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Many happy returns? Start with the Bucs coordinators

The Bucs have 22 starters back from their Super Bowl 55 team. But retaining Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich may make the biggest difference.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has the rare perspective of having seen the game as an NFL player at quarterback.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich has the rare perspective of having seen the game as an NFL player at quarterback. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 1, 2021

TAMPA — Todd Bowles is not shy about critiquing players. When he sees a mistake, he calls it out.

But the Bucs’ defensive coordinator was rendered speechless after watching his linebacker fill up the stat sheet with three sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.

“It wasn’t (a game) that counted, but he was a monster,” said Bowles, smiling. “I’ve critiqued him his whole life and said something, and (Aug. 20), I had nothing to say. He’s driving, so I don’t even ride home with him anymore. I couldn’t believe that it was my son.”

Troy Bowles, a junior at Jesuit High School, is among the top linebackers in the nation for the class of 2023. His brother Todd Jr. is a freshman safety at Rutgers. Bowles’ youngest son, 10-year-old Tyson, may be the best athlete of the three.

“You’re a dad. That’s all you can do is be a dad,” Bowles said. “The coaching stuff is different.”

Here’s what’s not different about the Bucs’ coaching staff this season: Bowles and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich are back.

Say what you want about 22 starters returning from the defending Super Bowl champions. There may be no better continuity for the Bucs than retaining all three coordinators: Bowles, Leftwich and special teams guru Keith Armstrong.

All three have played and coached previously for head coach Bruce Arians.

Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles played eight seasons in the NFL as a safety, mainly for Washington, and started in Super Bowl 22 against the Broncos.
Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles played eight seasons in the NFL as a safety, mainly for Washington, and started in Super Bowl 22 against the Broncos. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Leftwich has the rare perspective of having seen the game as an NFL player at quarterback. Bowles played eight seasons in the NFL as a safety, mainly for Washington, and started in Super Bowl 22 against the Broncos.

Arians called it a farce that the 41-year-old Leftwich didn’t receive a single interview for a head coaching job in the offseason despite helping the Bucs to a championship in only his second full season as a play-caller. Bowles, 57, was the Jets’ head coach from 2015-18, interviewed for the Eagles’ and Falcons’ head coaching jobs, and turned down a meeting with the Lions.

Continuity in the coaching staff is one of a team’s biggest competitive advantages. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady had only three offensive coordinators in his 20 seasons with the Patriots: Charlie Weiss, Bill O’Brien and Josh McDaniels. All three became head coaches in college or the NFL, and McDaniels is back at his old job in New England.

Bowles and Leftwich overcame substantial obstacles to help the Bucs to a Super Bowl win.

Power in patience

Talent wins in the NFL, and Brady arrived in the last offseason as a free agent having been to the Super Bowl nine times and won six Lombardi Trophies. But he was 43, had to learn the terminology of a new offense that emphasized a vertical passing game and was unfamiliar with every player on the roster when he signed in March 2020.

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There also was a pandemic that prevented Leftwich and Brady from working together until August.

“One of the first things we said together is it’s going to take awhile but we’ve got to win while we’re doing it,” Leftwich said. “We didn’t care because we wanted to play good football at the end of the year. And I knew (Brady) was smart. I knew the football he knew, but I knew we needed time on the grass. Because you can tell him we’re putting Mike (Evans) here and Chris (Godwin) there, but he had to see it.

“You can throw to a guy in the summer all you want, but when it’s in the huddle, controlled, that’s different, and that’s what we needed to learn. I knew (Brady) would be good enough to win games. I knew we would be good enough to win games. We just had to win games early when it wasn’t rolling. That was our plan.”

Quarterback Tom Brady, left, and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich should be on the same page even more in 2021.
Quarterback Tom Brady, left, and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich should be on the same page even more in 2021. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The plan worked. The Bucs entered their bye week 7-5, then rolled to eight straight wins, including a 31-9 win over the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

This season, Brady and the offense should be better. Receiver Antonio Brown is available for every game in the new 17-game season instead of only half a season. (Brown signed last year after being suspended for the first eight games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.) The addition of Giovani Bernard gives Leftwich the pass-catching running back that Brady craved.

“(Leftwich has) done a great job of handling the personalities,” Bowles said. “There’s a lot of personalities on offense. I think he’s very patient in addressing each guy differently, and that brings maturity beyond his age.

“We both played, and we know it’s about the players on the team and not the coaches. I think he’s very mature in this aspect. He’s not one of those guys that says, ‘Look at me. Look at me.’ You look behind the scenes like we do every day and you see the work he puts in and you can’t have anything but respect for him. You wish everybody else could see that.

“He’s a damn good coach.”

At peace in this place

Bowles generally is considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the game and certainly worthy of another NFL head coaching job. The Bucs led the league in run defense each of the past two seasons, and the growth of the young secondary led to wins over a murderers’ row of quarterbacks that included Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Their average 2.9 sacks per game ranked fifth in the league.

“I love it here,” Bowles said. “We’ve got a great group of coaches that (Arians) has put together. We’ve got some good players. They’re great to work with. I love this area and the camaraderie. So it’s not about being a head coach. It’ s about being the best coach, having a chance to succeed and being happy, and I’m happy here.

“I have a desire to have my team ready. I don’t look for the next job. If you look for the next job, you don’t do the job you have. If something comes up at the end of the year, then that’s a discussion, but right now it’s the furthest thing from my mind.”

Leftwich feels the same way. He earned more than $27 million as a player, so financial security doesn’t drive him.

“I’m not trying to elevate and push myself like I’m a 22-year-old trying to go up the ladder,” he said. “I coach because I love coaching and I want to help people. I want to help the players be as good as they can possibly be.”

Bowles and Leftwich get in long before 5 a.m. during the season. They’re hard workers, but more important, their priorities are in order.

On Friday nights, Bowles leaves the office in time to drive a mile down the road to Jesuit to watch Troy play.

“Nothing is more gratifying than to see my sons go through life and grow up and live and be happy and go through the next steps,” Bowles said. “That is the biggest satisfaction for me. That’s why I get to work so early, so I can spend a lot of time with them. I make sure I don’t miss anything, and (Arians) makes sure I don’t miss anything. That’s the biggest thrill for me.”

Staying put has its advantages.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com or 727-709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD.

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