Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Story of the Week
You know, Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich probably would have been a pretty good golfer, too. I mean, before he was approached by Bruce Arians, he was playing golf Monday through Thursday. With that kind of practice, we might have seen Leftwich in a semi-pro tournament on the Golf Channel one day.
If only Arians would have just left him alone – Bucs fans should be glad he didn’t.
With all due respect, Leftwich is one of those guys whose name would come up in a conversation among friends where one person says, “Do you guys remember Byron Leftwich? I wonder what he’s doing right now.”
What he’s doing is – what Arians would say – is fulfilling his calling; doing what he was meant to do, and that’s coach football.
Before he picked up a headset, Leftwich made a name for himself as a player as a first-round pick in Jacksonville. During his college days he played ball at Marshall for the Thundering Herd. His most memorable moment there is likely the image of him being carried off the field by his teammates after breaking his leg mid-game yet staying in to help lead a 17-point comeback against Akron in 2002.
The details of that story are what make it incredible, though. As if playing on a broken leg wasn’t enough, here’s the timeline of what happened.
Leftwich broke his leg in the first quarter of the game. After getting examined on the sideline and cleared to play, he went back in (on said broken leg) and led the team down the field for a touchdown. But, after the first quarter, his head coach insisted Leftwich go get X-rays. So he got in an ambulance. He ask the ambulance driver if he could take him back to the stadium after the test. When the ambulance driver said he couldn’t do that, Leftwich got out of the vehicle and rode to the hospital in a mini-van instead.
After getting X-rays and confirming his leg was broken, Leftwich then indeed returned to the stadium. After arriving, his coach was informed that Leftwich did have a broken leg, but if he could play through the pain, he couldn’t hurt it any worse.
So he played through the pain.
Though they would eventually lose, that display of determination is something that would follow him throughout his career.
“I just wasn’t ready to finish like that,” Leftwich said via Buccaneers.com. “I really wasn’t. I was in the Heisman Trophy race and those guys wanted me to win it. They were like hey, nobody is going to touch you, you’re going to win that Heisman. That’s how they were talking about it at the time. So I’m like alright, let’s go get it then. We just had that mindset, really.”
Being that kind of player is something that has helped him already in his coaching career, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
In 2003, Leftwich was drafted No. 7 overall by the Jaguars. It didn’t take long for him to get his first taste of NFL action, as he came in relief for the injured Mark Brunell in Week 4. From then on it was Leftwich’s show in Jacksonville – at least until it wasn’t. Just as he was beginning to hit his stride, re-occurring ankle injuries forced the Jaguars to move on from Leftwich just before the 2007 season.
For the next six years, Leftwich would sign a series of smaller deals, bouncing around the NFL. One of those deals was even in Tampa Bay under head coach Raheem Morris in 2009. But even when he was healthy, those early ankle injuries halted the progression of what could have been a great career for Leftwich. He won a Super Bowl ring in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger. So, in the end, he did achieve football’s greatest mountain top.
But not in the way he wished. And in 2012 when he retired from the game, the thought was that he never would.
As the game often does to those who understand it best, football called him back – or should I say Arians did.
Arians and Leftwich knew each other from their days in Pittsburgh. When Leftwich was the backup quarterback in 2008, Arians was the offensive coordinator. He was also the coordinator when Leftwich came back for the 2010 and 2011 seasons in Pittsburgh, too. With nothing to overthink from a game day starting quarterback stress level, Arians got to see what Leftwich was like on the white board, in the meeting rooms and as a teammate connecting with other players.
“He’s the smartest quarterback I’ve ever coached, including Peyton (Manning) and Andrew (Luck),” Arians said. “Bugging him to get off the golf course and start coaching, I knew how good he was going to be.”
It took some convincing, but in 2017 Leftwich joined Arians’ staff in Arizona as the quarterbacks coach – which is important because quarterbacks are and have always been Arians’ forte – his claim to fame. And now, just a few years removed from golfing four days a week, Leftwich is in full control as an offensive coordinator, a hands-on quarterbacks coach and the play-caller for Arians in Tampa Bay.
“I’ve been training guys for this job and I always said I would never give it up and look over anybody’s shoulder until I found one I knew could do it,” Arians said. “Byron I think is a rising star in this business. What he did with the interim title – it wasn’t even his offense, it was Mike McCoy’s offense – and he did a heck of a job as a rookie. So he’s more than ready.”
If you go back and listen to Arians talk about his early years of coaching, he was a perfectionist. He never wanted to delegate anything. He didn’t trust anyone. At Temple, he was the quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator, play-caller, helped with wide receivers and was the head coach, in addition to being the recruiting coordinator. Coaching signal callers and calling plays; that’s been Arians’ bread and butter. That’s how he’s made it into this league. That’s what has made him a two-time NFL Coach of the Year.
And yet here he is trusting his final stint in the NFL to a 39-year-old former quarterback.
To understand why Arians has so much trust in Leftwich, you have to look at how Leftwich connects with the players.
“One thing he has over me and a lot of other coaches in the room is he’s been in that room as a player – he can relate to them on that level. He’s been out there on the grass – he can relate to them on that level,” Bucs offensive line coach Harold Goodwin said. “So I think that earns him a lot of respect.”
Hollywood actor and former WWE wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a motto that he’s turned into a brand: “Blood, Sweat and Respect. First two you give, the last one you earn.”
What makes Leftwich a potential “rising star,” as Arians would say, is that he gets it. He understands where these quarterbacks are coming from, especially Jameis Winston. He’s been a highly drafted, black quarterback who has all the pressure in the world on his shoulders – in ways both in his sport and for a culture that took years to begin to trust minority quarterbacks at all. He knows how to relate, and he’s not that far removed from those years himself. He’s young, he’s energetic, and he’s poised.
“[Him] seeing things how I see it, [his] understanding from being in that pocket and not all from a strategic standpoint — it’s [been] excellent,” Winston said via ESPN.
Leftwich has been in the building for six months, and it already seems he and Winston are on the same page more so than any of Winston’s previous coaches. Sometimes it didn’t even feel like Winston and his former coaches were reading the same book, let alone on the same page.
You can point to a few areas (okay, maybe all of them) where this Bucs coaching staff is superior to ones in years past. Leftwich coaching Winston and calling this offense could very well be one of them.
Chemistry between the play caller and the play maker is important. On the next page we’ll highlight some of the ways we’re already seeing that chemistry blossom in Tampa Bay.