Ability to relate to QBs makes Byron Leftwich a 'rising star' as OC

At age 39, Bucs offensive coordinator and former first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich isn't far removed from a 10-year NFL playing career. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians might be the "quarterback whisperer" and the one charged with the task of getting the most out of Jameis Winston.

But interestingly, he's not in Winston's quarterback meeting rooms and won't be calling plays on Sundays. Instead, those responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Byron Leftwich, who has gone from intern to offensive coordinator in only three years.

"I've been training guys for this job. I always said I would never give up [playcalling] and look over anybody's shoulder until I found one I knew could do it," Arians said when he was first hired by the Bucs.

"I think he's a rising star in this business."

'He's more than ready'

After playing 10 seasons in the NFL with four teams, Leftwich, 39, wanted to get away from football. The seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft wanted more time with his family and to cultivate other passions.

But Arians' unrelenting phone calls were too much. He'd been trying to lure the former quarterback into coaching for years after Leftwich served as Ben Roethlisberger's backup when they were with the Pittsburgh Steelers, developing the kind of relationship in which Leftwich could tell what Arians was thinking and the plays he'd call next. Leftwich took special note of the way he handled quarterbacks.

"He cussed me out one day and I wasn't even playing," Leftwich said, chuckling. "I knew it was for Ben. It was not the time to say that to Ben; it was to say it to me so that I could relay it to Ben later on -- two, three plays later."

Leftwich's retirement vacation didn't last long. He couldn't walk by a television without getting sucked right back into football. He became an intern with the Arizona Cardinals under Arians in 2016, and quarterbacks coach in 2017 and 2018. He was promoted to offensive coordinator when Mike McCoy was fired after Week 7 last season. Arians watched from afar, working as a TV analyst.

"What he did with the interim title out there [in Arizona in 2018] -- it wasn't even his offense, it was Mike McCoy's offense -- and he did a heck of a job with some rookies. He's more than ready," Arians said.

The numbers weren't staggering, but the Cardinals showed some improvement on Leftwich's watch. They went from averaging 220.7 yards and 11.4 offensive points in Weeks 1-7 to 257.8 yards and 13.89 points in Weeks 8-17.

Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen called Leftwich a "steadying force." Running back David Johnson went from averaging 71.6 scrimmage yards to 98.3.

"The greatest thing that ever happened to me last year [in Arizona] was the last two months of last year, just being in that situation," said Leftwich, who saw his roster decimated by injuries, particularly along the offensive line.

"Sometimes, we had seven or eight rookies in the huddle. I don't think we had four draft picks. Those type of things, things that I learned that I was never able to experience in my early years of coaching, I got that opportunity to experience those things and I think I became a better coach from that."

'I just need honesty'

In Arizona, players praised Leftwich, who instilled confidence.

"His demeanor and mindset exuded confidence that was infectious. He could relate to everyone in the room and he commanded respect right off the bat," said Cleveland Browns backup quarterback Drew Stanton, who was coached by Leftwich in Arizona in 2016 and 2017.

He constantly sought their input, too. Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen says he believes this will help him with Tampa Bay.

"I always start with humility," Christensen said. "People respond to humility and people respond to teaching. Sometimes you get a false impression in coaching that, 'I've gotta set my turf' or 'I'm a tough guy' or 'This is my show.'

"I've been impressed with him that it's not that. It's 'us,' it's 'team,' it's 'orchestrator.' You've got all your instruments out there and you've just gotta bring 'em together. You don't have to play any of 'em. You've just gotta bring 'em together and make sure it sounds good, that the harmony's right."

Assistant head coach/run game coordinator Harold Goodwin added: "He takes input from everybody. He's not trying to be selfish. It doesn't have to be his way. I think that's gonna make him a great coach in this league when it comes to calling plays."

Leftwich's first order of business when he was hired? Developing an open, honest relationship with Winston and conveying his belief in him.

"I think you have to be connected at the hip," said Leftwich, who is responsible for the mental part of the game while Christensen focuses on mechanics. It's those two in the quarterback meeting rooms, along with longtime NFL assistant Tom Moore, who observes and relays everything to Arians, who purposely stays out to avoid Winston "hearing too many voices."

"The first thing I told Jameis is, 'I just need honesty. I don't care what the answer is, just give me honesty,' because once I know how he's winding and how he thinks, I can begin to call plays for him," Leftwich said.

"It's hard to really communicate and talk to people you don't know. So, we've been building from the day I've been in here. Jameis and I are building a friendship also, like I'm doing with the rest of these players, we're building friendships with these guys because that's what you ultimately want. Family -- everybody preaches family around the league, but this is what it means."

Said Stanton: "That's the only way to grow. There's gotta be trust built up."

'There's a lot of ways you can get the job done'

A big advantage for Leftwich could be Winston's playing style, which is similar to Roethlisberger. Both thrive on making the most out of broken-down plays made outside the pocket and a lot of improvisation.

"I was an 'X's and O's' guy. I was a guy that was never leaving the pocket," said Leftwich, who was 24-26 as an NFL starter, with all of those wins coming with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2003 to 2006. "But going there and slowing down and being a backup, it allowed me to see the way that I played the game and the way he played the game, and see that there's a whole lot of different ways you can get the job done.

"That in itself made me a completely better coach, a completely better player, just being around a guy with that unique skill set and seeing the plays that he would make on a daily basis, to understand you can do this thing in a lot of different ways once you understand of what your quarterback can and cannot do."

They're still in the learning stages, both in their communication and in Winston grasping the offense. For instance, during one of the final OTA practices, Winston was scrambling outside the pocket and the clock expired.

"We couldn't kill it. There's those little things that you're learning every day and building trust on," Arians said. "That's something that grows in time."

Leftwich is also working with Winston about efficiency and making the best use of his time. Winston has been in the Bucs' headquarters from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the offseason.

"I think it's very important, building that relationship with Byron," Winston said. "He's a very detail-oriented coach. He stays on us, day-in and day-out, and it's just good to have."

Leftwich says he wants Winston to maintain balance in his life, something Arians has always harped on.

"The key right now is that when he gets out of the building -- I believe in that," Leftwich said. "I believe in go enjoy your family, spend time and do that, because once we get started, it's nonstop every day. Right now this kid's over here so much sometimes. Sometimes I've got to tell them, 'You’ve got to get out of here.'"

'He can relate to everyone in the room'

Leftwich's greatest strength as a coach and playcaller, aside from Arians' mentorship, is unquestionably the fact that he can relate to the players.

"One thing he has over me and a lot of other coaches in the room is he's been in that room as a player -- he can relate to them on that level. He's been out there on the grass -- he can relate to them on that level," Goodwin said. "So I think that earns him a lot of respect."

Leftwich understands the psychological parts of playing quarterback, specifically in this system, which is predicated on taking risks and doesn't afford quarterbacks many opportunities for max protection.

"He's played in it ... he's seen it inside and out. ... A lot of people can speculate and say, 'Oh he coulda, shoulda done this,'" Christensen said. "He's been in there and knows what it looks like."

For the first time in his career last season, Winston was benched based on performance. It has been imperative that he's surrounded by coaches who are committed to helping him.

"[Him] seeing things how I see it, [his] understanding from being in that pocket and not all from a strategic standpoint -- it's [been] excellent," Winston said.

Leftwich can relate, as he was released by Jacksonville at a similar point in his career.

"I've been through the highs of highs and the lows of lows," Leftwich said. "I always tell guys that I've been through the blender. I've been the franchise quarterback and then I was the guy that nobody said can ever play and that's just part of playing quarterback in this business."

But it's not just on the quarterback level -- his view of the offense is comprehensive.

"He knows the game," tight end O.J. Howard said. "He's always helping us, critiquing our routes and certain things. He's a part of us and he helps us out a lot."

So far, through OTAs and two minicamps, Arians likes what he has seen from his protege.

"I think the whole time he's been outstanding. Really, really done a great job in the meeting rooms," Arians said. "I think he first of all is an excellent teacher. He knows what he's talking about. He's a heck of a teacher. So, he's got the guys right where they need to be."