. The Bucs No. 1 pick in the 2015 is in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, a club option that pays him $20.9-million, or roughly $1-million for every win he has produced (21) in his career.

Arians has known Winston since he attended his son’s football camp in Birmingham, Ala., when he was in middle school. He was already famous in those parts. Famous Jameis. Arians watched him win a Heisman Trophy and national championship at Florida State. But in the NFL, Winston has produced only one winning season, torn through two head coaches and got suspended for three games to start 2018 for violating the league’s player conduct policy.

Turnovers have been Winston’s downfall: 58 interceptions and 18 lost fumbles in 56 games. So Arians job will be to teach Winston when to put his foot on the gas and when to put it on the brake.

Will it work? Will this be a brilliant coup that saves the Bucs and their inconsistent quarterback? Or just a desperate maneuver by a reeling organization that has not made the playoffs in 11 years?

This design featuring new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Jameis Winston appears on the cover of the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs preview section, available Sunday on newsstands in  Tampa Bay and delivered to subscribers. To subscribe, go to https://tampabaytimes.subscriber.services/
This design featuring new Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Jameis Winston appears on the cover of the Tampa Bay Times' Bucs preview section, available Sunday on newsstands in Tampa Bay and delivered to subscribers. To subscribe, go to https://tampabaytimes.subscriber.services/ [ MONICA HERNDON | Times ]

‘His corner man’

The relationship between NFL head coach and starting quarterback is one of the most complex, intricate and symbiotic in all of sports. They’re the only people in an organization with a won/loss record attached to their name.

The best combinations win championships. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw.

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They may not always agree on everything, but the bond needs to be stronger than the 5 a.m. coffee.

“It has to be about trust,’’ Arians said. “Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Tell me what you see. It’s so much easier when you take a rookie and mold him than to take a Carson Palmer who’s got three kids and has been in the league 12 years. But you’ve still got to build that trust.’’

To help with that process, Arians has surrounded Winston with assistant coaches that have either played or coached with him at other stops in his journey.

Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, at 39, is young enough to be Winston’s teammate. A first-round pick of the Jaguars in 2003, he played 10 seasons and served as the backup to Big Ben with the Steelers when Arians was the offensive coordinator.

Arians trust in Leftwich is so strong that for the first time in his head coaching career, he’s turning over the play-calling duties to him.

What is the ingredient that every coach/quarterback relationship must have to be successful?

“You always want understanding at your position,’’ Leftwich said. “You don’t really care if they coach offense or defense. You just want them to have an awareness of the position so there’s never any misunderstandings or miscommunications.

“Then you see New England with those two guys and they’ve perfected it, right? But I’m quite sure they both have an understanding of it very similar to each other… It’s a unique relationship and you have to look at it that way. And if you don’t work at it, you’re going to fail at it.’’

Arians hired Clyde Christensen as his quarterbacks coach. Their relationship goes back to when he was on Arians’ staff at Temple in the mid-80’s. But he also has coached Manning and Luck in Indianapolis and been part of two Super Bowl appearances.

Christensen says quarterbacks such as Winston need to know you will stick with them through thick and thin.

“You’d better be in their corner,’’ Christensen said. “They got to know you’re for them because they don’t know who to trust. You’re 23 years old, you’ve got $60 million, you’re in a strange city, with a crappy team and you don’t know anyone there.

"We all know how hard it is to find a handful of great friends or people you can trust and for those guys, you know there’s so much money involved and so many people that want to associate with them. I believe more than ever that I need to be his corner man and support him. You call it like it is. But they’ve got to know you’re for them.’’

Winston is a people pleaser. Until this season, the only offense he ran belonged to Dirk Koetter, who was his offensive coordinator when he was a rookie before being promoted to head coach the following season.

“I’m going to go to work regardless,’’ Winston said. “But it’s always a plus when the new coach believes in you.’’

The Bucs have surrounded Jameis Winston with a new offensive brain trust, including quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen (center) and running game coordinator Harold Goodwin (right). OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
The Bucs have surrounded Jameis Winston with a new offensive brain trust, including quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen (center) and running game coordinator Harold Goodwin (right). OCTAVIO JONES | Times [ Times ]

A cadre of quarterback communicators

So what is the secret to Arians’ success with quarterbacks? Really, it begins with tenants he believes all the greats must have: a big heart, grit, intelligence and some athleticism.

Arians has always said if he could construct the perfect quarterback, he would have the heart and head of Manning, the grit and leadership of Big Ben, the athleticism of Luck and the arm of Carson Palmer.

Coaching Manning was a challenge. “Because he was so used to never standing still at practice,’’ Arians said. When it was a defensive period during practice, he’d take the receivers, tight ends and running backs on other field and keep throwing.

“They got to where they knew if they worked with him on the side, they were getting the ball Sunday,’’ Arians said.

By his third year in Pittsburgh, Arians turned the offense over to Roethlisberger and let him re-write the playbook. He took ownership of the system and wound up calling his own plays.

“Peyton needed a volume of information to play,’’ Arians said. “Ben, whoa, that was the worst thing. Give him the nuts and bolts and let him play. And I got to where I let him call plays then take the no huddle and run with it.’’

Winston has all those qualities and perhaps more. Still, Arians has to discover how to tap into his potential.

Luck, who stunned the NFL by announcing his retirement Saturday, said at the Pro Bowl last January, that Arians was a straight shooter.

“He’s great,’’ Luck said. “He challenges you. I think he’s honest. The good. The bad. The ugly. He’s a fun guy to be around with a great personality.

“The year we had when I was a rookie was magical in many regards and it helped me grow as a quarterback there.’’ With Arians serving as interim coach while Chuck Pagano recovered from leukemia, the Colts went 11-5 and Arians was named NFL Coach of the Year.

Between Leftwich, Christensen and 80-year-old Tom Moore, a special consultant, Arians has surrounded Winston with great coaches and communicators.

But Arians also is hands on. He’s constantly popping out of hallways in the training facility or into the meeting room to quiz Winston on one play against a specific defensive look or two.

“He’s kind of like that conscience’’ Winston said. “He pops on your shoulder. He sees you walking down the hallway, or he’ll stick his head in the quarterback room and give those little tidbits to kind of enhance our thinking process.’’

Winston will benefit from Arians scheme that makes running backs more available in the passing game. He still wants to take shots downfield whenever possible. But because ArianS likes to get all five eligible receivers out, the defense can always bring more pass rushers than you can block, putting the onus on the quarterback for his own protection by getting rid of the football.

“I want to be coached hard and he expects the most out of the quarterback position because at the end of the day, we’re basically a coach on the football field,’’ said Bucs backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who played for Arians in Arizona. “To have that quarterback-head coach relationship, it’s huge. And it’s instrumental in any NFL franchise.’’

Will it work? It’s a team game. But if anybody can get the most out of Winston, it might be the crazy cool uncle who’s always going to have his back.

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


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