Even if this Super Bowl were not being contested during a pandemic, if the news conferences in advance were the typical series of rugby-style scrums and not the orderly, it’s-your-turn-now Zoom calls, the Buccaneers’ interviews with reporters covering the game would look different than those from every other year involving every other team that ever reached this stage.
Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong make Tampa the first team ever with African Americans holding all three of those positions to advance to the Super Bowl. More than half of the coaches on coach Bruce Arians’ staff are minorities. They also have a woman, Lori Locust, serving as assistant defensive line coach, and Maral Javadifar assists in the strength and conditioning program.
“I think it means a lot, especially with, just like, the current climate of the country,” star receiver Chris Godwin told Sporting News. “But I should say at the same time, I’m not surprised. Just being around BA for two years now, I’m not surprised at all that this is the type of staff that he’d put together. And it’s so cool that we’ve been able to have this success because a lot of the people on our staff — they’re so talented, they’re so smart and so capable.”
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It was inevitable that race would be part of the discussion about this Super Bowl given the circumstances in the country — and in the NFL. Nearly 22 percent of the league’s teams had openings for a head coach in this offseason, but only the Texans hired an African American candidate to fill their vacancy.
Eric Bienemy, offensive coordinator for the Chiefs, interviewed for six of the seven jobs available and got none of them. The Bengals have won nine AFC division championships in 51 years since the merger; Marvin Lewis earned four of those in 16 seasons. But he didn’t get a job, either, though he interviewed with multiple teams. With Anthony Lynn dismissed by the Chargers and the Texans bringing in David Culley, the NFL still has only three Black head coaches.
So many of the coaches hired over the past three offseasons have fit into the category of “offensive mastermind.” So if teams are going to continue hiring according to whatever seems like the next hot trend, perhaps the duel between Bienemy and Leftwich will have resonance next January.
“Hopefully one day it’s not such a big thing that two African American offensive coordinators are in the Super Bowl,” Leftwich said. “But it is still, right now.”
There are reasons why this matters, even beyond the basic sense of justice for minority candidates. There is an abundance of minority players in the league — nearly 70 percent — but few can look at their head coaches and see a sense of representation.
Leftwich, Bucs inside linebackers coach Larry Foote and offensive assistant Antwaan Randle-El all played for the Steelers when Arians was the team’s offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2011. Arians became familiar with their leadership skills and knowledge of the game during those years. It also mattered, though, that they could see themselves having a future in coaching while playing under Mike Tomlin, who is the winningest African American coach in the league’s history.
“When he joined our staff, he was probably 31-32 years old at the time. Coming from a similar background, I started thinking, ‘Man, I could be a coach in this league,’” Foote told Sporting News. “He started putting that in my ear through the years, and I kind of like started following after him for a little bit. The older I got, BA offered me the job, I just took it and ran with it.
“We know throughout the years, this league is lacking in that area. The media is doing a great job, keep on putting the pressure on them. And hopefully you start seeing guys of color getting more opportunities.”
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Foote said he was pleased to see hires such as Martin Mayhew as general manager of the Washington Football Team, Brad Holmes in the same position with the Lions and Terry Fontenot with the Falcons.
“I think it’s going to start there. Then more coordinators,” Foote told SN. “The good offensive coordinators have been quarterbacks. Now the quarterback thing is getting knocked down. So when these guys start retiring, you’ll start seeing them be coordinators. And you’ll see the offensive side catch up with the defensive side, in my opinion.”
Arians told reporters Monday that having to wait so long for his first opportunity to be an NFL head coach made him want to provide opportunities to others who might be overlooked. He was head coach at Temple in his early 30s, but after moving to the NFL in 1989 he waited more than two decades for his first chance to be a head coach — and that only developed on an interim basis with the Colts, in 2012 when Arians was just approaching his 60th birthday, because Chuck Pagano became ill with leukemia.
“I was a winning Super Bowl offensive coordinator and didn’t even get a phone call,” Arians said. “So the lack of opportunity, I think, has made me want to give more opportunities to more people.”
Leftwich said Arians began working on him to consider a coaching future all the way back when they were together in Pittsburgh and helped win Super Bowl 43 — which, coincidentally, was the most recent played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where the Chiefs-Bucs game will be contested Sunday evening. Leftwich was Ben Roethlisberger’s primary backup that season, and again when Pittsburgh returned to the Super Bowl in 2010.
Although his promising playing career was constantly disrupted by injuries, Leftwich did earn more than $27 million in a decade. He was content to work on his golf game for a while after leaving those bruises and broken bones and surgeries behind. Arians never relented, though, and the Cardinals coach convinced Leftwich to take an intern position in 2016. Less than a year later, he was hired to be quarterbacks coach. He was promoted to interim OC in October 2018 by Steve Wilks, who succeeded Arians after his decision to retire.
“BA always wanted me to coach, and it was just something I just wasn’t ready to do. I needed to get away,” Leftwich said. “I needed to see what the rest of the world was about. You’ve got to understand: You’re in team meetings and in football meetings for almost all my life, so it was an opportunity for me to just be a civilian.
“Now, during the process, I always talked football. Football is my life. Anybody that knows me knows how I feel about football. Me and BA would talk; I would tell him what I would see through the TV. … I had an opportunity to talk to Ben, watching the Steelers play and talk to Ben about certain things. I never really got away from football. I just was not into meetings.”
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When Arians chose to return for the 2019 season as Bucs coach, Leftwich was among his first hires. It’s easy to see why. Leftwich displays an infectious enthusiasm and a passion for the game. And his aggressive style suits Arians’ “No risk it, no biscuit” philosophy — perhaps best exhibited on the decisive play of the Bucs’ NFC championship game victory over Green Bay, the 39-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to speedy Scottie Miller that provided a 21-10 halftime lead.
Arians trusts Leftwich to call the Bucs’ offensive plays, which means the great Tom Brady trusts him, too. There were struggles for all three during the course of the regular season, which were most obvious in a November loss to the Chiefs that was not as close as the 27-24 final score. The schedule relented at that point, however, and the Bucs built some momentum on the way into the playoffs. They’ve won their past seven, including significant playoff challenges against the Saints and Packers.
They’ve done it with Leftwich calling plays, Bowles arranging the defensive schemes and Armstrong endeavoring to ensure his special teamers don’t commit the block-in-the-back penalties that are the bane of every team’s return units. Harold Goodwin is the team’s assistant head coach and run game coordinator. Mike Caldwell coaches inside linebackers. Todd McNair handles running backs, Kacy Rodgers the defensive line and Kevin Ross the cornerbacks. Roger Kingdom, a two-time Olympic hurdles champion, heads the speed and conditioning program.
“To be able to be a part of a team with such a diverse coaching staff — all types of races and religion and gender — it’s so cool to be a part of,” Godwin told SN. “And I also think it’s made us much better people. These things don’t seem atypical to us … that’s our norm.”