From a distance, the rapid rise of the Bucs to Sunday’s NFC championship game at the Green Bay Packers points to one person: the Hall of Fame-bound Brady, still elite at 43. A closer look shows credit also belongs to Coach Bruce Arians.
It has been Arians, 68, who has juggled the contrasting cultures of a losing franchise and a winning quarterback. It has been Arians who has weaved in the personalities of players who have been name brands in other places — Gronkowski, Brady, Brown, Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul — with quieter gems such as Mike Evans and Lavonte David, who have waited patiently for a shot at the postseason spotlight. It has been Arians who has carved out a place for a surprising group of rookies who had little preseason preparation. And it has been Arians who has molded his offense to fit Brady while facing plenty of questions about their compatibility.
He has done all of this during a pandemic season — one that favored teams with familiarity and experience as a group. After a gutting home loss in November to one of those teams — defending champion Kansas City — Arians’s hope for the bye week was simple: no positive coronavirus tests. The players returned healthy and haven’t lost since.
“We’ve really come on strong the last six weeks,” Brady said this week. “We’ve played our best football when we needed it the most. The team has really come together, performing and executing to get two [playoff] road wins.”
Arians showed up in Tampa a year before Brady, but it’s as if he was built for this very situation. He has made a long and winding career of turning the traditional my-way-or-the-highway coaching strategy on its head, in favor of empowering players new and old. That has made him a winner this season, but it also made him somewhat of a trailblazer in leadership style and hiring strategy.
“He’s letting players play, adapting to the offense in their own way,” running back Ronald Jones II said. “It’s playing to our strengths.”
Some of Arians’s influence comes from his ability to meet players where they’re at. He speaks plainly, colloquially, sometimes bluntly, and his players seem to take to it.
“He’s going to coach you hard, but he’s also going to love you hard,” center Ryan Jensen said. “The good butt-rip is sometimes needed, but he’s going to love you up and make sure you go into the game confident.”
Some of this is undoubtedly from the great Bear Bryant, whom Arians worked for in the early 1980s, but some of it surely comes from his upbringing. Arians went to high school in York, Pa., which was both a proud town (home of the York Peppermint Pattie) and a place where racial tensions erupted into riots when Arians was a teenager. Arians has said many of his closest childhood friends were Black, and he became the first White player at Virginia Tech to have a Black roommate. He is now one of the NFL’s leaders in hiring diversity, with three Black coordinators on his staff.
“This goes way back with him,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. “This is authentic with him. This isn’t just so he can look good. You have to respect that.”
Jen Welter, who joined Arians’s coaching staff in Arizona, saw his psychology skills right away. At the beginning of her tenure, she went onto the practice field with a fitted cap — lacking the opening in the back for a ponytail — and chucked it to the side almost immediately. Arians noticed. A couple of days later, there was a cap with a gap waiting for her.
“Bruce has an infamous saying about being able to read a guy’s eyes,” Welter said. “He learned how to read people from his time as a bartender. What does one guy need — or female need — in the situation? Pay attention to that.”
So it’s a step away from the coach-as-dictator approach and a step closer to coach-as-supporter. For the older players, that’s a nice combination. They want to learn, but they don’t want to have to unlearn things that worked for them. “You can’t just have a whistle around your neck and be a robot and not expect that s--- to backfire on you in the most crucial moments,” Riddick said.
But it’s not just a vibe; it’s X’s and O’s, too. In Arians’s first three years as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team’s yards gained on offense rose from 17th in the league to seventh. In the same stat, his Cardinals rose from 12th to first in three years. And in Tampa, his teams have been third and seventh in the league in yards. His ability to blend his offensive system with the skills of his players has been on display with Brady and other Bucs this season.
“Just when you thought you ran the right route,” Gronkowski said, “he comes back with a little more knowledge and detail.”
It’s not as if Arians is a pushover, though. “If you’re not doing something right,” Welter said, “you’ll know about it.” Arians once mouthed off to Bryant when the legendary coach wouldn’t let him recruit. And he leveled criticism against Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner, during some of the team’s struggles this season.
Tampa Bay’s path to the conference championship game wasn’t smooth. After that loss to the Chiefs, the Bucs had beaten a grand total of one playoff-bound team (the Packers), and they had given up 400-plus yards in two of their previous three games. Sports radio and social media gave Arians’s team a collective side-eye. Brady didn’t really look like Brady. Yet Arians professed confidence, and a few weeks later, after the regular season ended and before his team earned back-to-back playoff road wins, he sounded as if he knew it all along.
“I envisioned 40 [touchdown passes for Brady]. I really did,” he said. “But I was expecting practice. I was expecting [organized team activities in the offseason]. We didn’t get that. What he’s done the last half of the season is incredible.”
Even with all of his experience, there’s one experience missing for Arians: a Super Bowl appearance as a head coach. Despite a title run in 2008 as offensive coordinator with the Steelers, Arians didn’t get a full-time top job until 61. He already has more playoff victories this season (two) than in all of his other head coaching seasons combined (one). One more and he will reach the sport’s highest stage.
On Thursday’s Zoom session with reporters, Arians was asked whether, through all of the pandemic and the personnel changes, he has changed his coaching style this season.
His top lip curled into a half-smile, and he looked square into the camera.
“Not at all.”