Byron Leftwich, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new offensive coordinator, started to learn the art of coaching while he was finishing up his nine-year NFL playing career in Pittsburgh. The key was serving as a reserve behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a big and strong-armed passer who also happened to be a creative playmaker and a master of extending the action and operating outside the pocket.
Leftwich described himself as a pure pocket passer, so watching Roethlisberger closely showed him that there are other ways to succeed as an NFL quarterback and taught him the importance of emphasizing a player's strengths. It was a fortuitous connection for Leftwich because, as he starts his first full season as an NFL playcaller, he'll be sending those plays into a young passer who has always reminded him of Ben Roethlisberger.
It was the year after Leftwich's final season with the Steelers when he first witnessed Winston in action. Coincidentally, Winston's debut for Florida State happened to take place at the University of Pittsburgh. It was a stunning debut for the redshirt freshman who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy – 25 of 27 passing for 356 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions – and Leftwich caught it on TV with some colleagues.
"I remember watching Jameis' first game in Pittsburgh when he was a college football player and I won't say who was around the table, but we were talking about Jameis back then," said Leftwich. "We were talking about how for a kid to be able to come in and do what he did in his first game, I remember it like it was yesterday. The people that were sitting at the table, we knew this kid had a chance to be really, really good."
View some of the best behind-the-scenes pictures from 2018.
Winston has indeed done some very impressive things since the Buccaneers selected him with the first-overall pick in 2015. In four seasons he's already thrown for nearly 15,000 yards while tossing a franchise-record 88 touchdown passes. He almost certainly needs to reduce his turnovers to truly fulfill the potential that Leftwich (and many others) saw in him back in 2013, but he seemed to be headed in the right direction down the stretch in 2018.
Now Leftwich gets an opportunity to help Winston maximize his talents. General Manager Jason Licht said right after the conclusion of the 2018 season that Winston would be back in 2019, playing on the fifth-year option of his original contract, and upon his hiring about a week later, Head Coach Bruce Arians spoke very highly of the young passer. On Friday, during his introduction to the local media, Leftwich joined that chorus of Winston believers.
"I'm excited to work with him," said Leftwich. "I believe in this kid. This kid can really play. I think there's things that we all have got to get better at as each individual player but, man, I'm really excited to work with him and really excited to put him in positions so he can be successful, just like everyone else.
"He's a playmaker. He's [been] a playmaker from the second he got in this league. This kid's played four years and he's only 25 or something like that? It's amazing, the situations that he's already been in and experience he's gained being in this league, so I'm excited about that."
Winston may not be quite as big as Roethlisberger, but he's close, and he has some of the same unexpected elusiveness as the Steelers star. The numbers certainly back up the notion that Winston is particularly good when he extends plays and escapes the pocket. In 2018, Winston posted a passer rating of 140.7 on all plays in which he scrambled before throwing, the best among any player in the NFl who threw at least five passes. Leftwich studied Roethlisberger from up close and learned how a quarterback with that particular skillset succeeds.
"To be in a room with a player that was that good, to really be in the room and see how he does things and executes things – I used to think it was luck, but then you watch it and you say, 'Damn, this is a skill-set. This guy can really play. This is really how he plays the football game. This is him,'" said Leftwich. "And to be in a room with a guy like that really helped me because I was an 'Xs and Os' guy, I was a guy that was never leaving the pocket. I'm a true pocket guy and the way I had to see the game was the way I had to see the game for myself. But going there and slowing down and being a backup, it allowed me to see the way that I played the game and the way he played the game, and see that there's a whole lot of different ways you can get the job done.
"That in itself made me a completely better coach, a completely better player, just being around a guy with that unique skill-set and seeing the plays that he would make on a daily basis, to understand you can do this thing in a lot of different ways once you understand of what your quarterback can and cannot do."
Of course, those great scramble plays happen after the original idea breaks down, or is taken away by the defense. Leftwich won't try to coach that aggressive playmaking out of Winston, but he also hopes to get as many of his designed plays to work as possible. A little bit of both and Winston and the Buccaneers might finally enjoy some of the win-loss success that Roethlisberger has experienced in Pittsburgh.
"The type of player that Jameis is, he'll do that naturally, right?" said Leftwich of Winston's more creative plays. "So you just want to give him a good answer before he has to do that. That's the great thing when you have someone like Jameis – they can bail you out of certain situations, they can make plays, they can extend plays, they can do certain things with the football to buy time to help the team out to make the play. It's great to have a quarterback that you see on tape doing all these different things and [is] capable of extending plays, helping us convert third downs, putting us in better position from a time-of-possession standpoint. Like I said, it's exciting to work with a quarterback that has this skill-set."