Bruce Arians is not the next Sean McVay. That much is certain.
But he is a respected offensive mind and a quarterback whisperer in his own right. So the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope he will be the coaching remedy to whatever has ailed their would-be franchise quarterback, Jameis Winston, throughout his NFL career.
The previous two moves of his NFL hiring cycle for head coaches had a very similar feel. The Green Bay Packers hired Matt LaFleur, the 39-year-old offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans who is a coaching protege of McVay and Kyle Shanahan. The Arizona Cardinals hired Kliff Kingsbury, the 39-year-old former head coach of Texas Tech who worked with Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, Case Keenum and Johnny Manziel at various college stops.
The Packers and Cardinals were looking for the next McVay, the 32-year-old head coaching prodigy who has worked wonders with quarterback Jared Goff and has transformed the Rams into a powerhouse in two seasons in Los Angeles. The Chicago Bears followed that formula last year when they hired Matt Nagy, who produced similar progress with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and reached the NFC playoffs this season. The Packers and Cardinals hope they’re next.
The Buccaneers are breaking that trend by hiring Arians, the 66-year-old former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and the Cardinals, as their successor to Dirk Koetter. Arians is twice McVay’s age. He stepped away from the Cardinals after the 2017 season, and few would have been surprised if he’d never returned to coaching. He reportedly underwent a physical for the Buccaneers before they decided to hire him.
Arians served on the NFL’s advisory panel that drew up the league’s official list of recommended head coaching candidates for teams this year. That list didn’t include Arians’s name. But he was an intriguing possibility all along for some teams in this hiring cycle. Arians had said he would consider the Cleveland Browns’ coaching vacancy. It soon became clear, though, that he was emerging as the front-runner in Tampa.
Unlike LaFleur and Kingsbury, Arians is a proven NFL head coach. He went 9-3 with the Colts in 2012 while filling in for the ailing Chuck Pagano. He had consecutive seasons of 10-6, 11-5 and 13-3 in Arizona, taking the Cardinals to an NFC title game along the way. He knows quarterbacks both young and old: He got good results out of Andrew Luck as a rookie in Indianapolis and Carson Palmer as a veteran reclamation project in Arizona. As an assistant coach, he worked with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
With his dynamic personality, he is everything for the Buccaneers that Koetter was not. He is a coach with star quality. He commands a room. He has a presence.
He also is friendly with Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht, once a Cardinals executive. He reportedly will bring along Todd Bowles, the recently-fired head coach of the New York Jets, as his defensive coordinator, a job that Bowles previously held under Arians in Arizona.
Most importantly for the Buccaneers, Arians represents Winston’s last, best chance for NFL stardom.
Arians will be Winston’s third head coach in five NFL seasons, following Lovie Smith and Koetter. When the Buccaneers ousted Smith and promoted Koetter from offensive coordinator to head coach following Winston’s rookie season, that was supposed to be all about continuity for Winston, the top overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft.
It hasn’t worked. Winston has thrown 58 interceptions in four NFL seasons. The Buccaneers no longer are anyone’s choice as the league’s next breakthrough team, as they were for some prognosticators earlier in Winston’s career. They’ve had consecutive 5-11 seasons. Winston served a three-game suspension under the NFL’s personal-conduct policy to begin this season and later was benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
He regained the quarterback job late in the season and played well enough to produce some optimism that things still can work out as he enters his fifth NFL season, set to play on the $20.922 million option year in his rookie contract exercised by the Buccaneers. Arians’s arrival undoubtedly will serve to boost that optimism.
But will Arians and Winston mesh? The two know one another from Winston, as a kid, attending Arians’s football camp, and Arians has spoken of Winston in glowing terms. Will Winston thrive in Arians’s “no risk it, no biscuit” offensive approach? That’s hardly a given.
It will be interesting to watch. These days, it’s interesting — and unique — any time an NFL team hires a head coach on the other side of his 40th birthday and not chosen to be a McVay clone.