For Bruce Arians, the feeling was as unfamiliar as it was familiar. The plush green surface setting the stage for world-class athletes to work, engulfed by the hypnotic sounds of bodies colliding, Jugs machines spitting out balls and coaches bellowing orders, felt not only familiar but right. And yet Arians stood knowing something was missing; for the first time in a near-50-year career, the 66-year-old – sporting one of his typical Kangol caps – didn’t have a whistle around his neck.
That nagging feeling was there the whole time, whether in Denver ahead of an AFC West clash between the Broncos and the Oakland Raiders, in Atlanta as the Falcons prepared to face off against Cincinnati Bengals or in the Big Apple where the New York Jets were taking on the Indianapolis Colts.
Arians was in attendance as a colour commentator for CBS, a job that should have set the stage for Part II of a fine association with football. But as the former Arizona Cardinals leading man stood small-talking with general managers and pressing the flesh of well-wishers and old adversaries alike, he couldn’t help but think like a coach, filing away mental notes for a then-unbeknown next chapter that, it turned out, would take place with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It really helped going to practices every Friday and seeing guys around the league,” he tells Gridiron Annual Bookazine. “The travel was not very good but other than that, it was great and I enjoyed the job. I especially learned from those Friday practices. I saw 15 different practices and it was fun. I would watch and think, ‘Yeah I would do this’ or ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ I was meeting all of the players and it was really enjoyable. If there was something I saw I would think about whether it was interesting in the broadcast but I was also thinking, ‘Hey, I would really do that on Fridays if I ever got back in coaching’.”
Not that he needed much help.
It is one of the great NFL mysteries that Arians didn’t become an NFL head coach until he was 60. And, even then, it was by accident.
Serving as interim while Chuck Pagano battled leukemia in 2012, Arians guided the Indianapolis Colts to nine wins out of 12 and a spot in the playoffs during Andrew Luck’s rookie year. After being named NFL Coach of the Year, he moved on to take charge of the Cardinals and, in the next three seasons, marshalled Arizona to 10-6, 11-5 and 13-3 records, the latter of which earned him another NFL Coach of the Year award in 2015 as the Cards reached the NFC Championship Game.
His final two terms in Arizona failed to produce a winning record but coaxing eight wins out of the talent-deficient Cardinals in 2017 should be hailed as one of Arians’ finest achievements. Especially considering, late in his tenure, the native of Paterson, New Jersey endured some health issues as he was hospitalised with chest pains and, six months later, underwent surgery to remove cancerous cells from his kidney. As he stepped away from the game and into the television booth, it appeared the 2017 campaign would be Arians’ last in the NFL, leaving most with a nagging feeling of what might have been had NFL owners and general managers recognised his talents sooner.
The public weren’t alone. “Around Week 8, I found myself itching a little bit so I thought, ‘Okay, if the right opportunity comes along, maybe I will listen’,” Arians explains. “I wasn’t pining to get back into coaching, but this opportunity was fantastic from ownership to general manager and the quarterback – it all lined up, plus all of my assistant coaches were available. It was a great feeling to get back in. It feels fantastic.”
As Arians indicates, there were a number of key factors that dragged him back into the coaching arena. Including a warm-weather clause, perhaps, as he moved from Arizona to Tampa? “Totally,” the veteran coach laughs. “Seriously, though, it starts with the ownership and I think the Glazers are a fantastic family to work for. Jason Licht was a good friend and I had a lot of respect for him as an evaluator and general manager. Jameis Winston is a kid I’ve known since the ninth grade and I really liked him as a quarterback. Todd Bowles was available and all of my assistants lined up and that is very unusual. It’s very hard to walk into a job and have your wife know 18 of the other wives, so she was happy too.”
Arians has surrounded himself with familiar faces. Licht worked alongside his new head coach in Arizona as the Cardinals’ vice-president of player personnel. Two former Cardinals offensive coordinators are also on the staff in Harold Goodwin and Byron Leftwich, the latter of whom will assume play-calling duties in 2019. Bowles is set to serve as Tampa’s defensive coordinator – a role he held under Arians in Arizona before taking charge of the New York Jets.
Yet perhaps the most significant members of the staff culturally are Maral Javadifar (assistant strength and conditioning) and Lori Locust (assistant defensive line), making the Bucs the first NFL team to employ two female coaches. For Arians, the man whose career has been hallmarked by not being afforded the opportunities he should, inclusiveness is a natural endeavour. “I think everybody understands that people can do jobs and do them well so the diversity and inclusiveness is important,” insists Arians, who also employed a female coach in Arizona in Jen Welter. “There shouldn’t be a wall anywhere. That is big for me.”
While Arians will set high standards for his assistant coaches, they won’t have to worry about being chained to their desks into the wee small hours of the morning. That’s not B.A.’s style. In fact, the head coach is more likely to be the one chasing his assistants out of the building. “I feel very strongly about being fresh because our coaches are nothing more than teachers,” Arians stresses. “If you’re in the office at 2:30am and you have a meeting at eight in the morning, you’re not going to be a good teacher – it just doesn’t work that way. To me, the game is not that complicated – if you’re looking for another way to run a certain play or you’re looking at how somebody else runs something and it is midnight, just run your stuff.
“I tell my coaches, ‘If you miss your kid’s football game or basketball game or a recital, I’ll fire you’. They don’t get that family time back – if they miss that kid’s game, you don’t get that back. You can come back to work if you want to – go to the game and then come back to work. Or come in at five in the morning and get it done. There are plenty of hours in the day, so don’t miss out on that stuff – it’s too important to the kids.”
Such a strong statement begs the question… did Arians adopt that approach becoming a head coach because he missed some of that family stuff as an assistant? “Definitely,” Arians replies. “Definitely – it doesn’t need to happen.”
For all there’ll be less midnight oil burnt in Tampa than other NFL locations, Arians is under no illusions over the challenge that awaits he and his staff. A task that starts, in his mind, with kickstarting the career of a former first overall pick whose presence was so crucial to the Buccaneers luring Arians out of retirement.
In the list of recent can’t-miss quarterback prospects, Jameis Winston ranks right up there. A National Championship winner in his first season with the Florida State Seminoles, the signal-caller was, alongside fellow 2015 draftee Marcus Mariota, considered a sure thing who would quickly catapult the Bucs towards their second Super Bowl title.
Four years on, Winston is at a crossroads, undermined by inconsistency and fighting for his football future after a campaign in which he often rode the pine while journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick started. The 25-year-old, still lavishly talented, is in need of guidance; enter Arians, who first came across Winston at one of his football camps in Birmingham, Alabama.
“It’s funny because you do football camps with kids all the time and you never really know if you impact one,” Arians explains. “He remembers me letting him put my Super Bowl ring on his finger and how much that meant to him as a ninth-grader. You just never know when you’re going to impact one. I’ve followed his career ever since. It was very odd how it all worked out.
“On the physical side, you can always get better, but Jameis has all the talent. He has the size, the arm and he can make every throw. He is a natural leader – I have no problem with him being the face of the franchise because he is the first one in and the last one to leave every day. He’s got everything that it takes to be successful. We’ve just got to make sure we have all the pieces around him.”
While he has the public backing of the head coach, Winston also knows that he simply must tidy up his game. In his first four NFL seasons, Winston has thrown 58 interceptions and lost 18 fumbles for a total of 76 turnovers. Those numbers prompted Arians to say “stop throwing it to the other team” when asked what advice he would give to Winston upon taking the Buccaneers job!
“Honesty is one of my problems,” the former college quarterback at Virginia Tech laughs. “But honesty comes out as the truth and, sometimes, that cannot be sugar-coated. That is the first thing he needs to do though. And hopefully our defense and running game will help and we’re not playing from 20 points behind all the time. Jameis will play much, much better.”
If anyone can find the key that unlocks Winston, it is Arians, who has earned a reputation as an NFL quarterback whisperer having tutored some of the best in Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Luck and Carson Palmer. But is there a secret sauce? “They’re all different and they all learn differently,” stresses Arians, who has coached top-10 offenses in Arizona, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. “The one key is finding what is their hot button when it comes to learning. But the big word when it comes to dealing with quarterbacks is ‘trust.’ You have to build a trust.
“When you ask them, ‘Why did the ball come out of your hand and go to that guy?’, you want them to explain it to you. You want them to tell you and if they can do that and don’t tell you what you want to hear, but what they really saw… then you have something special.”
‘Something special’ is exactly what Tampa Bay will require in an ultra-competitive NFC South. “It really does feel wide open because everybody has a good quarterback and a solid defense, so it should be a knock-down, drag-out division every year,” Arians concludes. “Obviously, New Orleans are doing great things with Drew Brees and their defense really picked up in the last couple of years. Then you have Matt Ryan and the Atlanta defense and Cam Newton and the Carolina defense. Everybody has a solid team. Who can stay healthy and who can win the close games? That’s going to be the key.”
Yet there is hope. Their offense ranked third-best in football last year, while the defense was bolstered by a draft which saw the first five selections made on that side of the ball and the eye-catching veteran pickup of Ndamukong Suh. And, of course, there is the most important factor of all, that which has Buccaneers fans dreaming of a Lombardi Trophy for the first time since 2003: Arians has his whistle back.
This article originally appeared in the third Gridiron Annual Bookazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE