FAB 4. Are The Bucs Getting Arians Or Arians Light?
One of the most interesting things about the Bucs hiring Bruce Arians to replace Dirk Koetter as head coach was the fact that he is known around the league as “The Quarterback Whisperer” for the way with which he developed some of the best quarterbacks around the league in Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer.
With Tampa Bay in desperate need of a franchise turnaround and quarterback Jameis Winston, the former first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, in a critical fifth-year option, convincing Arians to come out of retirement has been hailed as a coup for general manager Jason Licht.
We’ll see how it all turns out following the 2019 campaign.
At Arians’ press conference I asked him if he was going to be calling plays in Tampa Bay, as he had in previous stops in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Arizona. Arians said he was turning over those duties to new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, his protégé in Arizona and former backup quarterback in Pittsburgh. Arians’ extraordinary play-calling was what made him the Cardinals head coach and what made Arizona such a potent offense in playoff runs from 2013-15.
Instead of Arians calling the plays in Tampa Bay it will be Leftwich for the first time in his career – outside of calling plays down the stretch last year in Arizona when offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired. And even then, Leftwich was left to operate McCoy’s offense.
I suppose if Leftwich struggles early on with the play-calling that Arians could assume the play-calling duties, but how much of a rope is the head coach willing to give Leftwich in such a very important season for Winston and for Licht, the man who hired him and drafted Winston? Is it three or four games or is it five or six?
If Tampa Bay’s offense under-performs and Winston struggles in say a 1-5 or 2-4 start to the 2019 season, is it too late at that point for Arians to step in with his own play-calling to turn around the ship in a 16-game season?
Of course these are what-ifs and hypotheticals, and many a football coach doesn’t necessarily want to think negatively about worst-case scenarios, especially in the offseason.
Plays aren’t designed to not work. In theory, every play picks up a first down with the potential for a touchdown. That’s just the mentality of an NFL head coach.
Arians isn’t expecting Leftwich to not work out, and I’m not suggesting that Leftwich won’t do a good or even great job calling plays. I’ve just seen too many seasons with high expectations over the past decade in Tampa end in double-digit losses and top 10 draft picks that I’ve become a bit wary.
Another surprising twist to Arians’ hiring is the fact that he’s not spending nearly as much time with Winston as I expected he would. As an offensive coordinator, Arians has always taken a very hands-on approach with his quarterbacks. During this offseason, Arians said that he was staying out of the quarterback room and letting Leftwich and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen handle Winston’s development.
The question is, how much whispering to Winston will Arians actually be doing this year?
I understand that good CEOs delegate to their subordinates and empower them to do their jobs. Leftwich won’t learn how to lead an offense unless he’s the one leading.
It’s just that the Bucs and Winston really, really need the Arians that the Cardinals and Palmer got in 2013 when Arians arrived and produced a 10-6 record, and a trip to the playoffs.
Tampa Bay needs the Arians that took Arizona to new heights in 2015 when the Cardinals went 13-3 and Arians won the NFL Head Coach of the Year award for the second time.
So are the Bucs getting the “full Arians” or “Arians light” this year?
This could be like going to see an Avengers movie and there’s not a superhero in sight if Tampa Bay falters from Arians being too hands-off in his approach with Winston and the offense.
I would have almost rather seen Arians come in and be the take-charge offensive coordinator and quarterback whisperer this year in his first season in Tampa Bay with Leftwich right by his side, and then turn the reins over to Leftwich in 2020. We’ll know if Arians’ trust in Leftwich was justified or if some of my concerns are validated – and I hope I’m wrong to be concerned – in the next six months.
The Bucs have had two other former NFL head coaches that have been successful elsewhere coach in Tampa Bay only to see their star fade in Sam Wyche and Lovie Smith. Neither produced a winning season, and I’m hoping that Arians doesn’t follow suit.