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In the NFL, winning generally begets opportunity — especially for offensive coaches.
As such, after a disappointing 7-9 season that saw turnovers cripple a team that finished third in total offense, no one needed to tell Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians the importance of adding quarterback Tom Brady to the mix this March.
“We were all on pins and needles waiting,” Arians recently told Yahoo Sports. “We never, ever thought Tom Brady would ever leave New England, and then as it was going back and forth [you say], ‘Hey, this, this is real.’ But you never let yourself [believe] it until he signs on that line.”
Brady is aboard now, replacing Jameis Winston, whose 30 interceptions contributed to the Bucs’ miserable negative-13 turnover differential last season.
Here comes the hard part: figuring out how to make it all work.
For the entirety of his 20-year career, Brady has been coached by Bill Belichick, and for 13 of those years (including the past eight) he has worked hand-in-hand with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Now he’s charged with playing for a new head coach in Arians and a new offensive coordinator in Byron Leftwich, with whom Brady immediately expressed excitement to work.
“I think Byron gets along with just about everybody he comes in contact with because he’s a very personable and outgoing guy,” Brady told reporters in March. “Everyone says great things about him, and in my brief experiences talking to him, I would say all those things seem to be true.”
This union had a comical start, as Brady reportedly visited Leftwich’s Tampa-area home in April but initially entered the wrong house.
Months later, with the Bucs set to begin their season in New Orleans on Sunday, Arians gave Yahoo Sports plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the partnership.
While Brady can separate himself from Belichick with a Super Bowl run, Arians could establish himself as an elite coach with a Hall of Fame case.
As for Leftwich? Well, Arians acknowledged that the third-year NFL offensive coordinator could find himself among the privileged few who become NFL head coaches, which would be a significant achievement considering there are currently only four head coaches of color in a league whose players are 70 percent Black.
“As soon as you realize how many people are trying to get that job, [you also realize] it's hard to get one,” Arians said. “So when you get that chance, that interview — to be a coordinator, a quarterback, coach, whatever it is — the coach should be ready for it, man. You've got to be ready for that moment.”
Does Tom Brady fit Tampa Bay’s offense?
Historically, Arians’ offenses have been predicated on pushing the ball down the field, the perfect encapsulation of the “no risk it, no biscuit” quote that has been attributed to him over the years. Yet on the surface, that philosophy runs counter to how Brady has played the past few years, when the Patriots were content to pound teams with the run before Brady picked them apart with a quick, precision passing game.
When asked if there’s a middle ground to be had here — Winston led all QBs last season with 99 deep passing attempts, while Brady’s 62 ranked only 13th out of 24 qualified quarterbacks — Arians laughed.
“Really, there doesn't need to be one,” Arians said with a chuckle. “I mean, he's got the ball in his hand, he decides where it goes. So you get people open, you throw to the open guy. And that's what he does best.”
Arians also disagrees with any notion that the Buccaneers’ offense is significantly different than the one Brady ran for years in New England.
“It really ain't that different,” Arians said. “I mean, when you look at their play-action game, it's very similar to ours. And the way they move the ball up the field, [there’s] some different things as far as man-zone concepts but the offense is really not that much different. The throws he makes when you watch him on tape, he's making all the same throws you make in our offense.”
There’s reason to think this will lead to the Bucs utilizing play-action more. While Brady ranked fourth in play-action attempts last season with 156, Winston’s 108 attempts was tied for 20th among qualified quarterbacks.
Regardless, Brady stands to benefit from a supporting cast that includes two All-Pro caliber receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, a strong tight end corps led by a future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski, two talented running backs seeking paydays in Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II, and an offensive line that could be better than the group he left in New England.
“[The offense] won’t be exactly what it was last year,” Leftwich recently told reporters. “It’ll be different because it’s based on the quarterback. We’re just trying to rep enough plays and I’m trying to see what he’s doing with the ball, the decisions he’s making so I can figure him out and always put him in the best position to be successful.”
Brady and Leftwich’s relationship will be a big reason for any success the Bucs have on offense this season. Much has been made over the years of Arians’s willingness to empower his offensive assistants, and he insists Brady’s arrival hasn’t changed that.
“My stuff with [Tom] is more one-one-one,” Arians said. “But when Byron's got the room, it's his room — I stay out.”
How have Leftwich and Brady meshed?
Brady has a well-earned reputation for being a stickler for details and obsessive about preparation. Yet his exit from New England after 20 years has led to speculation about whether Brady grew weary of Belichick’s withering glare, perhaps seeking in Tampa the opportunity to be coached differently.
“No, he still likes being coached hard,” Arians assured. “His attention to detail is off the charts, and he wants to know every single thing and why we're doing it, not just how we do it. That part of it I love about him.”
Leftwich plays a big role in that preparation. A former first-round draft pick who spent a decade in the NFL, Leftwich has worked closely with Brady over the past several months on formulating the Bucs’ 2020 offense.
“On offense, our communication between Byron and myself [is important], and then it filters down to all the different coaches and players in their position,” Brady said. “We have to work hard at that communication, we have to build trust with one another so that the trust we can anticipate.”
The two of them are bouncing ideas off each other, trying to find the limits of what they can do offensively.
“It’s fun working with him, having the mind that he has, seeing the game the way that he sees the game,” he told reporters. “He makes some unique plays ... It's fun being with him, it’s fun coaching him, it’s especially fun because he’s so willing to be coached. He just wants good information and like all good football players, that’s all he wants.”
It was a quote reminiscent of what Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski once said of Jason Kidd, whom he coached in the 2008 Olympics. Krzyzewski essentially told Kidd he has played in more games than he has coached, so he’d adapt the system to Kidd. Team USA went on to win gold.
Leftwich is three years younger than Brady, so “they speak the language of guys that played 10 years ago,” Arians added.
“He's a very, very bright guy, but there are a lot of bright guys that can't teach, and he has a way of simplifying the game and teaching young guys extremely well,” Arians said of Leftwich. “And to me, that's the whole thing. You can know all this football and write it on the board but if you can't teach it, it doesn't do you any good.”
Leftwich’s main focus coaching Brady in 2020
For all of Leftwich’s discernible strengths, Arians knows his apprentice’s head coaching timeline will ultimately come down to two things.
“You're not getting [a head coaching job] unless you have one of the top offenses or defenses in the league and your team's winning,” Arians said.
Even then, it can take awhile. Just ask Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy, the NFL’s only Black offensive coordinator besides Leftwich.
Despite the Chiefs’ success over the past two seasons and the strong pipeline of head coaches that have sprung from Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator tree, Bieniemy has interviewed for seven head coaching jobs the past few offseasons and was passed over for each of them.
Arians knows first-hand how brutal the hiring cycle can be. He was a part of several winning teams during his 15 seasons as an assistant, including five as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, when he won a Super Bowl and made it to another. He didn’t land his first non-interim head coaching job until 2013, when he was 60.
“You never know how many opportunities each year will exist and what they're looking for, so, yeah, you do the best job you can do at your job,” Arians said. “You can't think about it, because it will drive you crazy.”
Leftwich understands this. He is intensely focused on his job, and has routinely declined individual interviews for pieces on himself this offseason. Other NFL coaches have taken a similar approach, believing it’s the best thing they can do for their careers.
And with a potentially career-making 2020 upon Leftwich, Arians has zero doubts about his offensive coordinator’s readiness.
“He's more than ready for the moment he's in right now,” Arians said, “and that [other] one — [being a head coach] — I think he's more than ready for, too.”
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