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Year of the Black QB

Bucs’ Byron Leftwich is a coach on the rise: ‘I feel like this is what I was meant to do’

The former quarterback is finding success as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator and hoping to help Jameis Winston reach his potential

TAMPA, Fla. — As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers torched the Los Angeles Rams on the road last Sunday, 55-40, the person who orchestrated the show was in a play-calling zone. No, not Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay’s affable, Kangol-wearing, offensive-whiz head coach, though we’ll get to him shortly. It was Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich who pushed all the right buttons and devised a sharp game plan that resulted in the Buccaneers setting a franchise single-game scoring mark against the defending NFC champion.

Leftwich, in his first season with the organization, has brought an energetic, straightforward approach that has played well from the locker room to the executive suites. And although it’s early in Leftwich’s coaching career, he’s in a good spot to potentially run his own team one day.

Heck, he’s actually in the perfect position.

During an era in which owners prefer to pick from the offensive side of the ball to fill head-coaching vacancies, the league’s offensive coordinators are, in effect, head coaches in waiting. Leftwich and Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL’s only black offensive coordinators — and Leftwich is the only one of the two who has play-calling duties. Also a former first-round draft pick, Leftwich played quarterback for 10 seasons and contributed to the rise of black passers in a league that once shunned them.

Leftwich actually had no intention of coaching after his playing days ended. It was Arians who saw years ago that his current protégé had the chops to thrive in this field.

“Man, I’m a kid from Southeast [Washington], with very few opportunities to get through and make it. My way was football,” Leftwich said after practice recently at the Buccaneers’ headquarters. “I always dreamed about being a player. I went to sleep every night hoping, one day, I would throw the ball to [Washington NFL franchise greats] Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and Art Monk. Playing football on TV … that was everything for me.

“But coaching? Nah. It wasn’t for me. I just never really thought of it. But B.A., when I was playing, he always used to say to me, ‘Man, you’d be a hell of a coach.’ He kept telling me I should really think about it. I would just be like, ‘Yeah, B.A., I hear you.’ Then I’d get back to whatever I was doing to get ready to play. But B.A. didn’t stop, especially after I was done, and now I can say I’m really glad he didn’t. I feel like this is what I was meant to do.”

While Arians was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive coordinator and Leftwich was a backup quarterback on the team, Arians determined that Leftwich had both the smarts and the demeanor to become a difference-making coach. After he retired following the 2012 season, Leftwich said he “played as much golf as humanly possible.” But in his life of leisure, Leftwich realized something was missing. He longed for the competitiveness and camaraderie of the game.

“And that was right about the time that B.A. started calling me,” Leftwich said. “He called me every year and said, ‘Get your butt over here. Come do this thing.’ I went. And I fell in love with it.”

Starting as a coaching intern in 2016 on Arians’ Arizona Cardinals staff, Leftwich, 39, impressed by doing all the grunt work required of those who occupy the low-level positions. Some former NFL players aren’t willing to start at the bottom rung, but Leftwich displayed a positive attitude and delivered. The next season, Leftwich earned a promotion to quarterbacks coach, and he remained with the franchise after Arians walked away following the 2017 season to take a break from coaching. Last season, Leftwich became the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator under Steve Wilks after the team fired Mike McCoy. But when Wilks was fired at the end of the season, Leftwich was also let go.

Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich at work during a game against the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 28, 2018, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Enter Arians, who came out of retirement to lead the Buccaneers, in part, because Leftwich was available. Arians put together a Buccaneers staff that is the first in NFL history to have three African American coordinators: Leftwich, Todd Bowles (defense) and Keith Armstrong (special teams). Harold Goodwin, who is the team’s assistant head coach, offensive line coach and run game coordinator, is also black. Additionally, Arians hired the first two female coaches in Buccaneers history: Lori Locust (assistant defensive line) and Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning).

Arians, who said he believes in giving qualified people opportunities and then getting out of their way, understands why the makeup of his staff is historically significant.

“It really shouldn’t be, but it is,” Arians lamented. “When I see a qualified person not getting an opportunity, I want to give ’em one. … I hope more and more [head coaches] do because of [what I have done], and then we can stop talking about it. It’s just like with the women [coaches]. Hopefully, pretty soon, it won’t be news.”

By hiring Leftwich and empowering him to lead the offense, Arians willingly stepped into the background in his area of expertise. And that speaks volumes: The two-time Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year has proved to be as good as it gets at devising winning game plans and calling plays.

To assist in Leftwich’s growth, Buccaneers staffers say Arians does not micromanage him. That’s not to say Arians doesn’t grit his teeth from time to time, as any perfectionist teacher would while watching a star pupil grow into his own. But Leftwich truly runs the meeting room, assembles the overall offensive strategy for each opponent and chooses from his play sheet on game day. He has been in rhythm calling plays each week, and Arians is pleased with Leftwich’s performance during the Buccaneers’ 2-2 start. Furthermore, Tampa Bay officials believe he’s positioned well for long-term coaching success because he works at his current craft as hard as he did at his former one.

A star at Marshall University, Leftwich finished sixth in the voting for the 2002 Heisman Trophy. The Jacksonville Jaguars picked him seventh overall in the 2003 draft, and he helped the team earn an AFC wild-card berth in 2005. Leftwich started 50 of 60 games in his career and earned a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers. During his time with Jacksonville, Atlanta, Pittsburgh (two stints) and Tampa Bay, Leftwich witnessed major changes in the league’s perception of black quarterbacks.

“I remember when I was coming out [of college], it was still the big talk” if teams had starting black quarterbacks, Leftwich recalled. “It was still odd back then. And that wasn’t that long ago. That was just ’03.

“Now, you don’t even really hear about it anymore. It can no longer be asked, ‘Can African Americans handle being quarterbacks in the NFL?’ Why? Because you have so many guys doing so well.”

Leftwich is currently playing a key role in helping one do well.

Buccaneers passer Jameis Winston ranks fifth in the league in passing yards per game and has nine touchdown passes, which is one off the NFL lead. Leftwich and Arians believe that Winston, one of only five black quarterbacks selected first overall in NFL draft history, can succeed in Tampa Bay. Despite showing promising flashes on the field in his first four seasons, Winston has lacked consistency and been turnover-prone. His judgment off the field has, fairly, been called into question as well.

In 2018, the NFL suspended Winston for the first three games of the season for violating its personal conduct policy. The league’s investigation found that Winston inappropriately touched a female Uber driver in March 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona. In college at Florida State, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner came under scrutiny after being accused of sexual assault in 2012, although no charges were filed after Tallahassee, Florida, police investigated the allegation. Winston was neither suspended by the school nor disciplined by the football team. A civil suit filed by the alleged victim was settled out of court in 2016. No details of the agreement were released.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich (left) congratulates quarterback Jameis Winston (right) for his touchdown pass in the 2019 NFL regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.

Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

With Arians and Leftwich, Winston has a blank slate. And from the perspective of playing professional sports’ most important position, Leftwich and Winston speak the same language.

“The things that we talk about, I don’t have to guess about it, read it out of a book or have somebody have to tell me about it, because I went through those actual experiences,” Leftwich said. “Everything he’s going through [at the position], I’ve already been through. We can talk our way through just about anything. And this kid has played good football in the National Football League. He’s proven he can play good football. We’re just trying to make sure he consistently can do that.”

Winston appreciates their budding relationship.

“He was once in the position of being a young first-round draft pick, so he can relate,” Winston said. “And the fact that he has been in this offense under B.A. and he’s running the show … it’s important.”

Leftwich is showing the coaching acumen that Arians predicted, and the Buccaneers are benefiting from it. And if Leftwich continues on his current trajectory, it just might take him all the way to the top.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.