It was early March, a time for scheming and dreaming in the NFL.
Bruce Arians lounged poolside at his home in Reynolds Plantation, Georgia, a Crown on the rocks in hand, the calm, sun-dappled waters of Lake Oconee in the distance. Unprompted, as he examined a few of his pet passing routes in his playbook, the Arizona Cardinals head coach started riffing on one of his all-time favorite players, a former NFL quarterback who is the same age as Arians‘ current starting quarterback.
This player also happened to be a recent coaching intern for Arians, one who had obviously caught the eye of his boss.
“Mark my words: Byron Leftwich will be an NFL head coach,” says Arians, who got to know Leftwich when he was the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010 and 2011. “Byron has just got a mind for the game. Hell, he can coach my offense better than I can coach my offense, and I designed the damn thing!”
If Leftwich, who is African-American, eventually does become a head coach in a league that currently has only eight minority head coaches, he’ll look back to last Saturday night in the Arizona desert as an important steppingstone.
There was Leftwich walking onto the field at University of Phoenix Stadium an hour before the Cardinals played the Oakland Raiders in their second preseason game. Leftwich, Arizona’s first-year quarterbacks coach, studied Carson Palmer intently, watching his throwing motion and footwork. A few times he pulled his quarterback close and offered brief words of instruction.
With kickoff approaching, Leftwich rode an elevator to the Arizona coaches’ box. In 2003, both Palmer and Leftwich were first-round draft picks, with Palmer taken No. 1 overall by the Bengals and Leftwich selected six spots later by the Jaguars.
The two have been friends since their senior years of college when they met on the postseason banquet circuit. But now their relationship was about to change as Leftwich settled into his seat. For one preseason game, Arians anointed his protege the team’s offensive play-caller.
Arians, the Cardinals’ normal play-caller, is as aggressive as any coach in the NFL—he’ll take at least four deep-ball shots a game. So it wasn’t surprising that on the game’s fifth play, Leftwich had Palmer launch a 50-yard rainbow to Jaron Brown, who was streaking wide-open down the middle of the field. It looked like an oh-so-easy six points.
Alas, the pass was overthrown, but the message was clear: Leftwich as a play-caller is every bit the gunslinger he was as a quarterback. In 2008 for the Steelers, for example, Leftwich’s average completion traveled 9.5 yards, the fourth-longest in the league that season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I’d never called a game in my life,” Leftwich says. “I’ve learned that play-calling is about finding a rhythm and putting your guys in position to succeed. That test run was only preseason, but it got the juices going. Hopefully everything I’m doing is just a beginning.”
Arians first spotted Leftwich on television in 2002 when the quarterback was a senior at Marshall. Facing Akron late that season, Leftwich broke his left tibia in the game. But after a trip to the hospital, he memorably limped back onto the field, the agony carved into his grimacing face.
After Leftwich threw a long completion in the fourth quarter, two of his linemen—Steve Sciullo and Steve Perretta—picked up their injured quarterback and carried him down the field. That image still is with Arians 15 years later.
“The most important thing a quarterback needs to have—and the most important thing a coach needs to have—is the ability to inspire and lead men,” Arians says. “That game showed Byron’s bravery and how much his teammates respected him. As a quarterback, Byron had what I call grit. Only the great ones have that.”
As a backup quarterback with the Steelers in 2010 and ’11, Leftwich occasionally was on the business end of Arians‘ world-class, F-bomb-dropping rants. Arians typically is rough on his backup signal-callers—”Bruce will MF the backups to death,” says Palmer—because it’s his way of sending not-so-subtle messages to his starter.
But Leftwich always responded the same way: He patiently listened and then would help tutor the starter, Ben Roethlisberger, in the lesson Arians was trying to teach.
“Byron was always like an extra coach for me when he was a backup,” Arians says. “And now he can coach things that I can’t in my offense, because he’s actually run it from the quarterback position and I haven’t.
“For example, he knows where the quarterback’s eyes need to be on certain plays when facing different formations, and he knows where the ball needs to go and how fast it needs to go there. As a player, he was always so calm, showing the demeanor of a coach on the field. And he’s the same way now.”
After Leftwich retired in 2012 after 10 NFL seasons—he threw for more than 10,000 yards while playing for four teams—he moved back to his hometown of Washington, D.C., and picked up the game of golf. Swinging the sticks six days a week, he lowered his handicap to nine.
The one afternoon he wouldn’t be on different courses in the D.C. area was on NFL Sundays. Planted on his living-room couch with his toddler son at his side, he’d watch Arians stalk the sideline, headphones on, his laminated play sheet in his hand.
“Bruce and I would sometimes talk after games and discuss different plays and what the thinking was that went into the plays,” Leftwich says. “I’ve always loved the X’s and O’s of the game. In elementary school, I’d draw up plays during class. In junior high, I’d design plays that my coaches let me run. The strategy part of the game is fascinating to me.”
In April 2016, Arians asked Leftwich, who had never considered coaching, to join his staff as an intern. Each year, Arians brings in ex-players to work as interns to give them a foot in the coaching door. This preseason, former wide receiver Plaxico Burress and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly are interning with the Cardinals.
Last spring, Leftwich was on a plane to Phoenix a few days after Arians offered him a two-year paid position. During training camp, Leftwich lived in the shadow of assistant Tom Moore, who had been Peyton Manning‘s offensive coordinator in Indianapolis from 1998 to 2008. Moore has more than 60 years of coaching experience—he is Arians‘ most trusted confidante—and Leftwich listened hard to every word and story that flowed from the silver-haired septuagenarian.
“The fire for the game came back to me,” Leftwich says. “I needed that time off to get re-energized. But I quickly realized that coaching was just as enjoyable as playing. I knew this was my next step in life.”
In 2016, Leftwich worked with the Cardinals quarterbacks. During his playing days, Leftwich, by his own admission, wasn’t the type of mobile QB who “could run for 10 yards on a 3rd-and-9.” So this meant as a player he needed to understand how to work through his progressions—his throwing options—and how to read a defense to attack its most vulnerable area.
This skill has served Leftwich—who Arians elevated to quarterbacks coach in January—well during this training camp. “Byron knows what it’s like to stand back in the pocket and manipulate the defense from the pocket,” Arians says. “That’s something you have to do to succeed in our offense.”
On Saturday night, as game time ticked closer, Leftwich was a live wire as he put on his headphones in the coaches’ box high above the University of Phoenix field. The game-day rush was back. Calling plays for four quarterbacks, the Leftwich-led offense rolled to 291 total yards and a 20-10 victory. He is 1-0 as a preseason play-caller.
But by early Sunday morning, as he walked out of the stadium and into the parking lot, Leftwich only remembered the plays that didn’t work—the four sacks and 12 incompletions. He wanted perfection.
So as he strode through the night, the man whose coaching future appears as bright as any position coach in the NFL only wanted to do one thing:
Watch the film.
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