Tag: NFL Super Bowl

Todd Bowles and Byron Leftwich: Super Bowl victory a big win for Black coaches

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.”

Sure did.

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?

Kaepernick and the debate over ‘authentic’ blackness

Some supporters of the controversial quarterback criticize others as traitors or sellouts, a tactic that goes back to Du Bois and Malcolm X

By Michael A. Fletcher

In some ways, the on-and-off friction over Colin Kaepernick among black people is as old as black activism itself. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

How did Colin Kaepernick become a litmus test for authentic blackness?Some of Kaepernick’s supporters have denounced people who disagree with aspects of his protest as racial traitors. The repeated attacks formed a disturbing subplot to the Kaepernick saga not long after he began kneeling during the national anthem to call urgent attention to police brutality and racial inequality. The discord has arisen repeatedly as Kaepernick’s three-year exile from the NFL increasingly looks like it will be permanent.

The quarterback’s closest backers have suggested that they feel betrayed by anyone who partners with the league they accuse of blackballing him — even if those partners share his goals. Ironically, even as Kaepernick remains sidelined, legions of black NFL fans have been tuning in to watch a new generation of black quarterbacks lead a resurgence of interest in the NFL. But that has not stopped Kaepernick’s backers from firing rhetorical salvos at African Americans they see as lending comfort to the NFL.

The tension burst into view before the start of the current football season when Kaepernick supporters called out hip-hop mogul Jay-Z after his company, Roc Nation, signed a deal to advise the NFL on social justice and entertainment projects, including next month’s Super Bowl halftime show.

Jay-Z’s past support of Kaepernick and his long history of using his money and cultural cachet to promote social justice hardly seemed to matter to his critics. Not long after the deal was announced, for instance, the hashtag #JayZSellout was trending on Black Twitter.

Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick’s closest friends, was no kinder in 2018 when he denounced Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, a leader of the Players Coalition, as a “neo-colonialist” after the NFL announced an $89 million pledge to the coalition to promote social justice advocacy and programs.

Similar views were echoed in a torrent of social media posts directed at ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports in November. Both had criticized Kaepernick for turning his back on an NFL-arranged workout that was billed as an opportunity for him to get back into the league. Many of the critics pointedly questioned the racial loyalty of the two prominent black commentators.

Colin Kaepernick’s activism has undoubtedly raised awareness of issues civil rights leaders work on daily, even if it at times has caused dissension. PHOTO BY CARMEN MANDATO/GETTY IMAGES

Racial authenticity is often invoked to simultaneously raise the stakes in a dispute and shut it down. “To use race is also a form of coercion,” essayist and cultural critic Darryl Pinckney said in an email. “It says, ‘My argument is unanswerable because it comes from the moral high ground of my inherited history’.”

That can be true even when the parties on either side of a disagreement share the same history — and the same goals. All of that is intensified by the hothouse of social media, where many of these arguments play out. People are “canceled” all the time, mainly for being willing to compromise or otherwise demonstrating their impurity. Nuance or context is often taken for weakness on those platforms.

“I think it is very unfortunate that people choose to engage like that around Kaepernick, because everyone is trying to pursue their own path of activism,” said Samuel T. Livingston, director of the African American Studies Program at Morehouse College. “There is no one way to engage in that activism. There is no one way to be black or to be black and an activist.”

The most visible opposition to Kaepernick’s protest has come from prominent white people, including President Donald Trump and Fox News commentators Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Polls have shown that while most black NFL fans hold a favorable view of Kaepernick, the reverse is true for white fans. All of that has added to the racial cast of the debate surrounding Kaepernick, leading some of his supporters to contend that if you in any way oppose him, or his tactics, you are lending credence to his (mostly white) detractors.

After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he would not tolerate players on his team protesting during the national anthem, black quarterback Dak Prescott said he was unbothered. “We know about social injustice,” he told reporters. “I’m up for taking the next step, whatever that step might be, for action.”

For that, Prescott was pilloried — often in racial terms. “When Jerry Jones, who owns America’s team,” drew a line in the sand, “Dak Prescott is out here basically saying he’s happy being a lemonade serving house negro,” tweeted Shadow League columnist Carron J. Phillips.

The impulse for ideological purity and lining up behind a perceived leader is not unique to African Americans, nor does it come into play only around racial issues.

Some fervent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders say “Bernie or bust,” meaning they are not sure they will back the 2020 Democratic nominee if Sanders is not on the ballot. On the flip side, for many years, some conservative Republicans derided moderates in their party as RINOS — Republican in Name Only.

In some ways, the on-and-off friction over Kaepernick among black people is as old as black activism itself. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said black Americans have tended toward three basic responses to their circumstances in America: revolt and revenge, an attempt to adjust to the will of the majority, and a focused effort at self-development.

Over the decades, many have viewed “revolt and revenge” as the most authentically black, even if elements of all three responses might be necessary to achieve lasting progress. That may be why the poet Amari Baraka once disparaged writer and playwright James Baldwin for being popular among white liberals. Or why Malcolm X called the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Jackie Robinson “Uncle Toms” for, one way or another, compromising with white people.

Jay-Z’s past support of Colin Kaepernick and his long history of using his money and cultural cachet to promote social justice hardly seemed to matter to his critics after his company, Roc Nation, signed a deal with the NFL.PHOTO BY JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES

Sometimes, the insults become circular. Du Bois himself was called an Uncle Tom by Marcus Garvey, who did not like interracial coalitions and integration. Then, Garvey was deemed a sellout — and much worse — for his many statements supporting the racist rhetoric of white supremacists, and for collaborating with the murderous Ku Klux Klan. Garvey, who thought returning to Africa was the best hope for African Americans, reasoned that he and the Klan shared a goal: racial separation.

Similarly, Marshall, who had been criticized by Malcolm X, used a similar tack in criticizing Nat King Cole. After the celebrated singer performed in front of a segregated audience in Alabama, Marshall, then a crusading civil rights lawyer, called him a racial traitor. “[All] Cole needs to complete his role as an Uncle Tom is a banjo,” Marshall said.

Until recently, no one would have guessed that Kaepernick would be seen as the test of black authenticity. He is the child of a white mother and black father, who grew up with adoptive white parents in the small city of Turlock in Central California. His political awakening began when he joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity while he was a star quarterback at the University of Nevada. But that did not result in any overt activism for years. An outstanding and curious student, he read black history and sought out mentors, but he did not emerge as an activist until a rash of highly-publicized police shootings of black men led him to begin his protest in 2016.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said then. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

He has rarely spoken publicly during his exile from football. While he has millions of social media followers, he uses those platforms mainly to echo posts from his tight circle of supporters, to promote Nike products he is paid to endorse and to update people on how long he has been kept off NFL gridirons.

In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said black Americans have tended toward three basic responses to their circumstances in America: revolt and revenge, an attempt to adjust to the will of the majority and a focused effort at self-development.PHOTO BY C M BATTEY/GETTY IMAGES

Much of his activism is achieved through symbols, and many of them are of what Du Bois would call the “revolt and revenge” ilk that contribute to the idea that Kaepernick somehow represents authentic blackness. There are shots of his billowing Afrophoto shoots evocative of 1960s black activists, and provocative T-shirts, such as the one bearing the name of the defiant (and fictional) slave Kunta Kinte that he wore to his abortive NFL tryout.

There can be little argument that Kaepernick’s stance has transformed him into a cultural force. If Kaepernick were still playing football, who would care when he was spotted in the stands at the US Open? Would it make news if he objected to the use of the original American flag on a pair of sneakers designed by Nike, the sporting goods behemoth he endorses? Or would his newly released, $110 Nike “True to 7” sneakers sell out in just hours? Certainly, there would not have be a dozen children’s bookswritten about him if he were still playing.“The Kaepernick dilemma is the black American dilemma in a nutshell: Black folk are outraged by the manifest mistreatment of a man who as a result of his principled stance has become an icon mentioned in league with some of our most noteworthy figures of the past.” — Michael Eric Dyson, social critic and Georgetown University professor

Yet, as uncomfortable as Kaepernick’s growing status as an icon of protest may be for the NFL, it is also true that the league has enjoyed a period of renewed prosperity since he has been sidelined. Led by the play of several top black quarterbacks, the NFL is enjoying a surge of popularity this season, even as one of its best-known black quarterbacks, Kaepernick, remains unsigned. Television ratings are up, and interest in the game — including from African Americans, the league’s most ardent fans — is high. His former team, the San Francisco 49ers, is returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since he took them there in 2013. Meanwhile, the sideline protests launched by Kaepernick were carried on by just two or three players this season.

Although some African Americans leaders called for a boycott of the NFL in the wake of the sidelining of Kaepernick, it seems like that did not happen. A poll by The Undefeated/Survey Monkey poll taken before last season’s Super Bowl found that a higher percentage of white fans than black fans said they were watching less football than the previous season (the poll did not pinpoint why). The survey found that 42% of white fans and 30% of black fans said they were watching less football than in previous seasons last year, and 13% of white people and 25% of black people said they were actually watching more football than in previous seasons.

“It remains true that the NFL is a great unifier for American sports fans, and the story lines just keep on coming,” said Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president of programming at CBS Sports. “It is hard to measure the effect of the debate over Kaepernick. For every person who says his actions were virtuous or unpatriotic, there seems to be many more people who are just going to watch their teams.”

Many African Americans are no doubt angry about what they see as the blackballing of a figure who risked his career to speak out for racial justice. But while black fans may be with Kaep, apparently few have gone as far as abandoning the NFL to show it. And no one is questioning anyone’s racial authenticity because they are interested in seeing Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson perform on the field.

“The Kaepernick dilemma is the black American dilemma in a nutshell: Black folk are outraged by the manifest mistreatment of a man who as a result of his principled stance has become an icon mentioned in league with some of our most noteworthy figures of the past,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a social critic and Georgetown University professor. “Black folk wisely protest the administration of the Kaepernick case but affirm the value of the NFL — which has been horrible to a black man like Kaep, but has provided opportunity to black men by the thousands.”

None of that has diminished Kaepernick’s impact. His activism has undoubtedly raised awareness of issues civil rights leaders work on daily, even if it at times has caused dissension.

“I have a lot of respect for how he has used the platform that he has to model what change looks like,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a civil rights group. “His cultural advocacy has forced people to reckon with something they didn’t want to reckon with. What he has done has been a tremendous help to those of us who are working to kick out district attorneys who don’t value black lives. To change laws around money bail. To expose issues of policing and mass incarceration in deep ways. He has provided an on-ramp for people to have these conversations, to debate, to feel uncomfortable.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.