Kyle Zedaker/Associated Press
They say that patience is a virtue. But apparently NFL teams searching for a new head coach aren’t especially virtuous—the coaching carousel seemingly starts spinning earlier every year. Most of the coaching vacancies in the league were filled weeks ago, and by the time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pasted the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV, there wasn’t an opening to be had.
That lack of patience may come back to bite some teams in the backside. While there has been plenty written regarding Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy not getting a head coaching gig in this hiring cycle, it wasn’t Bieniemy whose offense shined on football’s biggest stage Sunday night.
Now it’s Tampa Bay OC Byron Leftwich who is being talked up as the next hot name among head coach candidates. Assuming that the Buccaneers enjoy another successful season in 2021, Leftwich’s name is going to get mentioned with regularity when the next coaching carousel starts spinning.
And there will probably be a few teams who wish they had waited until after the Super Bowl and cut to the front of the line for the Leftwich Express.
It’s not completely surprising that the 41-year-old Leftwich wasn’t a front-runner for the jobs in this hiring cycle. The 2020 season marked just his fifth season as a coach overall and third as a coordinator, and his first two seasons as an OC for the Arizona Cardinals and Buccaneers weren’t especially auspicious.
However, it’s worth noting that Leftwich’s partial season as the coordinator in Arizona came during the five-alarm dumpster fire that was Steve Wilks’ lone season as the team’s head coach. And while the 2019 Buccaneers were just 7-9, Tampa was third in the league in total offense and scoring.
Don Wright/Associated Press
In 2020, it all came together for Leftwich and the Buccaneers. Yes, the arrival of the greatest quarterback in NFL history played a small part (or something), but Leftwich deserves his due credit for modifying his offense to fit what Tom Brady does best, whether it was more short, quick passes or giving his veteran quarterback more latitude and input on play calls.
By season’s end, the 11-5 Buccaneers were in the playoffs and the Tampa Bay offense was seventh in yards per game (384.1 yards per game) and third in scoring (30.8 points per game).
Things got even better in the postseason. Not only did the Buccaneers peel off three wins in a row on the road to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, but in tallying at least 30 points in all four postseason contests, the Bucs accomplished a first in NFL history.
Those achievements have shined a spotlight on Leftwich, who told reporters after the Super Bowl that he hopes his achievements and those of Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles open eyes in regard to both the pair as individuals and Black coaches as a whole:
“Me and Todd were focused on what we needed to do to win the football game. To have this opportunity, to have three African-American coordinators on the same team and find a way to win the Super Bowl, obviously it will open people’s eyes, but I can’t speak on if it changes anyone’s mind or thoughts around the hiring process. All we can do is just coach football. All we are trying to do is help these men grow and be in the best position and be the best football players they can be. That’s our goal. Our goal is to help these players be at their best. Especially when you have these moments where you can grow. I still think we are getting better. I think a week from now, we will be getting better. Two weeks from now, we will be playing even better football. It’s exciting. I know it just happened, but I am excited about what we have coming back and what this team has become.”
There’s little question that in an era when young, innovative offensive minds are in demand in the NFL, Tampa’s performance in Super Bowl LV turned heads in regard to Leftwich’s coaching acumen. There’s also the matter of Leftwich bringing something to the table no other young coordinator currently does—he actually played the quarterback position in the NFL for a decade, starting a playoff game for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005.
Given that—and the fact that many of the teams who hired new head coaches recently are endeavoring to rebuild around a young quarterback—a few franchises immediately stand out as teams that could regret passing on Leftwich.
Imagine for a moment if the Houston Texans, rather than botching their search for a new head coach and general manager in such spectacular fashion that star signal-caller Deshaun Watson reportedly wants out of town, had at least explored hiring Leftwich?
The Texans asked Watson for input on the general manager search and even hired a search firm, before ignoring both and hiring former Patriots executive Nick Caserio—which in turn led to Watson appearing to express his unhappiness with Houston on social media.
Doug Murray/Associated Press
Would hiring Leftwich instead of Ravens assistant head coach David Culley have mended that rift? That’s unknown. But hiring a coach who understands better than most what Watson is going through as a quarterback couldn’t have hurt.
There’s no shortage of excitement in Jacksonville right now. The team hired a wildly successful collegiate coach in former Florida and Ohio State head man Urban Meyer. Come April, the Jaguars will all but certainly use the first overall pick in the 2021 draft on Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence.
But Meyer has exactly as much NFL coaching experience as I do, and for every Jimmy Johnson or Pete Carroll who has made the jump from college to the pros there has been a Steve Spurrier or a Nick Saban. It was a splash hire, but it’s no sure bet by any measure.
Meyer might have a higher coaching profile than Leftwich, but in no way is he better equipped to ready Lawrence for the rigors of playing quarterback in the pros. There’s also something of a “hometown” connection here. Leftwich’s four seasons in Jacksonville were the best of his career from a playing standpoint.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers struggled their way to a 7-9 season in 2020 that cost Anthony Lynn his job. But there was a bright side to that down year—the record-setting season turned in by Justin Herbert on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
However, in something of a surprise move, rather than hiring an offensive-minded head coach to mold their new franchise quarterback, the Chargers took a stroll across SoFi Stadium and tabbed Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as the new man in charge.
Jason Behnken/Associated Press
Now, just because defense is Staley’s forte doesn’t doom him or Herbert to failure in 2021. Staley hired former New Orleans QB coach Joe Lombardi to be his offensive coordinator, and the 49-year-old could work wonders with Herbert. But pairing a young up-and-coming coach in Leftwich with a rising young passer in Herbert is intriguing, nonetheless.
Leftwich may yet get a chance to run an NFL team with a young quarterback to groom. Another down season in Cincinnati would probably be it for Zac Taylor, and if the ice under Matt Nagy in Chicago was any thinner, it would be water.
It’s possible that Culley, Staley and Meyer will be fine hires. It’s also possible that the Detroit Lions will soon wish there was someone in charge rather than Dan Campbell to help turn Jared Goff around. Whether it’s Sam Darnold or a rookie under center for the New York Jets in 2021, a keen young offensive guru could only help the quarterback’s development.
Odds are, as Leftwich is calling the plays for another top-10 offense in Tampa next year, there’s going to be a team with a first-year coach that silently mutters, “I wish I would have hired Byron Leftwich instead.”
If only they had been more patient.