Bucs expect Byron Leftwich, Todd Bowles to be hot candidates

The Bucs could lose one or both coordinators after NFL teams cut ties with head coaches on Black Monday.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich may be in the NFL head coaching hunt at the end of the season.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich may be in the NFL head coaching hunt at the end of the season. [ Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2019

TAMPA ― We are less than a week from Black Monday, when many NFL teams will announce their head coach has been relieved of his duties, dismissed, stepped down, had ties severed or mutually agreed to part ways. In other words, they fired the bum.

Already, there are head coaching job openings in Carolina and Washington. By the end of business Monday, resumes may be requested by the Falcons, Chargers, Browns, Jaguars, Cowboys, Giants and Lions.

What is one man’s misfortune is just opportunity knocking for someone else. Somebody will have to open the door at the Bucs training facility.

The Bucs may finish 7-9 or 8-8 in the first season under Bruce Arians, but he knows he will have a tough time hanging on to Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles. Both Bucs coordinators should at least land interviews for NFL head coaching jobs as early as next week.

“I would hope so,” Arians said Monday.

What does that mean for the Bucs?

We’ll get that to later, but let’s understand why Leftwich and Bowles are likely to be on some radars.

Related: Bruce Arians: Bucs need to keep this defense together

Leftwich won’t turn 40 until next month. He has only coached three seasons. It took Arians five years to talk him off the golf course when he hired him as the Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks coach in 2017.

But now Leftwich feels as if he has been preparing for this his whole life.

It’s rare to find a former NFL quarterback in the head coaching game but many of them have been successful. The list includes the Eagles’ Doug Pederson, the Saints Sean Payton, the Colts Frank Reich, the Cowboys Jason Garrett, the Cardinals Kliff Kingsbury and the Bengals Zac Taylor, who was cut in training camp once by the Bucs.

Leftwich was a first-round pick of the Jaguars, so he understands the quarterback position and the stress that comes with it.

While he served as the Cardinals offensive coordinator for the final eight games of 2018 when Mike McCoy was fired, this is Leftwich’s first time calling plays for an NFL team.

There have been some hiccups, and it’s true Arians has a copy of the play list on his arm in case he needs to step in and take over.

But for the most part, whatever is responsible for the Bucs success on offense, Leftwich deserves a ton of credit.

The Bucs own the league’s third-best overall offense, producing 405.5 yards per game. That’s topped only by Baltimore (414.5 ypg) and Dallas (425.8).

Tampa Bay also is third in points with 29.1 per game, which trails only the Ravens and 49ers. They also are tied for ninth in yards per play with 5.9 and own a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles talks with cornerback Jamel Dean during training camp.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles talks with cornerback Jamel Dean during training camp. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]
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The downside, of course, has been the lack of a consistent running game and not getting quarterback Jameis Winston to stop turning the football over. The Bucs are 25th in rushing offense, averaging 92.3 yards per game.

It appears the Packers‘ Matt LaFleuer, at 11-3, is the only member of the 2019 class among the first-year head coaches headed to the playoffs this season.

Could Leftwich, with such minimal experience as a position coach and offensive play-caller, be ready for such a leap?

“I think so,’’ Arians said. “To me, for a young coach it’s who you hire. Who are going to hire? Are you going to run the offense? I think with the right people and the right GM and ownership he’s more than ready.’’

Arians would probably like to see Leftwich hire an experienced assistant coach, the way the Rams Sean McVay surrounded himself with experience when he made Wade Phillips the team’s defensive coordinator.

But Leftwich oozes poise and stays on message. This season, he has had no problem fielding tough questions about Winston’s 28 interceptions. You can’t get to be a good head coach without knowing how to side-step a few landmines.

Bowles is a different case. He’s 56. He was 24-40 in four seasons as the New York Jets head coach and the Big Apple soured on him after debuting with a 10-6 record.

Bowles doesn’t offer flowery quotes, nor is he glib in news conferences. But Bowles can command a room and the improvement of the Bucs players on defense is evidence he knows what it’s supposed to look like.

In Tampa Bay, Bowles quickly built the NFL’s top rushing defense, which allows 72.9 yards per game. The Bucs rose from last in the NFL it total defense to 15th overall. They are tied for fourth in the league in turnovers with 27.

The Bucs’ young secondary grew up. Last week, they held an explosive and playoff-bound Texans team to 13 points (10 came off turnovers).

Bowles signed a three-year deal with the Bucs, meaning he has some leverage on teams and can wait for the perfect opportunity. What if Bowles didn’t get another head coaching job and returned for 2020? “It’d be big ― very big,’’ Arians said.

Of course, Arians would do his best to fill those positions with members of his coaching staff next year if Leftwich or Bowles were to be hired as a head coach. Potentially, Arians could even resume play-calling duties, although that seems unlikely.

“Yeah, you try to have the next ones up and the young ones ready to take their place,’’ Arians said.

Barring something unforeseen, it appears at least Arians will return to the Bucs for 2020. But that doesn’t mean everyone on his coaching staff will be staying put.