Could Bill O’Brien be on Bucs’ short list to replace Byron Leftwich?

Tampa Bay was prepared to hire O’Brien a year ago had Leftwich gotten the Jaguars head coaching job.
Published Jan. 7, 2023|Updated Jan. 7, 2023

TAMPA — If the Bucs move on from offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich after this season — especially if Tom Brady decides to return to Tampa Bay — the coach to keep an eye on is Bill O’Brien.

The former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach now serves as the offensive coordinator for Alabama under Nick Saban.

Of course, O’Brien held that position under Bill Belichick in New England, where he was an assistant from 2007-11.

He had some famous sideline scraps with Brady, who nonetheless prefers to be challenged with hard coaching.

O’Brien also is very close friends with Bucs general manager Jason Licht from their days of working together in New England.

A year ago, then-Bucs coach Bruce Arians was pretty confident that Leftwich was going to be hired as head coach by the Jacksonville Jaguars to replace Urban Meyer.

The Bucs contacted O’Brien, who would have replaced Leftwich. But it all fell apart when the Jaguars hired Doug Pederson, who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles.

Todd Bowles was appointed to succeed Arians as head coach the final day in March, leaving him virtually no time to hunt for an offensive coordinator.

There’s no question Bowles has been very supportive of Leftwich, but the diminishing results speak for themselves.

O’Brien has been linked to other job openings, and it’s not like Brady and Leftwich are at each other’s throats. Still, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a change.

On Thursday, Leftwich said, ‘‘everybody wants to throw dirt on the Bucs,” and it’s true. But there is a dump truck full of reasons for that.

While Leftwich will never get the credit for the Bucs averaging more than 30 points per game the previous three seasons, he seems to be the sole person people want to blame for the offensive malaise.

While Tampa Bay ranks 11th overall in total yards (354.5), it is 24th in scoring (18.5), 22nd in third-down percentage (36.91) and 25th in red-zone scoring (51 percent). In fact, the Bucs have only scored more than 23 points twice in 16 games. They have 29 offensive touchdowns this season, compared to 56 entering the final week of the regular season a year ago.

Ultimately, it may come down to whether Brady returns to the Bucs and, if so, whom he prefers to call plays.

But in Leftwich’s defense, expectations were unrealistic. This was never a Super Bowl roster on offense. He doesn’t miss blocks or drop passes. Furthermore, Brady didn’t trust his protection, as evidenced by his yards per attempt (6.4), the second-lowest of his career. Guard Ali Marpet retired. Guard Alex Cappa left via free agency. Center Ryan Jensen spent the year on injured reserve. There is no Rob Gronkowski at tight end.

Would O’Brien fix all that? Probably not. But if Leftwich moves on, O’Brien could be moving in if Brady plays in 2023.

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Brady rumor of the week

Pro Football Talk had a report last week that Sean Payton could return to coach the New Orleans Saints, who still control his rights, and bring Brady with him.

We know the two tried to hook up in Miami a year ago, but two things nixed the deal: Then-Dolphins head coach Brian Flores sued the team and the NFL on the day Brady retired. The Saints also denied Miami a request to interview Payton.

The Dolphins are a good fit. Brady wouldn’t be far from his two children in South Florida and one in New York, and would be surrounded by talents like receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. While it seems unlikely Dolphins owner Stephen Ross would pull the rip cord on coach Mike McDaniel after only one season, Tua Tagovailoa’s history of concussions is daunting.

But again, New Orleans would have to approve and be compensated. If there’s going to be a Brady-Payton marriage, why wouldn’t the Saints want it to be in New Orleans?

That would be hard for the Glazer family that owns the Bucs to swallow. Brady is very close to ownership and the front office, so Who Dat Nation may want to pump the brakes on getting the GOAT.

Bucs bits

Don’t underestimate how much the Bucs want to finish the regular season with a winning record of 9-8, which is one reason why so many starters will be playing. It’s also important to Brady, who never has had a losing season as a starter. ... While former Gators QB Kyle Trask has earned a chance to play Sunday and will be in uniform for only the second time in a regular-season game, several members of the coaching staff believe it may be better if he doesn’t get in. Unlike Blaine Gabbert, Trask took no reps with the Bucs’ offense this week and wouldn’t be prepared for success playing with a collection of backups. ... One regret Arians has from his Ring of Honor coaching career with the Bucs was not turning around Jameis Winston: “If I have a regret, it’s not saving him. Now, we couldn’t say no to Tom (Brady). And if it wasn’t Tom Brady, I would say Jameis would’ve still been our guy, and he’d have been better. The second year, our guys were always better. He still threw for 5,000 yards and 33 touchdowns. It’s not an easy system. But when you get it, it’s taking candy from a baby. But those last two games (of the 2019 season, losses to the Texans and Falcons), then we had to look. We wouldn’t have done it for anybody. Tom Brady was the only guy.”

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