Bruce Arians has been here before.
Actually, as a football coach for more than four decades, Arians has been a lot of places before. He and his family accepted the nomadic lifestyle of a coach early on and have since moved all around the country pursuing ever more exciting opportunities.
But Arians has very specifically been in this place before, in terms of situation and not geography. In 2013, the Arizona Cardinals hired him to be their new head coach and he took over a team that had finished 5-11 the year prior, with a total of 18 wins over the previous three seasons. The results were immediate and compelling: The Cardinals improved to 10 wins in Arians' first season and then had back-to-back playoff seasons and a combined 24-8 record in the next two campaigns.
Arians made the Cardinals relevant again, and he did it very quickly.
On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers introduced Arians as their new head coach in a press conference that abounded with optimism. The Buccaneers want a reason for that optimism, they want to be relevant again after finishing 5-11 in 2018 and winning a total of 19 games over the previous three seasons. Arians expects things to improve just as quickly as they did in Arizona six years ago.
"This is a great group," he said in his introduction. "I think we have the core here to win quickly. I'm not about [re]building, I'm about reloading."
In fact, Arians – who has worked for a lot of very good football teams in Arizona, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and elsewhere – thinks this 2019 Buccaneer team is closer to playoff contention than the one he took over in the desert. That perception is built in part on what Arians' believes is a much better situation at the game's most important position, but his preliminary evaluation tells him the Bucs have talent all over their depth chart.
"This one's much easier, I believe," said Arians, comparing the Bucs' current roster to the one he inherited in 2013. "When I walked in to Arizona, we had no quarterbacks. We were fortunate to sign Drew Stanton and then trade for Carson Palmer. People want to know, 'What's your system?' Your system's your players. This coaching staff will build a system to what our players can do. When we meet as coaches I ask them, 'Please don't tell me what our players can't do. Tell me what they can do and build around that.' I think the core is here, and obviously some of the [position] rooms are outstanding. There, it was a little bit farther behind."
Optimism is easy in January, of course, but there's no reason to dismiss the idea of a quick improvement in the case of the 2019 Buccaneers. Rapid turnarounds are not at all uncommon in the NFL, and they often can be spiked by a new head coach. The Colts went 10-6 and made the playoffs this year under new Head Coach Frank Reich after posting a 4-12 mark in 2017. The Los Angeles Rams made almost the exact same turnaround from 2016 to 2017 under new leader Sean McVay. Adam Gase got the Dolphins from 6-10 in 2015 to 10-6 and in the playoffs in his first year. And so on.
Obviously, the new head coach is never the only change for a team from one year to the next. Reich's Colts, for instance, arguably got a much bigger boost in their fortunes from the return – and return to form – of star quarterback Andrew Luck from a long bout with a shoulder injury. But that's another reason for Buccaneer optimism: This roster has a quarterback with talent, and one that Arians, the "quarterback whisperer" believes he can win with.
"I want him to relax and play the game," said Arians of fifth-year man Jameis Winston, who finished the 2018 season with a strong run of six good starts. "Talent's no issue. It's just becoming a little bit smarter. With Clyde Christensen as his quarterbacks coach and Byron Leftwich [as offensive coordinator], he's going to be coached as well as I think he's ever been and more prepared than he's ever been, fundamentally and mentally. It's his team. And I'll tell your players in our first meeting: 'This isn't my team. It's your team. We'll be as good as you want to be.'"
Winston and the Buccaneers' offense already had a good amount of success last season, though more so in terms of yards than points. Tampa Bay led the league in passing and set team records in a wide variety of categories, including scoring and touchdowns. The defense did not get the same good results, but did show some improvement down the stretch and may not be as far away from success as some of the final 2018 numbers would suggest. General Manager Jason Licht said that Arians and the other candidates he interviewed for the Bucs' head coaching job identified a lot of talent on that side of the ball.
"[Arians] likes a lot of players on the defensive side, too," said Licht. "I found out through the process…I know that we have a lot of work to do, particularly on that side of the ball, but the candidates talked a lot, equally as much of the offense, about a lot of the young players we have on defense."
The Buccaneers are sure to make some additions through free agency and the draft, especially with a new coaching staff and their ideas about player values. But if there is some under-the-radar talent lurking on the current roster, Arians intends to find that, too. He's got a plan for offseason practices that will make sure every player at least gets an opportunity to shine.
"This spring when you guys come out to OTAs you'll see two practices going on because we'll have a staff that can take all our young players and get those 40 to 45 reps that the veterans are getting," said the Bucs' new coach. "You can't find a diamond in the rough if he's standing on the sideline watching. We don't know if a rookie can really learn if he only gets three reps."
The Buccaneers will be installing new playbooks over the course of that season, of course, but the development of the team's offensive and defensive systems will be a two-way street. As Arians and his coaches learn what their players do best, they will be tailoring their schemes to fit those strengths. And then, hopefully, Arians will do what he does best: He'll build a winning team, and soon.