Next up in the series of potential head coaching candidates for the upcoming offseason is the Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Previously, I looked at Kellen Moore, Brian Daboll, and Greg Roman.
Who is Byron Leftwich?
Byron Leftwich was born in the Washington DC area. His mother raised him as a single parent because his father abandoned the family when he was a baby. The 41-year-old coach went to high school at Howard D. Woodson High School, lettering in football, basketball, and baseball. His efforts in football earned him an honorable mention to The Washington Post’s All-Met Team as a senior.
After high school, Leftwich attended Marshall University to play football. While at Marshall, he gained national recognition by leading a 64–61 overtime victory in the 2001 GMAC Bowl. He is most remembered for being carried downfield by his linemen after breaking his shin and returning to the game. In that game, the hobbled Leftwich took Marshall down the field on multiple drives to come back from a 17-point deficit. Despite ultimately losing that game, it only added to the legend of Byron Leftwich.
In the 2003 NFL Draft, Leftwich went No. 8 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. During that draft, the Ravens were in the process of finalizing a trade with the Vikings to move up to the seventh pick for Leftwich. However, one of the teams got cold feet and the seventh pick was defaulted, putting the Jaguars on the clock. The Bears held the fourth overall pick in that draft, but rather than selecting a QB, they opted to trade down. Chicago received two first-round picks in that trade down, selecting Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman.
Leftwich played in the NFL for a decade, spending time with the Jaguars, Steelers, Falcons, and Buccaneers. However, he never played in a full 16-game season as his career was offset by constant injuries.
Byron Leftwich’s Offensive Scheme
When Leftwich retired from his NFL playing career in 2012, he felt that something was missing in his life. There was a competitive nature and camaraderie in football that golf just could not match. In 2016, he joined the staff of his former QB coach, Bruce Arians, in Arizona. Arians had been courting Leftwich to join his coaching staff since the quarterback retired.
“But B.A., when I was playing, he always used to say to me, ‘Man, you’d be a hell of a coach.’ He kept telling me I should really think about it. I would just be like, ‘Yeah, B.A., I hear you.’ Then I’d get back to whatever I was doing to get ready to play. But B.A. didn’t stop, especially after I was done, and now I can say I’m really glad he didn’t. I feel like this is what I was meant to do.”
- Byron Leftwich
Starting out as a coaching intern in 2016 on the Cardinals staff, Leftwich earned his keep by doing all the grunt work required for a low-level coaching position. He had to start at the bottom of the totem pole and showed a positive attitude as well as results. That intern role earned him a QB coach role with the Cardinals the following year, working with Carson Palmer, Blaine Gabbert, and Drew Stanton. That season went awry due to injuries to Palmer, and the Cardinals disappointed with an 8-8 record. Following the season, Bruce Arians stepped away from football to take a break from coaching.
Enter Steve Wilks as the new Cardinals head coach, who chose to keep Leftwich on the staff as his QB coach for the 2018 season. After Week 7 of the 2018 season, Wilks fired his offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, and promoted Leftwich to take over play-calling for rookie QB Josh Rosen. The offense improved under Leftwich, but not enough to save the staff, as there was a complete house-cleaning at the end of the season.
Timing is everything though, because Bruce Arians accepted the head coaching gig in Tampa Bay after the 2018 season ended. In fact, part of his decision to return had to do with Leftwich’s availability. After one season trying to salvage the talent that Jameis Winston flashes, Tom Brady took his talents to Tampa and the rest is history.
Building a Coaching Staff
The graphic above lists every active coach that Leftwich has either played under or coached with. Considering his short tenure coaching (six years), I chose to include all coaches from his playing career as well. Also, highlighted in yellow are some names I might expect to be available due to current circumstances.
Leftwich’s coaching network seems a little light to me, which is not all that surprising considering how green he is to the coaching side of the game. Many of the listed Tampa Bay assistants have been with Bruce Arians in their current roles for a long time and may be difficult to hire away.
Leftwich’s personnel usage over the years has remained relatively steady. For the most part, he likes to stay in 11 or 12 personnel. He has had much better pass and run success rates with Brady under center than he did with Rosen and Winston (duh). While he does lean toward passing out of 11 personnel, his teams have still passed the ball at or near a 50% clip out of the heavier 12 personnel, balancing out the tendency well. Occasionally, Leftwich will roll out 21 personnel, in which cases he is much more inclined to run the football. Basically, Leftwich almost always wants a tight end on the field.
Early Down Play Calls
Since he primarily stays in those two personnel groupings, I looked at his early-down tendencies out of those groupings:
Leftwich uses 11 personnel on early downs more than the NFL average in every year shown. Looking at pass rates and passing success, he has consistently hovered around league average and exceeds league average through 12 weeks of 2021. In the run game, his rushing success rates were generally below league average on early downs prior to Tom Brady’s arrival in Tampa Bay.
Moving on to 12 personnel, we see a similar story. Personnel usage, pass percentage, and pass success rates have been relatively close to league average, especially when considering the talent Leftwich had to work with in 2018. However, his rushing success rates show mixed results both before and after Tom Brady’s arrival.
Leftwich has taken heat from Tampa Bay fans for running the ball too often on first down. However, the numbers do not exactly support that narrative. Leftwich has run on 45% of first downs in 2021, while the league average rate is 51%. Their first down runs have a success rate of 57%, versus league average of 48%. Perhaps this criticism has more to do with the QB and pass-catching talent on the Buccaneers roster than how it compares to NFL averages though.
In 2018, Leftwich took over play-calling for the Cardinals in Week 8. The stats reflect all plays from Week 8 of that season to the end of the season. In 2018, he was working with Josh Rosen at QB on a Cardinals team that finished the season 3-13. It is difficult to judge too much from Leftwich from that season, but you can see some of the same traits he has shown in Tampa Bay -- a low play-action rate, a high screen pass rate, a relatively balanced mix of zone / gap run scheme, and plenty of deep shots.
In 2019 and 2020, Tampa Bay was near the top of the league in average depth of target. We see that his rushing offense came around in Tampa, but only once Brady arrived. When Jameis Winston was at QB in 2019, the Buccaneers' rushing offense was near the bottom of the NFL in most categories. Additionally, we see that screen pass usage dropped off in 2019 with Winston at QB but rebounded once Brady entered the picture.
The three most consistent metrics with Leftwich calling plays have been a low play usage, high screen pass usage, and high average depth of target. These are the primary traits I would expect to follow Leftwich as far as scheme is concerned. In the run game, Leftwich has been heavier in gap concepts than league averages every year calling plays. I would not expect that to change, but I would generally expect for him to maintain a balance between gap and zone runs.
No Risk It, No Biscuit
The Tampa offense creates deep shots by aligning in formations that force defenders toward the LOS or widen out EDGE defenders. While they do not run play-action often, they run it rather effectively when combined with these deep shots. Leftwich seems to have a strong grasp on how to manipulate defenses into giving them downfield opportunities.
What stands out to me here is not even the deep passing volume, as that is generally average when compared to the rest of the league. The most notable item to me is the turnover-worthy play rate. This makes me think that Leftwich is getting guys open downfield because his offenses have been far better than league average in turnover-worthy plays on 20-plus air-yard throws. Even during Jameis Winston’s 30/30 season, he was better than league average in deep turnover-worthy play rate.
Byron Leftwich Summary
- Personnel usage and pass success rates match league trends, especially once Tom Brady got to Tampa Bay.
- Good mix of zone and gap run concepts shows versatility in run scheme.
- Deep downfield passing attack is a great pairing for Justin Fields' traits.
- Strong understanding of how to manufacture deep shots, proven by his success in downfield passing with both Winston and Brady.
- A+ leadership traits are evident from his time as a player. I have little doubt in his commitment, willingness to adjust to the situation, and ability to lead a locker room.
- How successful is Leftwich’s offense without Tom Brady? There is a lack of proof behind his play-calling outside of the Tom Brady years, at no fault of his own.
- Smaller coaching network, having primarily coached under Bruce Arians who has not had much turnover in his staff over the years.
- Lack of play-action usage is concerning, especially with a rookie QB (Josh Rosen) and a high run percentage (48%) in 2018.
- Inability to find consistent success in the ground game before Tom Brady.
Final Words on Byron Leftwich
The most difficult aspect of deciphering Byron Leftwich is what is him, and what is a product of Tom Brady and company. Leftwich’s play-calling experience in Arizona was with one of the least talented teams in the NFL, making it hard to draw any conclusions from.
His time in Tampa Bay before Brady paints a clearer picture, but still leaves question marks. Then Brady took his talents to Tampa Bay, and the offense changed. I am not exactly sure what this means for what Leftwich would bring as head coach.
Would it be more like the Josh Rosen- and Jameis Winston-led attacks, stylistically? Has Leftwich become well-versed enough in concepts that Brady brought to Tampa to teach it to an entire team? The reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, and how that balance plays out is my biggest question about Leftwich.
As far as head coaching traits outside of scheme go, Leftwich has that “it” factor. He is a leader among leaders, and his ability to coach was recognized by Arians when Leftwich was still a player. I feel like Leftwich will eventually be a very good head coach, and it could feasibly be as soon as next year. A lot of that will depend on who he is bringing with him.
If Leftwich can build a strong staff around him, I love his prospects as a head coach next year. If he cannot build that staff out, I worry that things could not go as smoothly. I still have faith that he can grow into a very good head coach, the question at that point would be whether he is given the time to go through some speed bumps -- which is not all that different from the circumstances around Kellen Moore.