FAB 2. Arians Is Still The Mastermind Of Bucs Offense
Former Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken said it over and over again last year. Despite the fact that he was calling the plays on Sundays, it was still Dirk Koetter’s offense.
Even though new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will be calling the plays this year in Tampa Bay, make no mistake – this is still Bruce Arians’ offense.
And Arians’ fingerprints will be all over the game-planning and even some of the calls on Sunday as he listens in intently over the headset a few away from Leftwich on the sidelines.
While reading Arians’ “The Quarterback Whisperer” autobiography, it was fascinating to learn about his philosophies as a play-caller – a philosophy that Leftwich has been well schooled in and will mimic this year starting in August.
The passing game has taken center stage in the NFL over the last 10-15 years with all of the rule changes that favor the offense. Teams now pass to set up the run, instead of running to set up the pass like they did when Arians first started off in coaching decades ago. But Arians was ahead of the curve back around the turn of the century, as he explained from coaching Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb in a playoff game against Pittsburgh on January 5, 2003.
“So we believed we would have plenty of chances to beat them on deep throws. This was one reason why I was so excited about this game; we were going to sling the ball all over the field and play the kind of wide-open football that I love the most.”
The Browns won the coin toss in that game, elected to receive and take the ball first. Arians called a deep shot to wide receiver Kevin Johnson that covered 83 yards and was followed up by a touchdown run by William Green to take an early 7-0 lead.
“That opening shock and awe immediately put pressure on Pittsburgh, which is another reason why I think quick-strike long balls early in games are so crucial. It sets a tone that can be hard for the other team to shake – their players know it, their coaches know it, even their knowledgeable fans know it.”
Wide open football, slinging the ball all over the field – check.
Early, quick-strike long balls – got it.
“In my view, play calling is an art form. You scout and research the tendencies of opposing defensive coordinators for hours on end. But they are aware of that, and they’ll often throw wrinkles into their defensive scheme that they’ve never shown before. That’s where the gut comes in. It’s the ultimate chess match, a battle of brains. That’s what makes coaching so damn fun.”
Arians always sprinkles in new plays and alterations in throughout the week to keep opposing defensive coordinators guessing. With an arsenal of weapons in the passing game, including wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Breshad Perriman, and tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, Arians and Leftwich have a lot to work with.
“Every week we’ll alter our formations, we’ll line up receivers in different spots, and we might add a few trick plays. Variation is key in the NFL. We’re always looking for new ways to create mismatches for our best players. You always want your opponent to react to you – make him the puppet on your string – not the other way around. I’ll also incorporate a few new plays into the playbook each week. I want to throw things at a defense that they not only won’t anticipate, but also can’t prepare for and practice on Wednesday and Thursday before games.”
Arians loves the deep ball, which is why the Bucs went out and got speedsters like Perriman and rookie Scotty Miller, the team’s sixth-round pick. In Arizona he had John Brown and J.J. Nelson, who could both fly down the field, and before that he had T.Y. Hilton, who was Andrew Luck’s vertical threat in Indianapolis.
“Andrew excelled at throwing the long ball, and so I always put six long bombs in our plan for each game. I constantly told Andrew to take a shot if the defense appeared vulnerable based on its pre-snap formation. ‘If it’s third-and-three and you got T.Y. [Hilton] on a deep route, then throw the f*%#ing ball to T.Y.’ I’d tell Andrew, ‘I don’t care that we only need three yards. Throw the ball to T.Y.’”
“No matter the circumstance late in a game – if the game is tied or we’re winning or losing – I always remind my quarterback of one thing: If the matchup is right, throw the ball deep. Don’t hesitate, don’t think twice. Don’t ever waste an opportunity to crush the spirit of the defense by completing a long touchdown. And if it doesn’t work, well, at least we didn’t leave any damn bullets in the chamber.”
That’s “no risk it, no biscuit” in a nutshell.
I love that type of fearless play-calling, and that’s a big reason why Arians’ Cardinals crushed the Bucs, 40-7, in 2016 and got up 31-6 on Tampa Bay the next year before holding off the Bucs’ rally for a 38-35 victory.
While Arians is a big proponent of the passing game, he won’t ignore the ground game, and still believes in having a balanced offense.
“Make no mistake: A successful offense is two-dimensional. It is fundamental in the NFL to run the ball. Ideally, I like to stay 50/50 in terms of passes and runs in a game. But the key is you have to surprise the defense, so we’ll often lineup in obvious running formations – like three tight ends – and throw it. We’ll also line up in obvious passing formations – three wide receivers split out wide – and run a draw play. You always have to keep the other side guessing and off balance. You want them playing off their heels, not the balls of their feet.”
And perhaps most importantly, is Arians’ mantra as a play-caller.
“My job as a play-caller is to make sure we win the game on offense, not lose the game on defense.”
If Leftwich doesn’t follow his mentor’s teachings and incorporate that mantra, he’ll get an earful over the headset on game days and might even lose the opportunity to call plays. Arians’ influence on the Bucs offense and the play calls will be felt one way or the other.