TAMPA — Forty-some years of working with Hall of Famers and Super Bowl winners were apparently a mere prelude to the moment that may come to define Bruce Arians as an NFL coach. NFC Championship Game. Lambeau Field. Fourth down. Call the punt team off the field.
Is he going for it?
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss
Years ago, Arians discovered a copy of the Rudyard Kipling poem If — that a coach had left in his playbook — and it spoke to his natural sense of aggression. He had been working nights as a bartender at Carlisle’s after football practice back at Virginia Tech, and he would listen to the aging boozers on bar stools talk of the need to grab life with both hands and take chances.
That fourth-down decision in Green Bay two weeks ago — which led to a 39-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller just before halftime — may have been surprising to casual viewers but it fit perfectly in a life and career marked by fearlessness.
You can never play or coach in fear, Arians tells his team. You discover the fine line between smart and reckless and you ride it as far as it will take you. The Kipling philosophy led to his “No Risk it; No Biscuit” motto that he put on T-shirts to raise money for a foster kids program while he was coaching in Arizona.
“It just talks about not being afraid to throw your hat in the ring,” Arians said of the poem. “I hit a lot of (golf) balls in the water going for (the green) in two, knowing I can’t get there. But I’m not going to get there unless I try. And that one out of 10 that makes it? That’s a great feeling. That’s how I live life.”
If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
In a sense, this entire season has been predicated on calculated risks. In 2019, Jameis Winston became the youngest quarterback in NFL history, at 25, to pass for more than 5,100 yards in a season and the Bucs set a franchise record for points. Of course, Winston also threw 30 interceptions.
The safe choice would have been to focus on the positives and hope that Winston’s flaws could be minimized. Arians was having none of that. He was going to willingly walk away from the NFL’s reigning passing leader and a former No. 1 pick to chase a quarterback who was 17 years older.
Certainly, there was appeal to signing Tom Brady. Who wouldn’t want a six-time Super Bowl champion? But was it really wise to risk a franchise’s best chance at winning in more than a decade on a quarterback who was soon to turn 43? Could the offensive line protect him? Could Brady adapt to Arians’ system? Could all of these moving parts come together before Brady grew too old?
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“You can’t hit a home run unless you’re going to swing for one,” Arians said. “You can’t do anything special in life sitting on a fence.”
Signing Brady to a two-year, $50 million deal was the most bold move the Buccaneers had made in nearly two decades. The only thing that comes close was the dual decisions to fire Tony Dungy, then trade two first-round picks and two second-round picks to Oakland to acquire coach Jon Gruden. A little more than 11 months after that trade, the Bucs won their first Super Bowl.
And now, a little less than 11 months after signing Brady, the Bucs are back in the Super Bowl.
Did the Glazer family consider Brady’s signing a gamble?
“Tom had 19 years of success in the NFL, nine Super Bowl appearances and six Super Bowl wins. Based on Tom’s unmatched history, not to mention his experience and leadership, we never thought of signing Tom as a risk,” Bucs owner/co-chairman Bryan Glazer said in an email.
Did they revisit the Gruden decision before signing Brady?
“No, not when we signed Tom,” Glazer said. “But as the season and the playoffs evolved, it did indeed start bringing me back to what happened during our last championship season and I started seeing many similarities.”
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting, too
Quarterbacks in Arians’ offense are given two choices on every passing play — one option to go for the first down and one option to go for the touchdown. On. Every. Play.
No matter the score, the field position or the down-and-distance, Arians gives his quarterbacks the choice of going for broke if they think the play is there. Actually, it’s more than a choice. He implores them to break the bank if they see the right defense.
Which might explain Brady’s passing stats this season. A year ago, he was 27th in the NFL in yards gained per pass attempt. There were whispers that his arm wasn’t strong enough for a vertical attack, and his value was in managing a shorter passing game.
Yet, in his first year with Arians, Brady led the NFL in completions and passing touchdowns on attempts of 20 yards or more, according to Pro Football Focus.
“We’re not going to play scared football,” cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said. “We’ll do what it takes to win. If it’s fourth and 12 and we need to go for it, Arians is going to do what’s necessary to score.”
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With 60 seconds’ worth of distance run
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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