With the Buccaneers, Byron Leftwich is cast as the fall guy
The offensive coordinator’s firing is not just Tampa Bay lacking the right parts. It’s another blow for diversity in football operations at the club level.
Here’s the reality of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ decision Thursday to fire offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich: When a franchise with high expectations struggles throughout the season and is embarrassed in the playoffs on its home field, well, someone must take the fall.
After Tampa Bay’s offense fell off the cliff this season despite it still being directed by quarterback Tom Brady, the most successful passer in NFL history, Leftwich had as much of a chance of remaining on the team’s coaching staff as Carlo Rizzi did of moving to Nevada with the Corleone family at the end of The Godfather. It just wasn’t happening.
Not surprisingly, head coach Todd Bowles sacked Leftwich, 43, and fired five other assistant coaches in a major shakeup of his staff. The Buccaneers (8-9) barely managed to finish first in the underwhelming NFC South (each of the division’s other three teams went 7-10), and they were routed 31-14 by the visiting Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round.
For sure, the Buccaneers were truly awful on offense this season. Their touchdown total dropped from 61 last season to only 31 this season – among the most precipitous declines in league history – and one could pick from a host of metrics to highlight their failure.
From that perspective, the Buccaneers making the call to move on from Leftwich seems like the right one. But as is usually the case with these sorts of things, there’s more to the story.
Let’s start where everything does on offense: the line.
Before the season began, Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl left guard Ali Marpet announced his retirement. For context, Marpet had been a pillar on Tampa Bay’s offensive line during Brady’s previous two seasons with the team, the first of which ended with the franchise winning its second Super Bowl championship. Last season, the Buccaneers went 13-4 in the regular season and won a playoff game.
Guard Alex Cappa, another mainstay on the line, signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. Early during training camp, Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen suffered a serious knee injury and was sidelined the entire regular season. Jensen was activated before the postseason and played in the blowout loss to the Cowboys.
In the preseason, guard Aaron Stinnie, a reliable reserve lineman who shined starting while Cappa was sidelined during the Buccaneers’ run to winning Super Bowl LV, also suffered a major knee injury and has not yet returned to the lineup. As if all those injuries weren’t enough to ruin the best-laid plans of any offensive playcaller, All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs sat out several games because of an ankle injury.
Point is, the core of an O-line that paved the way for two of the greatest seasons in franchise history was gutted before the season-opening kickoff, and the new-look group wasn’t nearly as good as the old guard. It’s intellectually dishonest for any head coach worth one’s salt to think Tampa Bay’s injury-ravaged offensive line would perform to its previous high standards.
Then there’s Brady.
With the dearth of top-notch quarterbacks in the NFL, the seven-time Super Bowl winner remains an upper-echelon performer. But let’s be frank: Although Brady again had some impressive stats, his play often didn’t pass the eye test.
At times, he looked downright average. Now, yeah, the team’s subpar offensive line play undoubtedly contributed to the future Hall of Famer not always being the superstar NFL fans have come to idolize the past 23 seasons.
Of course, Brady’s age is part of the discussion. He is 45. It would take some impressive mental gymnastics to not put any of the Buccaneers’ offensive decline on his shoulders as well.
The Buccaneers’ running game, such as it was, didn’t help.
The team finished last in the NFL, averaging 76.9 rushing yards per game. Again, the O-line issues show up in a big way here, too. Does anyone really believe that Leftwich would have preferred to have the worst rushing attack in the league with a QB who’s closer to 50 than 30?
Invariably, when an offensive or defensive coordinator is ousted, analysts will suddenly bemoan a supposed lack of creativity from the deposed coaches. The Buccaneers’ offense, however, wasn’t atrocious this season because other offensive play-callers draw prettier X’s and O’s than Leftwich. It doesn’t work without the right parts, and the Buccaneers’ offense lacked them in many areas.
Leftwich has maintained the same approach he took in helping Tampa Bay win a Super Bowl and 29 games combined (including postseason play) the previous two seasons. His play designs seemed to be cutting edge enough then.
The Buccaneers’ firing of Leftwich leaves the NFL with only two Black offensive coordinators: Eric Bieniemy of the Kansas City Chiefs and Pep Hamilton of the Houston Texans. Hamilton’s standing with the Texans is unclear after the team fired Lovie Smith, leaving Bowles and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only Black head coaches in the 32-team NFL (more on that in a moment).
Generally, assistants on offense – and especially those who work closely with quarterbacks – are the most sought-after candidates to fill openings for head coaches. Before this season, the NFL implemented its first hiring mandate in its history, requiring teams to hire a minority offensive assistant coach.
The hope is that fellows in the program will continue to climb the coaching ladder and, eventually, enter the hiring pipeline for top-rung positions as NFL offensive coordinators and head coaches. Leftwich had reached a high rung only to be knocked down by being fired.
Make no mistake: As the Buccaneers’ head coach, Bowles has the right to construct his staff as he prefers. Bowles inherited Leftwich and the rest of the staff after being promoted from defensive coordinator last March to replace former head coach Bruce Arians, who unexpectedly stepped down and took a front-office role with the organization. But the firing of Leftwich is another blow for diversity in football operations at the club level. Just facts.
Entering next season, Bowles could be on shaky ground, too.
He isn’t off to a great start in his second opportunity to lead a team. Beginning in 2015, Bowles coached the New York Jets for four seasons, and he can’t count on getting a third shot to occupy a head coach’s office. He needs to make this work. Throwing Leftwich and other assistants overboard is straight out of the handbook on how to shift blame. Leftwich wasn’t calling the defensive plays while Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott shredded the Buccaneers’ defense at Raymond James Stadium. Bowles had that duty.
Yep, Leftwich was a goner from the moment the curtain dropped on the Buccaneers’ season. The script had already been written.
To see it coming, all Leftwich had to do was flip ahead to the end.