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Byron Leftwich and Bruce Arians Hope to Change the NFL by Changing the Bucs

The Tampa Bay coordinator enters this season as the only black offensive play-caller in the NFL. That status says a lot about the state of coaching in the league.

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Bruce Arians swears he didn’t plan it this way. When the former Cardinals head coach retired after the 2017 season, he didn’t think he’d return to the sideline a year later, this time as coach of the Buccaneers. For a prospective job to lure him back to the NFL, every detail had to be perfect, from employing a familiar general manager and a talented quarterback to being a short drive from his home in Georgia. Aside from those factors, one less talked-about detail was also critically important.

Arians has been fiercely protective of play-calling duties for most of his career. He held that role as a coordinator with the Browns, Steelers, and Colts, and he kept it when he got a head-coaching opportunity with Arizona in 2013. In 2017, he went so far as to declare that he would rather leave coaching entirely than not call plays. “But when I came back,” Arians says, “part of it was that to be a better head coach, I had to relinquish that. And there was only one person I would relinquish it to.”

Byron Leftwich served as the Steelers’ backup quarterback in 2010 and 2011 when Arians was the team’s offensive coordinator. He retired from playing the following year, and started his coaching career working as an intern for Arians in 2016. Even in those early days, Arians was quick to crow about his protégé’s promising future. After spending one year as a low-level assistant, Leftwich was elevated to Cardinals QB coach in 2017, and he stayed in that role the following season when Steve Wilks took over for Arians. Leftwich maintains that there was no spoken arrangement about him taking over the offense if Arians returned to the NFL, but he suggests that he had an inkling this could be possible. “How can I say it … ” Leftwich wonders aloud, before taking a long pause. “I knew that if there was ever an opportunity again, this would probably be the situation.”

Many—including Buccaneers ownership and several of Arians’s longtime assistants—were floored when the head coach handed Leftwich the keys. But that’s not the most notable part of the 39-year-old’s rapid rise through the ranks. This fall, 15 teams will begin the season with a different offensive play-caller than the one who held the title at the start of 2018. Among that group of coaches, Leftwich is the only one who’s black. That problem extends even further: Leftwich enters this fall as the only black offensive play-caller in the NFL. “The trend right now seems to be QB coaches [who are] young, and to be frank with you, white,” says Buccaneers assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin. “That’s where we are right now in the NFL.”

As teams around the league have searched for their own versions of Sean McVay, many white coaches have taken jobs that were previously held by black predecessors. Wilks was fired after just one season in Arizona; he was replaced by the 40-year-old Kliff Kingsbury, who has zero NFL coaching experience and compiled a losing record over six seasons at Texas Tech. Longtime Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was ousted after going 6-10; he was supplanted by 36-year-old Zac Taylor, the former Rams QB coach who’s never been a full-time play-caller at the professional level. “Hiring a guy that first of all has never called plays, and then asking him to be a head coach and call plays,” Arians says. “That ain’t an easy job. It’s only been done about five or six times. Everyone wants it now because Sean was successful.”

Arians sees this movement as similar to the one that Bill Parcells inspired in the early 1990s, when teams emphasized finding defensive-minded head coaches above all else. The hope—for Arians and everyone else who wants to see more minorities in NFL head-coaching positions—is that Leftwich can thrive for Tampa Bay and inspire a leaguewide trend. Yet even if Leftwich can curtail Jameis Winston’s turnover issues and turn the Bucs into one of football’s top offenses, the shortage of black offensive coaches in the league means that widespread change will likely come slowly. “We don’t have a lot of guys in the pipeline,” Goodwin says. “We’ve got to get guys in the pipeline so they can take this next step.”

For now, Goodwin is just glad Leftwich is getting an opportunity that he and so many of his peers lacked. He believes that Leftwich’s appointment could mark a small step in challenging an epidemic that the league has failed to address over its history. “Fortunately for Byron, he’s played quarterback, he’s coached quarterbacks, and now he’s a coordinator,” Goodwin says. “Hopefully he can change that trend a little bit, have an opportunity to be a head coach—and do a great job if he becomes one.”

NFL: AUG 13 Buccaneers and Dolphins Joint Practice
Byron Leftwich
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even as his playing career wound to a close, Leftwich never thought that he’d get into coaching. “BA would tell me, ‘You’d be a hell of a coach one day,’” Leftwich says. “As a player, you not payin’ attention to that.” After retiring in 2012, Leftwich began a routine of doing “absolutely nothing.” He had a standing 7:47 a.m. tee time Monday through Friday. At one point, he got his handicap down to eight. But as Leftwich honed his golf game, Arians kept trying to coax him to Arizona to see what a future in coaching might look like. “I remember him telling me, ‘I want you to come down and just see it,’” Leftwich says. “‘Come down here for a couple days and just let me know what you think.’’’

Leftwich finally relented during OTAs in the spring of 2016, and when he arrived at the Cardinals’ facility, with its whiteboards full of play designs and scribbled ideas about protection schemes and personnel packages, he realized how much he’d missed the game. “You think, ‘This is my world,’” Leftwich says. “‘This is my life.’ Since I was a kid, this is what I saw.” He joined Arizona’s staff that summer; less than a year later, Arians named him the team’s quarterbacks coach.

In discussing the challenges that black coaches around the NFL face, Leftwich is quick to point out that his trajectory is different than most. He never toiled in the background of a staff, and was never passed over in favor of a white colleague with significantly less experience. In four years, he’s gone from being an intern to an offensive coordinator. “I’ve been given an opportunity that some guys have never gotten,” Leftwich says. “I think this whole thing has always been about opportunities.”

Goodwin is one of those coaches who waited a long time before his shot finally came. He was in his 10th season as an NFL coach when Arians hired him to be the Cardinals offensive coordinator in 2013. “There’s always been a barrier,” Goodwin says. “I guess there’s been a barrier since the beginning of time. When it comes to football, we just deal with a situation where there’s not a lot of minorities in positions of power.”

In Goodwin’s first three seasons as the Cardinals coordinator, Arizona went 34-14 with a pair of playoff appearances and a trip to the NFC title game. Those results prompted three teams to offer him head-coaching interviews, but he says it quickly became clear that two were orchestrated only to fulfill the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires franchises to interview a minority candidate from outside its organization for any open vacancy. “Any time you walk in the room and the owner’s not sitting at the table, you know it’s a sham,” Goodwin says. The league recently installed a rule that mandates ownership must be present for all head-coaching interviews if it’s present for one of them, but Goodwin doesn’t consider that progress. “Mr. Rooney had this rule implemented a long time ago, and we’re still having this same conversation,” he says. “At what point are we going to have a huge change?”

Aside from the lack of legitimate interest, a few other impediments arose during Goodwin’s interviews. One team informed him that it wanted to keep both coordinators who were already on staff—a demand that made Goodwin wonder what he was doing in that room at all. “Why are we having a head-coaching interview if you want to keep both coordinators, who are associated with what you did in the past?” Goodwin says. Another team dismissed his list of potential assistants as merely a compilation of his friends. Several members of that group have since been promoted to the positions that Goodwin suggested.

The most common refrain, though, was that teams were concerned about Goodwin’s lack of play-calling experience. It’s that detail Goodwin now sees as most hypocritical, considering the NFL’s recent hiring spree. He specifically mentions the case of Taylor, who went directly from Rams quarterbacks coach to Bengals head coach. “I was told that I didn’t call plays, which is why my head-coaching interviews were a wrap,” Goodwin says. “What do you see in that? There’s a lot of things we’d like to say. But owners do what they want to do. Period.”

In the minds of Goodwin and others, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy represented the most egregious oversight in teams’ head-coaching searches this offseason. In his first year as the coordinator in Kansas City, Bieniemy helped build an offense that scored an NFL-best 35.3 points per game. Yet when it came time for interviews, Bieniemy encountered the same criticism Goodwin did: He doesn’t call plays. Goodwin believes Arians had this in mind when he ceded play-calling duties this year—he understood it was the only way to fast-track Leftwich’s climb up the ladder. “Byron being a minority, what Eric’s going through, the only way Byron could be a head coach and let BA expand his tree is to let Byron call it,” Goodwin says.

Like Leftwich, Goodwin understands that the situation with Arians in Tampa is unique. The challenge now, he says, is finding the next Leftwich, and that can only happen if certain trends around the league get reversed.

Of the NFL’s 15 first-year offensive play-callers this season, only three have not served as a QB coach at any level. In 2019, just two black QB coaches will be employed by NFL teams: the Colts’ Marcus Brady and the Dolphins’ Jim Caldwell. A typical reason that’s often floated to explain this shortage is the lack of black quarterbacks in the NFL, but Leftwich doesn’t buy that theory: None of this year’s new play-callers were quarterbacks in the NFL; beyond that, of the NFL’s 32 QB coaches this season, 12—more than a third of the league—never played the position in college or in the pros. “That argument makes no sense when the people who are getting hired never played quarterback,” Leftwich says. “I played quarterback. I know who’s played quarterback. I know NFL history. And that’s not always true.”

Having experience playing quarterback might not be a requirement for becoming an NFL play-caller, but having experience coaching them seems to be. That realization motivated the league and the Black College Hall of Fame to hold the first Quarterback Coaching Summit this June in Atlanta, where minority coaches and executives from various levels of football came together to share ideas. Despite what the stats indicate, Arians maintains that there are avenues to get more minorities into the offensive coaching pipeline. Of the Bucs’ five interns from the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship this season, four have been placed on the offensive staff. “It’s about hiring young guys to groom into that position, whether they were QBs in college, receivers in the pros—guys who see the game,” he says.

For Goodwin, the first step “is that we need to have bodies in those seats to have them grow.” As the next wave of coaches develops, he hopes Leftwich’s ascension can serve as a blueprint.

NFL: AUG 07 Buccaneers Training Camp
Jameis Winston and Byron Leftwich
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the first time in his six seasons as a head coach, Arians has time on his hands. With the Cardinals, he oversaw every offensive meeting, led the installation of his system, and finalized each week’s game plan. But soon after the Buccaneers’ offensive staff first convened this offseason, he realized his constant presence wasn’t required. Leftwich had it covered. These days, while Leftwich runs the room, Arians stays in his office to study opponents’ tape and work on the Bucs’ personnel decisions. “We think so much alike,” Arians says of him and Leftwich. “He was in that QB room in Pittsburgh. He’s been in the room with me enough to know how I want it done.”

Leftwich got his first crack at play calling with the Cardinals last season after the team started 1-6 and coordinator Mike McCoy was canned. The results in Leftwich’s nine games at the controls weren’t pretty: Arizona averaged 14.8 points per game and finished the season ranked dead last in scoring average (14.1). Arians says that initial showing didn’t sour him on Leftwich’s promise. It made him only more optimistic. “I can’t believe he even put points on the board at all, with all those rookies,” Arians says.

The Cardinals were decimated by injuries in 2018, which meant they were forced to rely on a group of young players, including a rookie quarterback. Trying to run an offense with Arizona’s depleted roster was a challenge, but Leftwich says the most difficult part of the job was trying to call an offense that wasn’t his own. “You know what you’re looking at, but it’s how you say things,” Leftwich says. “It’s how you teach things.” Upon taking the reins, Leftwich tweaked some of the offensive verbiage. But with a new game plan to create each week, he had no time to make wholesale changes. “I couldn’t go cold turkey because these guys have been practicing this since training camp, since OTAs,” Leftwich says. “It’s that feeling where you want to just scratch the whole thing and do it how you see it, but it would have been unfair to the players.”

Now Leftwich is now back in a system that he knows inside and out. As both a player and a coach, he’s spent countless hours shoulder to shoulder with Arians learning every nuance and detail of this scheme. He’s able to speak his first language again. Leftwich called plays for his new team in the Bucs’ preseason opener against the Steelers earlier this month; outside of a small suggestion to use more play-action, Arians says that he wouldn’t have changed a thing. “He played [quarterback] in this offense,” Arians says. “So he has insight that no one else really has.”

That familiarity with the system is one reason Leftwich is the perfect mentor for fifth-year quarterback Jameis Winston, but their connection runs deeper. As one of the NFL’s eight black starting QBs, Winston is now playing for its only black play-caller. Leftwich first learned about Winston in 2013, when the then–Florida State quarterback threw for 356 yards with four touchdowns at Pitt in his college football debut. As Winston lit up the Panthers at Heinz Field, Leftwich was bombarded with messages from his friends around the city. “My phone blew up,” Leftwich says. “Hey, you seen this kid playing for Florida State? Look at this kid, he reminds me of you.”

As Leftwich watched the game’s second half, he could already see the gifts that made Winston a talented passer. His appreciation only grew after he studied the young quarterback’s move to the NFL. Winston’s issue is that his desire to create big plays has often been the Bucs’ downfall. He threw 14 interceptions in just 11 games last season, and at one point was benched for journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. With the QB entering the final year of his rookie deal, Leftwich’s ability to hone Winston’s decision-making as a passer may determine the trajectory of both the Bucs and his own coaching future.

When asked about Winston’s development, Leftwich is quick to point out that his quarterback is still young. And he says they share a connection that no other quarterback-play-caller tandem in the league has. “We were born African American,” Leftwich says. “That starts really before the quarterback thought even comes into play.”

Any time Leftwich talks about coaching, he constantly brings up the word “teacher.” It’s easy to sense the obligation he feels toward his players. He appreciates what it takes to get to the NFL and how much pressure guys endure upon reaching the sport’s highest level. And while Leftwich knows that his career will have an outsize impact, he can’t afford to look too far ahead right now. “You can’t waste time thinking like that,” Leftwich says. “I promise you. The job takes attention. The job takes awareness. The job takes time. You don’t want to waste time worrying about things you can’t control.”

Leftwich may not focus on the influence he wields, but others on the Bucs staff have thought about it plenty. Arians has championed minority and female coaches in the NFL since he got his first head job in 2013, and hopes that Leftwich can become his second black assistant to become an NFL head coach (the first being current Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles). Goodwin is just happy that someone is getting this chance, and believes Leftwich will make the most of it. “At least now we can say, ‘This is Byron’s show,’” Goodwin says. “‘He’s calling it the way he wants to do it, without any interaction with BA.’ When there are interviews going on next January, Byron should be at that table.”

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