Jason Licht, in retrospect, says he should’ve seen it coming. During the Buccaneers GM’s recurring Friday meetings with his coach, Bruce Arians, the subject would come up more regularly. And then there was this dinner, about a month ago, right around combine time, when Tampa Bay still wasn’t sure what it was doing at quarterback.
The Bucs’ Plan A, of course, was holding out hope that Tom Brady would come back for a third year with the team, and 23rd in the NFL. But no one really knew. Which led Arians to consider everything.
“He’s got such loyalty to his assistants,” Licht said on Saturday morning. “He wanted to promote one of his assistants to head coach, in this case Todd [Bowles]—and he thinks the world, and we all do, of Byron [Leftwich]. And we’re all very confident Byron’s gonna be a head coach, maybe next year. But we started talking about that, If Tom doesn’t come back, he’d said, I’m not gonna leave you high and dry. I’m gonna help you weather this storm with whoever the quarterback’s gonna be.
“Out of loyalty, of course, but he also wanted to make sure his coaches had a chance. And I know that he was probably thinking if we won six, seven games, we would probably open the search up next year—no guarantees.”
So Arians thought hard on that, and Brady made his decision on March 14. A day or two later, on that Monday or Tuesday (Licht can’t remember exactly which day), Arians showed up in the GM’s office with some news. What he’d said over a few drinks a couple weeks earlier had foreshadowed a shocker.
Arians told Licht the time to pass the torch was, yes, now. His exact words, as Licht remembers them, were, “I don’t care about more wins or even another Super Bowl. What’s more important for me is having my guys set up for success.” Licht, who first met Arians during the coach’s interview with the Cardinals nine years ago, got a little emotional. Arians as well.
“And I think at that point, he called Tom,” Licht said. “And I talked to ownership and let them know what he was planning on doing.”
The Bucs resolved to keep the circle of those who knew tight—it was Licht, Arians, Brady and ownership, basically—and were able to keep their secret for more than two weeks.
On Wednesday, the world found out, and the NFL had its latest stunner in an offseason full of them. By then, though, the guys in charge in Tampa Bay had plenty of time to digest a development that seem to arrive out of left field for everyone but those in the circle. And they think, with Bowles in charge, there’s a pretty good chance they’re better for it.
At some point, the offseason’s going to feel like an offseason, right?
NFL news has come fast and furious, pretty much since Matthew Stafford held up the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 13. This means, once again, we’ve got plenty to cover in this week’s MMQB. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• Takes on the new overtime system from both sides of the Chiefs-Bills epic that spurred it.
• How coaches are handling a more normal offseason program (starting today!).
• Insight into how Xavien Howard got rich, again.
• The impact Bobby Wagner made on the Rams before he was even on the roster.
And much, much more. But we’re starting with the power shift in Tampa that rocked the NFL this week.
Bowles, like the rest of Arians’s staff, had last week off as the Bucs brass traveled across the state to Palm Beach for the NFL annual meeting. He’d taken the weekend to visit his son, a sophomore defensive back at Rutgers, in New Jersey, before heading off to check on his house in North Carolina on Monday. He landed in Charlotte to a text from Arians that afternoon.
Hit me up.
Bowles called him, still on the plane. Arians asked when Bowles would be back in Tampa; Bowles said he’d be there about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Arians said he wanted to tell Bowles in person. Tell me what in person?
“And he said he was gonna step aside and name me the head coach,” Bowles said over the phone on Thursday. “I was like, You gotta be kidding me. Immediately, I thought something happened. Initially, it’s that—What the hell happened? You sure? He said, yeah, he’d thought about it for a long time, and when I get back, we could talk more. Hung up the phone. And all day, I’m like, You gotta be kidding me.”
It was real, of course. Bowles talked to Licht twice Monday night and moved up his flight to Tampa so he’d land at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Bowles also talked to Arians again, and the second conversation went deeper into why Arians was walking away, and how he wanted to give Bowles the shot to coach Brady. Bowles then called Brady, and, soon enough, the deal was getting hammered out, with the Bucs having worked through the Rooney Rule logistics with the league at the meetings in South Florida.
The plan in Tampa, really since 2019, had been for Bowles to succeed Arians. But the timing? It hit Bowles the same way it hit the rest of us.
He thought the succession plan could play out “at some point, but not now,” he says. “You go to combine, and then there’s owners meetings and you have the week off, you figure he’s going another year at least. And that didn’t happen, so it kind of caught me off guard that way. And like I said in the press conference, it’s bittersweet—I’m grateful and thankful that he’ll still be around and I can bounce some things off him.”
Now, before we go deeper into why Bowles is the right guy, and the right guy now, for a team that’s built to win in the moment, this is where we’ll acknowledge the obvious.
The whole thing does look weird, and it’s easy to tie Brady’s return to Arians’s departure and assume that Brady ordered all family business be settled before he came back.
Was there friction between Brady and Arians at times last year? Sure (it wasn’t either’s first rodeo in that regard). Was Arians’s program a little different than what Brady was used to, where Brady had to drive some of the discipline and structure he wanted the last couple years? Yes, and Arians actually empowered Brady and others, like Jason Pierre-Paul, to make Tampa a more player-driven program, particularly in the spring and summer.
I don’t know what Brady said to the Glazers that weekend he was at the Manchester United game. But I’ve covered the guy since 2005, and it would surprise me greatly if he marched in there and demanded anyone be fired. His feelings were known, I’m sure, which is just part of the equation here.
And everyone I’ve talked to in Tampa has maintained that Arians, Licht and Bowles are being forthright in the reasoning for the timing of Arians’s departure—Arians wanted to hand it to Bowles, but not in a situation that would be set up for failure. And Brady’s return changed the dynamic in that regard, where before he came back, without a quarterback, Arians would’ve been giving Bowles a team that would struggle immensely to clear the bar that was set the last two years.
“I don’t like to keep the fire burning, but I’m telling you, these guys have a great relationship,” Licht says. “I know there’s a lot of conspiracy theories out there, and I know you feel like you know Bruce, a lot of people do because he’s such an open book. But if you really knew him—the hours upon hours that I’ve spent with him, or his people have spent with him, his staff, going on four decades—it’s no surprise that he would do this.
“He’s all about giving and all about paying forward. I mean, he’s been instrumental with the league in setting up rules to interview minorities. It’s just him. He’s got a huge heart, his whole family. … It’s just … it’s in their DNA.”
And yeah, I understand some people’s minds won’t be changed on this. So we pivot here, and look at what Bowles being in charge means for the Buccaneers going forward.
A day after Arians had dinner with the Cardinals’ brass in 2013, Licht, then Arizona’s vice president of player personnel, picked him up at his hotel to bring him to the team facility for his interview. On the way, Arians said three things to Licht about what to expect, if he were to land the job.
- Win or lose, we booze.
- Buckle up, you’re in for a hell of a ride.
- We’re gonna win. We’re gonna set the culture, and we’re gonna win.
A few days later, after Arians had landed the job, Bowles arrived as defensive coordinator and projected the same sort of swagger. Don’t worry about the defense, Bowles told Licht. We’ll have a top 10 defense. If not better.
Sure enough, in Year 1, the Cardinals were seventh in total defense. Arizona rose to fifth in 2014, and then Bowles was gone to the Jets, getting his first shot to be a head coach.
Licht got his shot, too, becoming Bucs GM in 2014, which gave the two only a year together, but plenty about it stuck with both guys after they built a bond in ’13—with Licht being the No. 2 in scouting and Bowles the de facto No. 2 on the coaching side.
“Seeing Todd coach that year, even in training camp, and even going as far as the first OTAs, you know when you know,” Licht says. “You know a good coach, one that’s going to be a head coach. Some of them, it’s a little bit of a slow warmup and then you’re like, ‘Yeah, you know what? This guy could be.’ But with Todd, it was immediate. You knew he’s gonna be a head coach. Just the way he communicates, he’s one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever been around—and not just in football, he’s just got rare intelligence.
“And he just knows how to connect and push the right buttons on everybody, from all walks of life. He forms relationships in his own way with everybody in the building.”
That’s why Licht never blinked in the face of Arians’s long-held plan to pass the job on to Bowles—Arians and Licht agreed Bowles had been dealt a bad hand in New York—with the knowledge that the clock was ticking on Arians from the minute he arrived. “I knew when we hired him that he wouldn’t be here for 10 years as a coach,” Licht says. And it also explains Bowles’s first instinct, which was to immediately start reaching out to players.
Of course, in an effort to keep things quiet, he could only call Brady at first, which brings us to the other reason Licht thinks Bowles is right for the job.
So much of this story will come back to Brady, and there’s a synergy there with Bowles that has mostly been overlooked in the days following his elevation.
If Brady at all longed for the discipline and structure that Bill Belichick gave him, then he just got a head coach who’ll get him. Bowles cut his NFL coaching teeth under the same guy that helped mold Belichick into one of the best ever—Bill Parcells. As much as Arians is a life mentor for Bowles, with their relationship going back to Arians coaching Bowles as a college player, Parcells’s fingerprints are all over Bowles as a coach.
Bowles first worked on the coaching side in the NFL for Al Groh’s Jets, with Parcells in the front office. He then went to Dallas with Parcells in 2005 and followed him to Miami in ’08. Parcells, in turn, became one of the first champions for Bowles’s head-coaching candidacy, having made him Tony Sparano’s assistant head coach with the Dolphins.
So however Brady might feel through the ups and downs of a season, and through good times and bad, there’ll be a good chance Bowles will know where he’s coming from.
“Yes, for sure—100%,” says Licht, himself a former Patriots scout. “When you grow up in that system and you cut your teeth in that system—which I did as well—there’s just a certain understanding of why we’re doing things the way we are.”
And through working with a number of different quarterbacks in New York, from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Geno Smith, Bryce Petty to Christian Hackenberg, and through to Sam Darnold, Bowles already has had the experience to learn from in handling a quarterback.
It’s important, too, that he has that experience because he won’t be the one in Brady’s ear before every snap (that’ll be Leftwich, still) on Sundays, making his relationship with Brady, as a defensive-rooted head coach, a little more straightforward than it would be with an offensive play-caller type. Of course, having played for Belichick, Brady has had a lot of experience down that road, too.
“I think it’s important that the quarterback knows how you think the game, and how you want the game played, being on the same page that way,” Bowles says. “Whether you’re his coordinator or not, it’s very important for you to be on the same page so communication and the dialogue flows easily. And I felt like I could’ve done that a little bit more in New York, and I know I can do it a lot more here. And conversations will be completely different from that standpoint.
“Byron does an excellent job being an offensive coordinator, but it’s my job to be the head coach and everyone understands that. It’ll go accordingly. There are so many things you learn from the first time around. I don’t think I did a bad job being around quarterbacks, I just think that experience-wise, you see a lot of nuances that you wish you could’ve added to your coaching style. That’ll help me be a better coach for the quarterback.”
The good thing, for both, is thatthey aren’t starting from zero. They’ve learned each other already—there was a trash-talking type of competitiveness between the Bucs offense and defense the last two years that Bowles and Brady were both a part of—and that healthy respect for one another made the conversations between the two over the last few days pretty easy and natural, according to Bowles.
Bowles would also agree that there is a synergy already in place, one that’d be easy for anyone to trace back to their shared backgrounds.
“Ours is more based in simplicity—we’ll do whatever we can to win the ballgame, whether it’s a 6–3 game or a 30–29 game,” Bowles says. “We just want to win. We both have that drive and mindset, that we just want to win. That’s the biggest thing we have in common, which I love about him.”
Looking at the roster, they should have a shot to do a lot of it, at least for another year.
In that way, Arians is getting what he wanted, which was to give Bowles that shot. And now Bowles is the one that’s saddled with the zero-sum game that having Brady, at this stage of his career, on your roster presents to any coach.
So where so much of this situation is easier than the one Bowles was presented in New York (those Jets were badly in need of a teardown and may have gotten it a year or two too late) because his new office is down the hall from his old one, and he knows every coach, and nearly every player on the roster inside and out, he won’t get nearly the grace period he did in New York.
There, he won 10 games and missed the playoffs in Year 1, and it was (rightly) hailed a huge success.
Here? Anything less than a second title in three years could be seen as falling short. And that he’s O.K. with that alone makes him, as the Bucs see it, the right guy for the job.
“You always coach to win and play to win,” Bowles says. “You always set the bar high, and you’re always trying to reach that. … That part of it’s the easy part. With us, the competition and the chemistry is there. We fight. We just have to play smarter football, and finish plays, and understand what we need to do to get better. That part I’m excited about.”
In short, the work is what he’s excited about. And that has given a lot of others something to be excited about coming out of the Arians Era, the quarterback included.
HOW THE OT RULE WAS PASSED
Sean McDermott and I talked at halftime of Saturday’s Villanova-Kansas game—the Philly-area native definitely had a rooting interest—and the Bills coach used that game, which was already a little out of hand (and not in McDermott’s favor), to explain his feelings on the adjustment to the overtime rules the league passed this week.
Yes, he likes the change. And no, it’s not for the reason you’d think.
“The analytical research the league did, the numbers suggest that this is a healthy adjustment for the league,” he told me. “As you know, I’m sitting here watching this game, and this sport. There are things that happen in sports that relate to your question, Hey, do I feel some type of way, where I wish it was a year earlier with this rule? Nah, that’s sports. And some things that happen in sports where it's just the way it goes, that’s the way the ball bounces. That’s what we sign up for. I got no problem with that.
“But there’s a lot of evidence both on the field and then analytically as well that support this.”
So was the task that McDermott, the coaches, general managers, and executives in the room had for a spirited 45-minute conversation on Tuesday in Palm Beach—take the emotional piece out (for McDermott, that would be wondering what would’ve happened if Josh Allen had another crack at the Chiefs defense) and hone in on the data the league was putting before all of them.
For McDermott and many others in the room, the point that couldn’t be ignored, and the NFL’s analytics department presented (10 of the 104 pages of the competition committee’s annual report to the clubs was dedicated to overtime statistics), was the one on what was happening in the playoffs. Since the current overtime format went in for playoff games in 2010, 12 postseason contests have extended into an extra period. Ten of those were won by the team that won the toss, seven of those on the first possession.
What’s more, had it not been for the Bengals’ upset of the Chiefs in the AFC title game, that number would’ve been 10 of 11 coming out of 2021.
It’s similar, as we wrote on Tuesday, to where the league was with its kickers in 2010, where it’d become too easy for the team that won the toss to win the game. This time around, it’s quarterbacks, guys like Allen and Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow (all involved in playoff OT this year) that have become the cheat codes.
“I mean, I wish it would have happened a couple years back whenever I was playing the Patriots,” Mahomes told me on Wednesday, with a laugh. “No, I think it’s good. I’ve been on both sides of it. Especially in the playoffs, to be able to give guys chances to make plays, I think you want everybody to have a chance. And whenever, defense or offense, you don’t get the chance to be on the field, I feel like you kind of leave the game with a worse feeling because you know you didn’t have a chance.
“I’m sure you’ll be in games where you score first and you’ll be mad, and then you’ll be in games where you get the ball second and you’re able to score and tie the game back up and you’ll be happy. So you just play the game and find a way to win.”
“It’s your job to figure things out and win, no matter how things go, or how long things last—I agree with that,” McDermott said, when I asked about Mahomes’s comment. “It’s our job to figure things out. But overall, I think it’s a good thing for the league. When the game speaks, we at least need to listen. And in this case, not only did people listen when the game was speaking, but they’re adjusting, they’re evolving. I think it’s good for the game.”
And therein lies an important piece of this for McDermott and the Bills. Three years ago, the Chiefs proposed a similar change, coming off the AFC title game defeat to the Patriots that Mahomes was referencing. It didn’t get off the ground then, and some believed the reason why is that it was the aggrieved team, so to speak, pushing for that sort of change.
So this time around, the Bills made a conscious decision to let others push the issue, and the Eagles and Colts did, as did the Titans with a separate proposal (and so did Ravens coach John Harbaugh, with the “continuation” proposal we detailed last week). And the truth is, even McDermott himself had to come around to the change because he’s like a lot of defensive coaches—believing it’s a defense’s job to not let overtime play out like it did on Jan. 23.
“That’s real,” he says. “I don’t think knee-jerk reactions are healthy, and I don’t think it is one in this case. I’ve objectively questioned myself—Hey, make sure this isn’t just because it happened to you. I don’t think decisions made based on that kind of thing alone are sound decisions. It’s just the latest example of this occurring, so now it’s, Was that the final straw? So yeah, I just think that, as it relates to a defensive-backgrounded head coach, you always take it upon yourself to say, What could we have done better? Well, we could’ve played better defense. And that’s on me.
“Having said that, you have to take a wider-lens view of what is best.”
That wider-lens view, for much of the league, made clear that some level of adjustment was called for. What the adjustment would be, and how it’d be implemented, on the other hand, really was not, at least for a while in the room. In fact, needing 24 votes, I was told the NFL only had somewhere between 16 and 18 votes for the Indy-Philly proposal as it was written—for regular season and postseason. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s idea to vote on it as a playoffs-only measure ultimately is what got it through by a 29–3 vote.
But even then, I know at least one of the three teams (Vikings, Dolphins, Bengals) that voted against it did so with the feeling that it was being rushed through and that elements of the meeting and proposals were confusing. So we’ll see if all this is revisited at the NFL’s spring meeting in May.
For now, though, the change is seen as mostly a good thing, among those I talked to this week about it. And in case you’re wondering, no, McDermott hasn’t let himself daydream about what might’ve been if Allen had gotten his hands on the ball one last time at Arrowhead.
“Nah, I don’t go down that road,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s healthy, and we’re past that. And again, I think trying to do the right thing for the league, you have to take that out of your mindset, as you’re saying, objectively, what’s the best thing for the league as a whole—not just what’s best for the Bills—or taking the spiteful approach that this happened to us, and we were wronged.
“No, no, that’s what the rules are and that’s the way it is, and we should’ve played better defense and I should’ve coached better. But the vision going forward has to be what’s best for the league, so the game continues to evolve and the league continues to evolve.”
And soon enough, we’ll all get to see how big a step forward this change is for pro football. Or if it’s a step forward at all.
Coaches are pretty excited about having conventional offseason programs again, after two years of having to adjust. Those offseason programs kick off today—with the new coaches of the Bears, Dolphins, Giants and Saints welcoming their players back to work for 2022—and after talking to New York’s Brian Daboll about it over the weekend, it’s pretty clear that, as much as he might’ve learned about videoconferencing the last two years in Buffalo, he’s good if we never go back to the world of ’20 and ’21. “It was such a unique time for everyone,” he told me. “[With] Zoom, you try to make it as personal as you can, but you’re trying to do things over a computer, and you’re finding different ways to teach on Zoom. It’ll be good to have an offseason that’s normal, where you’re face to face and communicating on a daily basis. The Zoom stuff, that’s become invaluable, heck, we’re using it now during the draft process, but other than that … no.” And with that in mind, Daboll was nice enough to take us through where his Giants are at, and what he hopes to accomplish in his first spring with the team.
• As Daboll sees it, he and GM Joe Schoen have focused on five things over their first two-plus months on the job—they’ve hired staff; they’ve evaluated their own roster, they’ve done free-agent evaluations and signed a few guys; they’ve worked through draft prep; and they’ve installed their systems and implemented their playbooks with staff. All of it is building toward the start of training camp when the roster will be more complete, and not necessarily today.
• That said, for Daboll, as well as Miami’s Mike McDaniel, Chicago’s Matt Eberflus and New Orleans’s Dennis Allen, today isn’t unimportant. In fact, for these guys, they’ve had their whole careers to think about how to address their players on a Day 1 like this one. In Daboll’s case, he’ll talk, have a few others talk and try to keep things focused mostly on what expectations will be in the coming weeks. “It’s April 4, I don’t get too far in front of myself with speeches and stuff like that,” he says. “It’s, Here are the expectations, and here are the standards for the way we’re going to do things around here, and here’s a couple things that we want to accomplish the first couple weeks, from the fourth through the 15th. And then we’ll go from there.”
• Phase 1 work is relatively light—the players are allowed in the building four hours a day, four days a week for the next two weeks, and teams can only specify two of those hours to players (they can spend the other two hours lifting, etc.), with up to 90 minutes of work on the field, but without a ball and only with strength coaches. And while there’s only so much you can get done given all that, you can accomplish more than nothing. “The first thing is for the players to get into the weight room with the strength coaches and start their foundation in terms of getting stronger, quicker, faster,” Daboll says. “And then laying a foundation in the meantime for what we’re gonna do in the kicking game, on defense and on offense. It’s really just introductory phases to our program and how we’re gonna do things relative to strength and conditioning, and our playbook.”
• That said, there is something to making a first impression for coaches. And Monday will be a chance to do that, since most of the Giants’ players haven’t been around since the season ended—those that have been either live locally or are rehabbing. “We want to come across as an organized group that’s ready to go when they get there,” Daboll says. “The thing I did talk to the coaches about, look, the relationships that you start to build, this is when you start to build them, because in the end everything goes back to trust with these guys. So getting to know them, their family, what makes them tick, and also showing our personalities too, and letting them know a little about us.”
And that last part, to Daboll, is the most important in where things will go over the two weeks of Phase 1 and 11 weeks of the larger offseason program. It’s not like he’s going to have the Giants doing trust falls or playing the name game, but he has told his coaches where he expects their relationships to be. “You have to get to know your players,” Daboll says. “That doesn’t take two weeks. It takes a long time. And there’s gotta be some trust that goes into that, which is the first thing that we’re going to try to develop. Trust leads to respect, and ultimately respect leads to accountability. You being accountable to me, me being accountable to you, and not letting down the guy next to you, that’s an important part of building a team. Being open and honest with your players, and doing everything you can do to help them be the best that they can be. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, and that’s what we’ll try to do here.” For obvious reasons, it should be much easier to do that for first-year coaches this year than it was the last two years.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got the Bengals, and coach Zac Taylor, and their decision to start their offseason program four weeks from now, on May 2. That’s two weeks after everyone else, and, of course, nearly a month after the four teams that kick off today, and credit to the Bengals staff on this, it’s an acknowledgment of what the team just fought through. Cincinnati (along with the Rams) just finished a 21-game season (including playoffs), which is a longer season than any team in NFL history has played. In fact, even a 20-game season was relatively rare in past years. So Taylor made the decision to take his foot off the pedal with his players—allowing them to do their work on their own through the month of April, in an effort to make sure they’re locked in and ready to go when they report next month—which also serves affirmation of his trust in the culture those players have built in the locker room. And Taylor also wanted to give his coaches a chance to be laser-focused on the draft the next three weeks. As we wrote back in February, the Bengals’ coaches are always involved this time of year with the team’s lean scouting staff setting up for the draft. This should allow for their work to be even more thorough in building what should be an important draft class for the team, when you consider how the big contracts that’ll come down the pike for the young core soon will make younger (and cheaper) talent on the roster more important. Overall, I think it’s a really solid idea by Taylor going into his fourth season, and, just logically, it’s not like getting a little less time with the players last spring did a ton of damage to his team in 2021.