On Monday morning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians responded to a question about his diverse coaching staff by going out of his way to reiterate his anger about how the NFL’s latest hiring cycle shook out — particularly the way his trusted offensive coordinator, Byron Leftwich, was excluded from the process.
“I was very, very pissed that Byron didn't at least get an interview this year for the job that he’s done,” Arians told reporters via a Super Bowl conference call. “I think I get way too much credit and so does Tom Brady for the job that Byron has done.”
The 41-year-old Leftwich, Arians correctly noted, was everything that was supposed to be en vogue in today’s NFL for head coaching spots. A former quarterback, a play caller.
Instead he got nada, not even a sniff from the seven teams seeking new head coaches this offseason. It was the latest example of the way the NFL has struggled to fix its diversity problem in the head coaching ranks, despite its recent efforts to do so through a fortified Rooney Rule.
“I think hopefully next year, you know, people will see that he took Jameis Winston and broke every single record here, scoring and passing, and now Tom has broken both,” Arians said. “He's done a fantastic job.”
While the final product is easy to love, with Brady having his most prolific passing season in years and Tampa Bay finishing with the league’s fifth-ranked offense in terms of DVOA, the Bucs’ path to Super Bowl LV vs. the Chiefs has not been easy, with Brady and Leftwich navigating some rough spots along the way, especially in late November.
Yet they got through it, thanks to excellent, honest communication and occasionally hard coaching, which Brady accepted due to the respect Leftwich commanded, a telltale sign of his overall upside as a coach that those who know him can’t stop raving about.
“I think Byron's done an incredible job and he's a great guy and we have a great relationship,” Brady said. “I've known him for a long time, we're about the same age and played against him. I’ve always had a lot of respect for him, and now that we're working together, it's been great. He's got a great work ethic, great football IQ.”
Byron Leftwich, Tom Brady relationship grew during rough stretch
It took a little while for the Bucs’ offense to find its current form. A season-opening loss to New Orleans revealed cracks in its foundation, and while Tampa Bay bounced back to win its next three games, Arians knew the team still had a long way to go.
“We scratched out a game or two,” Arians said. “But we had no clue what we were doing.”
Things got better in October, when the Bucs ran off another three-game winning streak to push their record to 6-2.
A miserable November — capped by a 27-24 home loss to the Chiefs in Week 12, their third defeat in four games — cast serious doubt on the Bucs’ title chances and inspired multiple think pieces about what the hell was going on in Tampa.
Not only was Brady struggling to hit the deep ball — he was 0-for-19 on his attempts from Weeks 8-11 — he also had seven interceptions from Weeks 9-12, his worst four-game span since 2011.
In retrospect, the bye week that followed was a turning point, as it allowed the coaching staff and players to catch their breath and regroup.
“That was huge for us, just to kind of sit back and self-scout a little bit, just kind of take everything in, listen to Tom, have Tom listen to us, listen to Byron and B.A,” Bucs assistant head coach and run game coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “And it's been great ever since.”
Since the bye week, the Bucs haven’t lost a game, averaging 34 points in their past seven contests. And while Arians noted Tampa Bay also started to get healthy after the bye, Brady also attributes some of their recent refinement to the fact he and Leftwich have a greater understanding of what works for Brady in this offense.
“You know, it's just been a growing process for both of us and growing together,” Brady said. “When you work together for a long period of time, we begin to see the game very similar, so when he's watching film he thinks, 'Oh, this is what Tom would like,' and vice versa.
“It's taken some time to get there because we didn't have a lot of the things that we normally have with football [like OTAs]. Over the last couple of months, we certainly executed a little bit better.”
In some ways, the fact that Brady, whose accomplishments outnumber most coaches he’ll ever have, was able to acclimate himself to Tampa Bay this quickly is telling.
“What's been the most amazing thing about this whole thing is the way he approaches it,” Leftwich said. “He came in and told me from Day 1, ‘Just coach me — let me know what you want.’ Obviously, we work together from the game plan standpoint. But he's really a guy that says, ‘I'm going to go out and execute this play, regardless of what you call, at a high level.’”
Brady responds well to hard coaching from Leftwich, Bucs’ staff
One thing you have to understand about Brady is that despite his standing as pro football’s GOAT, he knows the only way to get better is with honest critiques. So while Brady has his own opinions, he accepts the Bucs’ hard coaching.
“[Bruce Arians’] philosophy is to coach them hard, which is a lot of curse words at times,” Goodwin said with a laugh. “We’re going to coach you hard no matter who you are, and Tom takes it and, you know, he comes out on the other end playing well. So it works for all of us.”
And Leftwich, despite being two years younger than Brady, admits he isn’t shy about coaching Brady hard, either.
“Oh, yeah, he wants to be coached hard … he wants you to let him know when he's not doing the right things,” Leftwich said. “And that's the easy part for me, because you want to help, you want to put the player in the best position to have success.”
Brady said this dialogue has allowed him to understand a different way to attack defenses on Sundays than he became accustomed to after two decades in New England.
After years of bludgeoning teams with a strong run game and a precision short passing game as a Patriot, Brady has aired it out more this year in Leftwich’s and Arians’ vertical passing attack, throwing for the most yards (4,633) since 2015, the most touchdowns (40) since 2007 and the most 20-yard plus passing plays (63) since 2011.
“It's been fun over the course of the year to learn a lot about different things, about different ways to handle different situations,” Brady said. “Ultimately, it's about not always being in agreement, but being in alignment when you take the field. So you have to be 100 percent on the same page on game day, which we have been. And how we get to that point has been great conversation, great learning for me.”
In this partnership, the growth isn’t limited to Brady.
Leftwich has stuff to be NFL head coach sooner rather than later
For all Leftwich has done for the Bucs’ offense, he’s not only appreciative of the way Brady actively seeks coaching, but also of the way Arians (a noted offensive guru himself) has allowed him to run the offense.
“The best thing about it is that you grow,” Leftwich said. “He lets you grow and see it the way that you see it and do the things that you like to do from a schematic standpoint. So it's just great to have one type of person like that. ... I’ve got great offensive minds in the building every day that I can bounce stuff off if needed.”
And Leftwich, assistant coach Tom Moore said, has thrived in the role.
“Byron has really taken the bull by the horns ... having played the position, now he's involved and coaching it and calling it,” Moore said. “Byron does a tremendous job.”
Leftwich also boasts great leadership skills, Goodwin added, with his ability to get the best out of players in different ways standing out, along with his ability to communicate and present offensive concepts at team meetings.
With rave reviews like that, it’s no wonder Arians was so visibly frustrated Monday that Leftwich didn’t even get a call for a head coaching interview.
He certainly wasn’t alone.
“I'm still amazed based on the success he's had in the last two years calling plays that he didn't get any interviews — it's unfortunate for him,” Goodwin said. “But hopefully that gets changed moving forward.”
When told Monday about the support he received, Leftwich didn’t seem to blink, noting he needs to keep getting better at what he does.
Still, Leftwich’s colleagues believe the NFL head coaching opportunity that has eluded him will come sooner rather than later.
“It's a question of time until Byron will be a head coach in this league — and rightfully so,” Moore said. “And what he is, he'll have great success.”
In the meantime, the relationship between Leftwich and Brady has never been more important as the Bucs prepare for the biggest game of the season, one that could add to Brady’s legacy and shape Leftwich’s coaching future.
“[We’ve got] one game left, and it’s for everything,” Brady said. “So I’m excited to see what we can come up with for Sunday.”
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