Byron Leftwich NFL Coaching Profile: Gutsy Player, Polarizing Coach

Byron Leftwich, former NFL quarterback and current offensive coordinator, has a strong resume and experience as a coach, making him a potential head coaching candidate.

Byron Leftwich has generated head coaching hype for a few years and has been part of a number of high-powered offenses as an offensive coordinator. This last year has been a blemish on his resume in that regard, but his experience and resume make him an ideal potential head coach candidate.

Leftwich has, in five short years, coordinated offenses that have ranked 32nd and second in points scored. That 32-ranked season doesn’t quite count, however, as he was an interim coordinator. His first year as a coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals under head coach Steve Wilks saw him take over the offense in Week 8 after offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was let go.

With some excellent full seasons as a coordinator, he might be able to earn a head coaching job, so long as they look past this disappointing 2022 season for the Bucs.

Byron Leftwich Was a Gutsy Quarterback

A star high-school athlete, Leftwich was lightly recruited despite his incredible arm and large frame. Mentally, he had already advanced past most college quarterback recruits, as he was given the latitude to call his own plays, often calling plays in situations as a senior.

His high school coach would have him spend summers as a play-caller in throwing camps, preparing him for his eventual NFL role as the official play-caller for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

He committed to the Marshall Thundering Herd after seeing the team dominate throughout the 1990s in Division I-AA (now called the FCS). They had just moved up to Division I-A (FBS) in 1997 when Leftwich committed, and Marshall continued to win more games than almost any other I-A team by the time Leftwich saw significant playing time.

Leftwich’s time at Marshall overlapped with that of Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, Doug Chapman, Nate Poole, Chris Crocker, and Darius Watts. He took over for Pennington as a starter in 2000 and proceeded to set MAC records from 2000 to 2002, setting the record for most career and season passing yards, career total offense, career completions, and career and single-season completion percent by the time he declared for the draft.

He was the two-time MAC offensive player of the year, a three-time Bowl Game MVP (Music City Bowl and back-to-back GMAC Bowls, winning the MAC twice in his three-year tenure.

More memorably, Leftwich is at the center of two of college football‘s most iconic moments in the early 2000s. In 2002, against Akron, Leftwich sustained a hairline fracture in his shin and had to be taken out of the stadium for an X-Ray. In the third quarter, he returned to the game to attempt to rally a comeback and had to be carried down the field by his offensive line and then carried to the sideline after the offense was done on that drive.

He was also responsible for the Miracle in Mobile, one of the greatest comebacks in college football history. Down 38-8 at the half in the 2001 GMAC Bowls, the Marshall Thundering Herd would go on to defeat the East Carolina Pirates 64-61 in double-overtime in one of the most exciting spectacles college football had seen.

Leftwich entered the NFL as a promising first-round quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, selected seventh overall despite a host of injuries in his lower body that resulted in multiple screws in his leg. Multiple teams were interested, too. But the reason he went seventh instead of later is that the Vikings were negotiating with the Baltimore Ravens for the pick, and the Ravens were hoping to select Leftwich with that selection.

The negotiations took too long, and the clock expired. Immediately, the Jaguars pulled the trigger on the pick and drafted Leftwich. Not long after, the Panthers selected their pick, and the Vikings finally ended up making their pick, defensive end/tackle Kevin Williams from Oklahoma.

Leftwich proved to be tough and earned the respect of his teammates, but he had issues fixing his mechanics and putting touch on softer throws, making it difficult for him to hit his full potential.

While he was winning in Jacksonville, persistent injury thrust David Garrard into the starting lineup. Garrard’s mobility and better record – along with disagreements Leftwich had with head coach Jack Del Rio – made it easy for Jacksonville to trade him to the Atlanta Falcons after Leftwich lost the starting job to Garrard in the final year of his contract.

Leftwich spent time in Atlanta before signing with Pittsburgh to be the back to his MAC rival, Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich was a capable backup, and that’s where he first connected with Bruce Arians, the offensive coordinator of the Steelers from 2007 to 2011.

He only spent one year with Pittsburgh before signing with Tampa Bay, but his play was poor enough there as a starter that he was benched after three games. Next year, he was traded back to Pittsburgh, where he played as a backup until 2012.

Byron Leftwich Has Been a Successful Coordinator, but There Are Questions

Leftwich’s time with Arians overlapped for four years, and that’s what gave Arians the confidence to give a coaching intern job to the quarterback when he retired, allowing him to quickly rise up the ranks as an assistant – he earned a job as the quarterbacks coach the year after in 2016 and then ascended to the interim offensive coordinator job in 2018 after McCoy was let go.

The offense wasn’t filled with stellar personnel and wasn’t guided in the right direction when Leftwich took over. They scored more than 18 points once in the first eight weeks of the season and averaged 13.8 points per game. Leftwich took over after that, with a bye week to prepare.

In Leftwich’s eight games, they weren’t much better, but they were better. They scored more than 18 points three times and averaged 14.4 points per game.

With Mike Glennon and Josh Rosen at the helm, throwing to a nearly-retired Larry Fitzgerald, a rookie Christian Kirk and role players like J.J. Nelson, Chad Williams, and Trent Sherfield, there wasn’t much juice to squeeze.

Arians brought Leftwich to Tampa Bay as an offensive coordinator, and Leftwich flourished – first succeeding with Jameis Winston, then with Tom Brady. While it’s fair to point out that succeeding with Brady is a given – the offense ranked seventh in points in 2019 and averaged as a ranking of 3.7 since 2013. Until this year, the Buccaneers exceeded that average with and without Brady.

There have been a number of questions about Leftwich’s tenure with the Buccaneers, including his control over the offense, whether he’s responsible for the decline in 2022, whether the moments of strong offensive performance are plays called by him or Brady and whether or not he’s been muzzled by Bowles or controlled by Arians.

Generally speaking, these have been refuted by Leftwich, Brady, and Arians – the latter of whom considers Leftwich a “star” that should get a head coaching job sooner rather than later.

Brady and Leftwich have both denied reports that Brady or Arians would exercise control over the offense, as has Bowles. But the reports are from multiple reporters who are typically well-sourced. Other well-sourced reporters disagree. It’s important to note that Arians shouldered the blame on Tampa Bay’s offensive underperformance on Brady’s level of play more than Leftwich’s playcalling or game planning.

How exactly those questions get resolved might be critical for any franchise hoping to find its next future head coach. It almost never became an issue, as Leftwich was tapped to be the next head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. That fell through, however, when Leftwich declined to take the job – reportedly after learning that the Jaguars would stick with general manager Trent Baalke.

Baalke has had a history of cycling through coaches. All three of his previous hires had been fired inside of their first season, and the head coach he inherited in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh, was seemingly driven out by Baalke. Leftwich was not the only head coach candidate who objected to Baalke’s presence in Jacksonville.

Now, Leftwich’s prospects as a head coach candidate are slim, power play moves or not. But it’s still possible that a team looks beyond what happened in 2022 and instead looks at the bigger picture, one of broad success.

Byron Leftwich Expected To Make $4 Million

It takes a lot of leverage for a new head coach candidate to demand more than $4 million a year, which is the standard salary for unproven head coaches. Now that Leftwich’s star has dimmed a little bit, it will be tough for him to swing more than that standard salary, though we sometimes see that swing by half a million dollars in either direction.

After a few successful seasons, coaches can earn quite a bit more, and the equity they’ve built up by winning can sometimes double or even triple their salary. Until then, it’s largely a $4 million yearly take.

Teams That Could Target Byron Leftwich

Any team hoping to find a coach that will work one-on-one with their quarterback in order to further develop them should be interested, as will any team wanting to switch from a defensive-minded head coach to an offensive-minded one. The two franchises he was closest with as a player – Pittsburgh and Jacksonville – won’t be searching for one.

Arizona Cardinals

Kyler Murray is a talented quarterback but needs guidance in expanding his play. Murray plays frenetically, and even though he holds on to the ball longer than almost every other quarterback, he’s not necessarily patient. Having a coach like Leftwich might enable him to develop the parts of his game that are missing and could bring the Cardinals to the next level. This would also allow Leftwich to return to Arizona, where he started as a coach.

Carolina Panthers

It would be a little awkward to succeed Steve Wilks after working under him in Arizona, but it’s under better circumstances; Wilks himself is a head coach candidate and has done a good job as an interim with the Panthers, unlocking more of Sam Darnold than anyone else has.

Along that path, Leftwich could build on what has worked for Darnold while also finding ways to make the Panthers play more consistently – when they’re good, they look pretty good. But they haven’t found that magic bullet quite yet.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts will likely try to move on from Jeff Saturday and their trend of bringing in veteran quarterbacks. Owner Jim Irsay is a strong believer in his group of friends and confidants – one reason he reached out to Saturday in the first place – and he respects Bruce Arians, who was an offensive coordinator and interim head coach for the Colts in 2012 and coached Peyton Manning as the quarterbacks coach from 1998-2000.

He recently spoke to Arians about his quarterback conundrums, and there’s a good chance that Arians put in a good word for Leftwich. There seems to be no bigger proponent for any assistant coach anywhere than there is with Arians and Leftwich.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos are stuck with Russell Wilson, so they might as well try to find someone who might be able to maximize him. Leftwich’s experience working directly with quarterbacks – and his ability to call plays, something that wasn’t confirmed with Nathaniel Hackett when he was hired – might be enough to get more out of Wilson, who needs to take advantage of every part of the field and adapt to a less mobile playing style as he continues to grow older.

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