When Lovie Smith brought Mike Bajakian in to interview for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' vacancy at quarterbacks coach, he made sure Dirk Koetter was standing by.
Smith had hired Bajakian before, adding him to his first Chicago Bears staff in 2004, and Bajakian had done nothing but improve his resume in the years since. Whether or not he would return to the NFL and find a spot on Smith's coaching staff for a second time would hinge on how well he meshed with Koetter, who had just come aboard as the team's offensive coordinator a few weeks earlier.
Koetter's time as a coach on the college and pro levels spans roughly three decades and Bajakian's about half of that, but their two paths had never before crossed. Bajakian's interview marked the first time he had met Koetter, and yet they quickly realized that they had nearly identical offensive philosophies, in some cases right down to the phrasing.
Where that matters most to Bajakian, of course, is at the quarterback position, since it his task to help the team make a significant improvement in the quality of play at that critical spot. And, since Josh McCown was released last week, it is now certain the team will have a new starter at quarterback. Whether that player is holdover Mike Glennon, a veteran free agent addition or a pick in the upcoming draft, there are several key traits he will need to possess in order to succeed.
"The first thing I said when [Koetter] asked me what I'm looking for is a guy that can process information quickly," said Bajakian. "And that's exactly the same phrase he uses. Beyond that, toughness was the number-two thing. You need to have guys that are both mentally and physically tough. And then it goes into the physical ability – accuracy and arm strength and athleticism, things like that."
Photos of new Buccaneers Quarterbacks Coach Mike Bajakian. (Photo credit: University of Tennessee Athletics)
In addition to working with current Buccaneer quarterbacks Glennon and Seth Lobato and helping Koetter develop the team's new attack, Bajakian will also assist in the scouting of 2015 draft prospects in the coming months. Whether or not Tampa Bay uses the first overall pick in that draft to snag a quarterback remains a debate, at least outside the offices of Smith and General Manager Jason Licht, and Bajakian knows that decision is in the hands of team leadership. What he also knows is that ability to process information quickly is rare, and at least partially innate.
"The game moves so fast, in the NFL especially…at the college level, too," said Bajakian. "I think people underestimate how quickly those guys have to think, react and make decisions. It's not just enough to be intelligent. You have to be intelligent and think quickly. There are ways we can drill that on the field and in the meeting room, but part of that is also a natural ability."
Bajakian fits the Lovie Smith "stern teacher" mold on his coaching staff, and his work with young quarterbacks on the college level could be an asset if the team does end up trying to usher a rookie passer through his transition to the pros.
"I'm just looking to contribute any way I can and I'm excited about this opportunity," he said. "We have some good quarterbacks on this roster and depending on what happens with this draft, the opportunity to work with these guys and help them develop is exciting for me."