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Byron Leftwich runs the Bucs offense, but retains a bit of Bruce Arians flair

This is the first season that the head coach will entrust play calling to another, and Leftwich doesn’t expect him to hover ... much.
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) talks with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich during warmups before a preseason game against the Browns at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 23.
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) talks with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich during warmups before a preseason game against the Browns at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 23. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 6, 2019|Updated Sep. 7, 2019

TAMPA — Bruce Arians jokes that his biggest opponent in Sunday’s Bucs season opener might be boredom.

With Arians emerging from retirement to rebuild the Bucs, this game against the 49ers will be the 66-year-old’s first on the sideline in the regular season in 18 years in which he won’t be calling offensive plays.

A big part of his return to coaching after retiring in 2017 has been delegating more. Though calling plays is very much a part of Arians’ identity as a coach — he started doing it in 2007 as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator and continued through his five-year tenure as the Cardinals’ head coach — he talked the Bucs into allowing him to hand off his play card to Byron Leftwich, his backup quarterback in Pittsburgh and whom Arians sees as a offensive mastermind in the making.

The Bucs’ version of Arians’ “No risk it, no biscuit” offense is still the head coach’s, with wrinkles added by Leftwich. But Arians said he’ll take only one 5-hour Energy shot before the game, not his typical two.

“(It’s) boring,” Arians deadpanned about not calling plays during games. (He let his Cardinals offensive coordinator, Harold Goodwin — now the Bucs’ assistant head coach/run-game coordinator — call offensive plays during two Arizona preseasons to give him the experience.)

“I watch the scoreboard more than anything,” Arians said. “It gives me a chance to turn my back and talk to the defense or talk to the special teams, when I couldn’t before. (I’m) trusting the fact that they’re going to handle this (and) I can go handle something else (and) get the situation ready rather than flipping buttons and try to get guys on the headset.

“It’s a lot easier to so-called ‘manage’ the game.”

This is Leftwich’s first time as a full-time play-caller. He was the interim offensive coordinator last year in Arizona after Mike McCoy was fired in October, running McCoy’s offense.

Asked whether he believes Arians will be in his ear regularly, Leftwich smiled. “Not that much, I promise you, not that much,” he said.

“He has his moments, but not that much,” Leftwich said. “He’ll be more bored than anything, just because he’s used to being active. But he has a lot of time to get at those referees now. And he’s doing a great job of that.

“We always talk, though. We were always talking in-between series even when he was calling plays. It won’t be no different. It’s just that I’m calling the plays now.”

The offense remains focused on quick passing, throwing the ball downfield with a balanced running game.

“The best part of (Arians) and Byron is you throw the football,” said backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who played for Arians in Arizona in 2017. “As a quarterback, that’s what you want. It’s beautiful. Once you get into a rhythm in their system, it just starts clicking, and it’s full speed ahead.”

Arians is known as the quarterback whisperer, and he has always prided himself in giving his quarterback a voice in scripting plays. He did that with Leftwich when he was a player, and it’s a tradition Leftwich is carrying over in working with Jameis Winston.

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“I think he had a plan, (and) he stuck to his plan,” Arians said of Leftwich. “He did a good job of communicating with the quarterbacks — each one, what they like.

“We do it a little bit different in the Saturday night meeting. We let them pick the plays: third down, red zone. … You’re not going to be the guy in the headset — ‘I really like this play,’ (and the quarterback is) like, ‘Well, I don’t like that play,’ (and you say), ‘Well, I’m going to call it anyway.’ It isn’t going to work. (Leftwich) did a great job with that.”

Winston loves that Leftwich, who played 10 NFL seasons, knows what it’s like to be in the huddle. It’s no secret that Arians anticipated that match. And from a player’s perspective, there might not be a better person than Leftwich to relay what it’s like to play in an Arians offense.

“The relatability that we have and the credibility that (Leftwich) has with being in this offense, it just helps you so much,” Winston said. “There is also a lot that you can learn from him.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.

Bucs Preview 2019

A look ahead at Bruce Arians’ first year in Tampa Bay and a critical season for Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.


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