The quarterback whisperer. It isn't the first and won't be the last time you hear new Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians described like that. It's even the title of his recent book The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback. He takes ownership of the title and boy, has he earned it.
Arians has worked with multiple generational talents at the position in his more than 25 years of coaching in the NFL. And I'm not saying that lightly. First, there was a rookie Peyton Manning in 1998. Arians spent three foundational years with Manning and the Colts before Manning went on to a Hall of Fame career that included setting all-time NFL records like most career passing yards and most career passing touchdowns, the former of which was just broken this past season by Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. Manning will tell you himself, he learned a lot from 'BA' that helped him along the way.
Then there was Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben. With Arians as his offensive coordinator, they won Super Bowl XLIII, just three years after winning Super Bowl XL when Arians was the wide receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The difference between Big Ben in the first Super Bowl and Big Ben in the second was how smart and well-rounded a quarterback Roethlisberger had become thanks to Arians. The first Super Bowl came in Roethlisberger's third season at the helm and was complemented with an extraordinary Steelers defense that held the Seattle Seahawks to just 10 points in the game. The second time around against the Arizona Cardinals, yes, Arians' future team, it would be Roethlisberger and the offense who would ultimately win the game for Pittsburgh. He led a two-minute drill to perfection that resulted in the game-winning touchdown to Santonio Holmes in the end zone with seconds left to play; a testament to his development as a quarterback under Arians.
There was Andrew Luck in his rookie season while Arians was again with the Colts, this time for just one year as the offensive coordinator in 2012. It was the year Arians earned his first Coach of the Year award for leading Indianapolis to a 9-3 record while Head Coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia. He was the first interim head coach to win the award ever. The Colts made the playoffs that year and Andrew Luck flourished as a rookie, setting the NFL record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback in a single season in NFL history.
Most recently, he worked with Carson Palmer in Arizona. Palmer, a veteran quarterback, was a different challenge for Arians from the young players he had worked with. But once again, Arians tailored the system to his quarterback and led the Cardinals to three consecutive 10+ win seasons in the first three years Arians was head coach and Palmer was with the team.
Now, he'll inherit a Bucs team with quarterback Jameis Winston, who by age is young, but by NFL tenure, isn't as much. The 25-year-old Winston will be entering his fifth NFL season and it will be up to Arians to devise yet another plan around his new quarterback.
While these scenarios are different, the blueprint remains the same. Luckily for us, much of it is outlined in his aforementioned book. Arians mentioned that he came out of retirement to take the job with the Bucs because "the stars aligned," and judging from his quarterback criteria, Winston may just be the brightest of those stars.
"What does the perfect NFL quarterback look like?" Arians asks in his book. "It begins with something you can't see. He must have heart – a big heart, a lion's heart, a heart that beats for an entire franchise."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a guy with more heart than Winston, both on and off the field. He gives impassioned pep talks to his teammates and is always the first to celebrate with one should he make a spectacular play. Even when he was on the bench as the Bucs went in favor of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 10 at home against the Washington Redskins, Winston was first off the sideline to congratulate Fitzpatrick on a great third-down play in which Fitz actually threw a block for running back Jacquizz Rodgers en route to the first down. Off the field, Winston started his Jameis Winston's Dream Forever Foundation that aims to improve quality of life for financially disadvantaged children. He's always participating in Bucs' sponsored community events, as well, showing the love he has for the community he's in.
"Another trait he must have is what I call 'grit,'" Arians says of his quarterbacks. "This is the ability to handle success and failure equally." Pretty sure the fact that Winston is firing up the guy who took his spot midway through the season is proof of handling 'failure,' which turned out not to be a failure at all. Winston returned in Week 12 and down the stretch showed drastic improvement. He threw for 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions in those last six games of the 2018 season, two of which you could argue weren't his fault. He had a 97.7 passer rating in that span compared to 80.3 in the weeks prior, proving he didn't take his temporary demotion lightly.
"Another characteristic the NFL quarterback must have that you can't see is the ability to process a vast amount of information in a short amount of time and make prudent decisions based on that intelligence," says Arians.
Winston is no stranger to having to make quick decisions. In former Head Coach Dirk Koetter's offense, a great deal of responsibility was placed on the quarterback to evaluate the defense and decide how best to attack it using concepts. This won't change in Arians' system.
"My quarterback operates on a read-rotation system," Arians said. "At the line of scrimmage he'll diagnose the defense, and, based on what he sees, he'll decide who will be his number one option receiver."
Straight from the horse's mouth. Winston should automatically feel comfortable with this sort of system – it will be getting to know the playbook that will be his next challenge. That shouldn't be an issue for Winston though, either. He is regularly touted as the hardest worker on the team, always the first one in and often the last to leave. It's his way of setting an example, leading by example, if you will.
"The ideal quarterback also needs to be a leader," Arians continues in his book. "Virtually all of the great NFL quarterbacks have been extroverts, guys who love being around other guys and are life-of-the-party types."
What a coincidence. Winston was quite literally the life of the party just a week ago when he turned 25. His fiancée threw him a birthday party and if you pay attention to social media, you would have seen that a lot of his teammates were in attendance.
"So if you take everything I've just described about the ideal NFL quarterback – the heart, the grit, the smarts, the ability to lead, to throw with accuracy and to have just enough athleticism – who do you get?"
The simple answer is: Jameis Winston. No matter how many stats you throw at this pair, that kind of says it all. Winston just has those intangibles that make up the 'it' factor of a BA quarterback.
Arians goes so far in his book to describe certain mechanics he wants out of his quarterbacks, too, and there was one in particular that stuck out. He makes a key distinction between a 'passer' and a 'thrower,' which may sound like semantics to us mere mortals, but it makes a lot of sense in the way Arians breaks it down.
"You always want passers, not throwers," he says. "Throwers wait to see a receiver break open and then sling it in that direction, usually as hard as they can. Passers release the ball before the receivers get open, usually with the right velocity and touch."
You mean kinda like this?
This play was one Coach Koetter lauded as Winston's best throw of that particular game. He classified it as one of those 'rhythm cuts' that only works when receivers and quarterbacks are on the same page. Winston had trips to his left and after the ball was snapped, continued looking to that side until the last second. He ended up snapping his head quickly in the other direction, throwing to Evans on the right side where he was alone running that skinny post route from a split right on top of the numbers. He cut inside at just the right time on the cornerback and whipped his head around at the exact moment he needed to in order to make the catch. That should be music to Arians' ears.
"If either the quarterback or the receiver is only slightly off in their movements, those types of plays will result in incompletions or interceptions," Arians says in his book. "The receiver can't get to his spot too soon or too later and the quarterback can't deliver the ball to him too soon or too later. It's an incredibly fragile formula. It demands repetition and precision and sweat."
I could have told you Arians said that about Winston's throw to Mike Evans in that Carolina game and you wouldn't have doubted me for a second. It almost seems as if everything Winston has done up until this point has been preparing him for this alignment with BA, and vice versa. It could be the greatest pairing of Arians career yet.
"Bottom line: About 95 percent of the successful quarterbacks in the NFL are special people, not just robots with big arms," Arians says. "They inspire others. They get teammates to do things they never thought possible. You want to be around that kind of quarterback."
Welcome to Tampa, BA. Let Jameis Winston be the first to greet you.