“Byron,” Headen remembers someone telling him.
“Tell him to do the same thing,” Headen said.
Byron Leftwich, a freshman wide receiver hopeful, rifled another laser beam. Headen waved him over and told Leftwich he liked how he threw. Leftwich wanted to play wideout, but Headen insisted he would become Woodson’s backup quarterback. In a blowout later in the season against Spingarn, Leftwich got to play and threw a touchdown pass.
“The next morning, he said, ‘Coach, I think I like that position, quarterback,’ ” Headen said this week, laughing. “And that was it.”
The football journey Leftwich began in Washington has taken him to a position of prominence at the Super Bowl, the third of his career but his first as a coach. A cerebral quarterback for 10 years in the NFL, Leftwich began his rapid coaching ascent five years ago, when he again agreed to take on a role he at first didn’t know he wanted. On Sunday, Leftwich will call plays for Tom Brady as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator.
Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians, Leftwich’s offensive coordinator late in his playing career when he was a backup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, attempted to lure Leftwich into coaching for three years, until Leftwich decided he was ready. Arians views him as so essential that he said he would not have come out of retirement to coach Tampa Bay had the organization not agreed to let him hire Leftwich as offensive coordinator.
When Arians hired Leftwich, he made him part of the NFL’s most diverse coaching staff. The Bucs have 12 Black assistant coaches, including an unprecedented four coordinators in Leftwich, special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and run game coordinator/assistant head coach Harold Goodwin. The staff also includes two women, assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar and assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust.
“For us, it’s the best coaches we know,” Arians said. “They just happen to be some women, some African American. I would hope that other owners would look and see that this works, to have that many different voices giving input so that the output is greater, and make an example of it.”
Arians assembled his staff amid a persistent, ongoing NFL crisis. A league consisting of roughly 70 percent Black players has only three Black head coaches and an acute dearth of Black offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches — the two positions most likely to produce head coaching candidates. Despite appearing in his second straight Super Bowl, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was passed over for the third consecutive hiring cycle in which he received multiple interviews. Leftwich did not even get an interview.
If NFL owners are to improve their dismal record of hiring Black coaches, Leftwich may be a pivotal figure. Despite the league overlooking him this year, his supporters and players believe he is a future head coach. “He’s just got an amazing sense of poise under duress,” Brady said. “He’s got a lot of great years ahead of him. I’m sure he’ll be a head coach very soon.” Leftwich, 41, would be the first Black quarterback to play in the NFL and become a head coach in the league since Fritz Pollard in 1921.
“Hopefully one day it’s not such a big thing that two African American coordinators are in the Super Bowl,” Leftwich said. “But it is still right now. So it’s something we have to talk about.”
‘He gives it everything he’s got’
From the start, Leftwich exuded the qualities of a future coach. Headen gave him free rein in Woodson’s pass-happy offense, allowing him to audible to different plays at the line of scrimmage because his calls almost always worked. “The guys, they listened to him,” Headen said.
Leftwich went on to have a successful collegiate career at Marshall, where he became a Heisman Trophy contender and created the iconic image of his offensive linemen carrying him down the field after he returned from a leg injury serious enough that he had been driven to a hospital for X-rays.
“It’s the same way that he coaches,” Brady said. “He gives it everything he’s got.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Leftwich seventh overall, and he led them for four seasons before losing his job. He bounced around for the rest of his career, spending the final three seasons as a backup to Ben Roethlisberger.
A backup quarterback often serves as an extension of the coaching staff, but Leftwich resisted the role at first. “I ain’t going to be no coach,” Charlie Batch, another Steelers quarterback, would sometimes hear him mutter. But Leftwich rapidly embraced the necessity of seeing the game through another quarterback’s eyes.
Leftwich knew Roethlisberger loved golf. To understand him better and to build trust, Leftwich decided he should join Roethlisberger on the course. He also knew Roethlisberger took his golf seriously and only played with a few Steelers players and coaches who could shoot low enough to plow through 18 holes quickly. “You might want to work on your handicap,” Batch told him.
“He won’t admit it, but it’s okay,” Batch said. “I know he went out there and hired a golf pro and worked on his swing. And he caught the bug. By the time he got back to Pittsburgh in 2010, they would go play a lot.”
If Arians needed to deliver a message to a player in a fresh way, he would ask Leftwich or Batch to tell him. Arians saw Leftwich offering tips not only to Roethlisberger but also to young wide receivers such as Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. In practice, Leftwich would know what play Arians wanted to call just by hearing the formation. Other quarterbacks wanted wristbands with play calls connected to a number Arians called. Leftwich always wanted to hear the actual play because he could visualize it as Arians called it.
“He could see the patterns develop when you were calling the play,” Batch said.
When Leftwich retired, he settled into what he called “civilian life,” a chance to decompress after a decade spent in meeting rooms and practice fields. He had a standing 7:45 a.m. tee time Monday through Thursday and whittled his golf handicap to 6. But he still talked football with Roethlisberger and other players, and after Arians spent three years trying to coax Leftwich into coaching, Leftwich finally agreed.
Arians, then the Arizona Cardinals’ coach, created an internship for Leftwich and allowed him input beyond his standing as a low-level assistant. His coaching career took off. He became Arizona’s quarterbacks coach in 2017, then its offensive coordinator the next season after a midseason firing. In 2019, Arians brought Leftwich with him when he took the Tampa Bay job.
“He really lets you go,” Leftwich said. “He lets you grow. He lets you learn. And then he’ll see a thing here or there and say, ‘Maybe you should think of doing this.’ He’ll teach you through those type of moments.”
Batch believes Leftwich will be a head coach soon, maybe in the next year or two. Along with his intimate knowledge of offense, he knows how to command a room and deliver a clear, concise message. He has led a team before as a quarterback.
“The only reason why I say it doesn’t surprise me is because Eric Bieniemy should be a head coach,” Batch said. “And he’s not yet. So we know how that goes.”
‘You have somebody to look up to’
The complexion of the Buccaneers’ staff makes it an outlier. Arians constructed it deliberately, even if he often says he merely sought to hire the best coaches. The Bucs are diverse along racial, gender and age lines — their coaches range from 82-year-old offensive assistant Tom Moore to 31-year-old defensive assistant Keith Tandy.
“As far as the women, it was time,” Arians said. “It was time for that door to be knocked down to allow them because they’ve put in the time and they’re very, very qualified. The ones we have are overly qualified. As far as race, that was not by design. Those are the best coaches I know.
“But to hear voices in a staff meeting that aren’t the same, don’t look alike, but they all have input, you get better output. For the players, the same thing. Not hearing the same thing over and over, to hear it from different people, different ages and every kind of ethic group there is and male and female, Our players learn from that. And I know I do.”
The Buccaneers are less an advertisement for the cause of diversity than an example of diversity’s power when wielded appropriately. Diversity does not make them better people. It makes them a better football team.
“Diverse workplaces correlate with better performance and outcomes in a wide range of industries,” said Brooklyn Law School professor Jodi Balsam, who worked as a lawyer for the NFL from 1996 to 2004. “That’s been a subject of study for some years now. My second observable phenomenon emanates from the belief that in sports that correlation between diversity and performance may be stronger because a significant majority of the athlete workforce is Black or persons of color.”
Armstrong recalled his days as a college player, when coaching staffs tended to have one Black assistant coach on each side of the ball. “If you didn’t play for that specific position coach, you really weren’t around him much,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got a lot of diversity here. As a young coach and a young player, you have somebody to look up to.”
Culture is a crucial factor in unlocking the benefits of diversity, Balsam said. If coaches do not feel empowered, their voices and viewpoints will be wasted. Arians hires people he trusts and delegates.
“If you put great people around, it’s contagious,” second-year linebacker Devin White said. “Everybody feeds off one another. People might think, ‘Oh, they got women on the staff, but they’re on there just to say they’re on there.’ I learn from Coach Loc every day. … I feel like they all play a huge role in the success we’re having, and I’m so thankful for them to be on our staff.”
Leftwich’s position stands out because of how few Black coaches have been granted the opportunity to run an offense. When the Houston Texans hired David Culley, he became only the sixth Black head coach in the modern era who came from the offensive side of the ball. This season, Leftwich and Bieniemy were the only two Black offensive coordinators in the NFL, a fact not lost on the participants.
“First of all, we’re all in the Super Bowl together, so that says a lot about what we’ve accomplished together,” Bieniemy said. “That just goes to show you, there are great coaches in this league and plenty more need to be given those same opportunities and given those same windows to go through.”
The Buccaneers’ success could help. Arians’s staff has shown what equitable hiring can lead to. Most of the league is chasing their success. Part of their success owes to identifying and investing in coaches such as Leftwich.
“I don’t know if I’ve been a part of anything like this,” Leftwich said. “This is unique. This is different. This is not the norm of how this league and how the coaching staff looks across the league. It’s a blessing that [Arians] has this view that he has. I just hope no one believes that he’s just giving us anything. If you know him, you know he’s not giving you anything. You got to earn everything you get from him.”
Leftwich has earned his way nearly to the top of his profession. Headen, the high school coach, believes the young player he once identified as a quarterback will be an NFL head coach someday. In short order, he already has become a play caller worthy of the Super Bowl, a vital leader in a league that needs him. All these years later, Leftwich is still making the most of the opportunities that come rolling his way.