Tampa Bay’s Black coordinators played major roles in defeating the vaunted Chiefs on the game’s biggest stage. NFL owners, are you paying attention?
By Jason Reid
TAMPA, Fla. – As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dismantled the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV on Sunday, Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers’ offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, remained in the spotlight all night.
Yes, head coach Bruce Arians received the majority of the credit, and deservedly so, for the Buccaneers’ surprising 31-9 upset victory. But the two men – the two Black men – whom Arians empowered to lead the NFC champions’ offense and defense also earned a bunch of attaboys. Make no mistake: Bowles and Leftwich played major roles in planning and executing a party that continued deep into the night at Raymond James Stadium.
That’s exactly what Arians hired them to do.
“I thought our three guys had great plans,” said Arians, whose special teams coordinator, Keith Armstrong, is also Black. “Byron did a great, great job, I thought, of just mixing up run and pass, and pounding [with the running game] when we needed to. And Todd had a great plan to keep ’em [the Chiefs’ receiving corps] in front of us and let our front four get after him [Mahomes]. They chased him around all night.”
And before we examine the X’s and O’s, permit us a moment to explain why what Leftwich and Bowles put on film in the Buccaneers’ upset victory could – and likely would, if NFL owners were colorblind – benefit Black NFL assistant coaches. Despite commissioner Roger Goodell’s best efforts to improve diversity and inclusion from the front office to the field at the club level, the recently concluded hiring cycle left many Black assistants feeling frustrated again about their overall lack of advancement to head-coaching positions.
For coordinators, Leftwich and Bowles delivered virtuoso performances in the Super Bowl that should elevate them to the top of the list during the next cycle. Considering the owners’ ongoing aversion to fully embrace inclusive hiring for their top-rung coaching positions, however, it’s fair for one to wonder whether owners will choose to ignore what they achieved. Goodness knows, it has happened before. Just ask Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy.
At the very least, Bowles said, the Buccaneers’ overall performance on the game’s biggest stage shows that Arians hires people who know what they’re doing. And when it comes to Black assistants, that point can’t be driven home enough.
“It shows that we’re good at our jobs … and it gives younger people inspiration, hopefully, to see us as coaches and to see that we can be one of these type of people [head coaches] if we put our mind to it,” Bowles said. “That anything is possible.”
Objectively, their ability to coach well cannot be in dispute.
In avenging a 27-24 loss here in Week 12 to the AFC champions, the Buccaneers – the first franchise in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl on its home field – precisely followed the leads of their offensive and defensive playcallers. The results couldn’t have been better for an organization that won its second Vince Lombardi Trophy. Leftwich and Bowles pushed so many correct buttons from start to finish, the Chiefs looked like, well, definitely not like the Chiefs.
During the historic start to quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ career, NFL fans have grown accustomed to the Chiefs producing yards and points at a dizzying pace. Mahomes has a knack for making multiple eye-opening plays on a single offensive series. And the Chiefs’ defense has done its part: The combination has enabled Kansas City to become the first franchise to host three consecutive AFC Championship Games.
Simply put, the Chiefs, who were attempting to repeat as Super Bowl champions, are as good as it gets in the NFL. But with Leftwich and Bowles doing their things as the world watched Sunday, not in the final game of the 2020-21 NFL season.
Leftwich and quarterback Tom Brady (more on the GOAT later) were clearly in sync. In the first half, Leftwich was in a playcalling groove and Brady made him look marvelous, connecting with tight end Rob Gronkowski for two passing touchdowns and adding another to wide receiver Antonio Brown. The Buccaneers led 21-6 at halftime, and with the way the Buccaneers’ defense was harassing Mahomes and blanketing his deep options, the game was all but over.
Bowles positioned Tampa Bay’s safeties superbly to help in coverage against stunningly fast wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. Superstar tight end Travis Kelce wasn’t able to easily evade the underneath coverage as he usually does against most Chiefs opponents. And on the few occasions when Hill, Hardman or Kelce briefly created separation, Mahomes lacked the requisite time to link up with them.
Just the way Bowles drew it up, Arians said.
“Patrick wasn’t going to beat us running,” he said. “We let him run all day. Just keep chasing him around and see if we could make some plays.”
Besides Bowles’ top-notch plan, the Chiefs clearly missed injured starting offensive linemen Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. After injuring his Achilles in Kansas City’s AFC Championship Game win over the Buffalo Bills, Fisher was sidelined for the Super Bowl. Schwartz has been out for some time with a back injury. The combination of Bowles having had two weeks to prepare and the Chiefs’ O-line deficiencies without Fisher and Schwartz proved way too much to overcome.
The Buccaneers are one of the few teams capable of consistently generating a strong pass rush without blitzing, relying on their front four, especially outside linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett. Bowles got exactly the pass rush he needed and made the right adjustments in the back end from the Week 12 matchup – in that one, Hill torched the Buccaneers’ secondary early and often – to keep the Chiefs out of the end zone. Really, that’s a next-level accomplishment in and of itself.
Mahomes completed only 26 of 49 passes. He finished with 270 passing yards (a paltry 5.5-yard average) and two interceptions. Tampa Bay sacked Mahomes three times, including one by Barrett.
It seemed as if Mahomes backpedaled 10, 15 yards on every dropback in futile attempts to extend passing plays that, uncharacteristically for the Chiefs, didn’t work well. Some perspective on Mahomes: Over the past three seasons, including the playoffs, Mahomes ranks first among NFL quarterbacks in victories, passing touchdowns, passing yards, 300-yard passing games, yards per attempt and Total QBR.
The rematch, decisively, went to Bowles.
“The biggest thing was trying to take away the first read,” Bowles said of sparring with Mahomes. “He can run and he can make plays with his feet. But we didn’t want him just sitting in the pocket, zinging dimes on us all day, either. The D-line got some pressure on him, was making him run and making him uncomfortable, and that was the key for us.”
Usually, Mahomes’ signature plays come from a variety of arm angles. Against the Buccaneers, however, he was forced to use his entire repertoire to merely throw away the ball to avoid sacks. With Bowles on the attack from start to finish, it was that type of night for the player widely perceived to be Brady’s heir apparent.
Now, back to Brady.
En route to winning his fifth Pete Rozelle Trophy, awarded to the Super Bowl MVP, Brady completed 21 of 29 passes for 201 yards and the three first-half passing touchdowns. Perhaps some would argue that Leftwich had it easy, with being the primary playcaller for the greatest quarterback in NFL history (Brady extended his record totals to 10 Super Bowl appearances and seven Super Bowl victories). Brady has played in 18% of all the Super Bowls ever played, so he definitely knows his way around at this time of year.
Leftwich and Brady, though, are in their first year together after Brady spent 20 years building his first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials with the New England Patriots. Earlier in the season, the Buccaneers had issues on offense that had to be resolved. They worked through them, obviously, very well.
As Arians previously mentioned, much to his delight, Leftwich also leaned on the running game: Tampa Bay rushed for 145 yards (with a 4.4-yard average). Running back Leonard Fournette led the way with 89 rushing yards (a 5.6-yard average), including a 27-yard touchdown run that extended Tampa Bay’s lead to 28-9 midway through the third quarter.
On Zoom calls with reporters after their work was finished, Tampa Bay’s players, one after another, praised Leftwich and Bowles as much for their leadership as men as their ability to coach. Despite being led by an outstanding head coach and the greatest passer of all time, Tampa Bay wouldn’t be on top of the mountain without Leftwich and Bowles, they said.
“Coach Bowles, he puts his players in the right position to win,” cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting said. “He believes in them [as people] and he believes in their abilities. He doesn’t go off script.
“He just sticks to it and he sticks with you. He’s always motivating you. He’s always telling you really good information that you take off the field in real life, and can use it [in] being a better man.”
Leftwich and Bowles are coaches. They’re teachers. They’re leaders of men. And after doing their parts to help the Buccaneers dispatch the gifted Chiefs and end the NFL season, they’re also Super Bowl champions. NFL owners, are you paying attention?