“Quarterback Whisperer” Bruce Arians is entering his sixth month as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And while Jameis Winston may be the last quarterback he coaches, Winston certainly wasn’t his first.
That distinction belongs to none other than the legendary Peyton Manning circa 1998. Believe it or not, Manning was not an instant sensation, and Arians played a key role in his early development. His rookie season, in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, was one to forget. Manning and Arians were both professional rookies; Arians as QB Coach and Manning at quarterback. Pains were grown through quickly, however.
Though Manning and the Colts suffered a dismal 3-13 record during Arians’ first season, that record would reverse to 13-3 his sophomore year. Manning enjoyed his first Pro Bowl nod in 1999, thanks partially to cutting his interceptions in half and an uptick in yards passing.
The year 2000, which would be Arians’ last as quarterbacks coach before heading to the Cleveland Browns, would be a career year for Manning. He threw for 33 touchdowns and 4413 yards, 278 more than the previous season.
Arians’ success in Indianapolis brought with it interest from Browns brass, and he was hired to his first offensive coordinator position at the professional level (he was offensive coordinator at Mississippi State and Temple in the 1990s). During his time in Cleveland, 1999 first overall pick Tim Couch and backup Kelly Holcomb saw glimpses of success. Their brief stints as pros were not the fault of Arians, but more related to the revolving door that was the Browns organization.
Arians helped the team to its first playoff game in eight seasons in 2002 (the team hasn’t been there since). Couch led the Browns to the playoffs, but broke his leg in the regular season finale. Holcomb threw for more than 400 yards in the Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers must’ve really liked what they saw in Arians. The victim of an umpteenth regime change in Cleveland, Arians headed east to Pittsburgh where he was hired as the wide receivers coach in 2004. That following season the Steelers won their first Super Bowl since 1979. He was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2007, and in 2008 Arians earned his second ring with the black and gold.
Ben Roethlisberger was still in the developmental stages when Arians took over as coordinator. In the quarterback’s initial three seasons as a Steeler, he threw for 8,519 yards, 52 TDs, and 43 interceptions. His first three seasons under Arians’ wing resulted in 10,783 yards, 75 scores, and 38 picks. In 2007, the two re-wrote the playbook together, and Arians gave Roethlisberger more play-calling freedom. In his first season under Arians, the signal caller compiled a passer rating of 104.1, which remains the best of his career, and his first Pro Bowl to boot. Arians and Roethlisberger continued to have success together through the 2011 season when Roethlisberger threw for more than 4,000 yards and earned his second Pro Bowl accolade.
Despite all his success in Pittsburgh, and against the wishes of Roethlisberger, the organization let Arians’ contract expire in 2011, as it wanted to switch to a run-first offense. One door closed and another opened; this time, the Colts were calling – again. He returned to Indianapolis in the coordinator role where he assisted in developing rookie Andrew Luck.
Arians’ intuitive feel with quarterbacks continued as Luck quickly grew into an NFL-caliber quarterback. With Arians barking in his headset, Luck set an NFL rookie record by throwing for 4,374 yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
In 2012, new head coach Chuck Pagano took a leave of absence after being stricken with leukemia, but not before naming Arians interim head coach. With Luck at the helm, the Arians-led team went 9-3. The nine wins are the most by an interim head coach in NFL history. In 2013, another first came along, when he became the first interim head coach to be named NFL’s Coach of the Year for 2012. By that time, he had already been snapped up by the Arizona Cardinals.
Arians helped Carson Palmer make the Cardinals relevant again after rescuing him from the humiliation that was his career as an Oakland Raider. In 2013, Palmer threw for over 4,000 yards and lead his team to a record of 10-6. The following season, the Cardinals started off the season undefeated. In six wins, Palmer tossed 11 touchdowns to only three interceptions, and his 95.6 passer rating was the second-highest of his career before he suffered a season-ending ACL tear. But, never fear – Bruce Arians was still there! The Cards still managed its way to the NFC Wild Card game using three different quarterbacks.
In Palmer’s comeback season of 2015, he had 35 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and career-high 104.6 passer rating, which earned him his third and final visit to the Pro Bowl. The field general took his 13-3 team to the NFC Championship Game, but would be humiliated by the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers.
In 2018, after two subpar seasons, Palmer retired and Arians went with him. But it wouldn’t be for long. Two months after saying the only team he would come out of retirement to coach for was the Browns, and nearly a year-to-the-day after he retired, Arians was announced as Tampa Bay’s 12th head coach.
Now is Arians’ time to make Winston shine. Quarterbacks before him have benefited from the Whisperer’s Wisdom, so why not Winston? He sees great potential in Winston. After all, the coach came out of the comfort of retirement and the cushy analyst gig with CBS Sports to help the fifth-year quarterback with his game.
The fact that the Bucs organization hasn’t completely moved on from Winston is a sign they also see potential, despite the Ryan Fitzpatrick experiment. Pairing Winston with Arians is a last-ditch, albeit wise, effort to see if he is truly franchise material.
Winston hasn’t yet reached the status that comes with being the first overall draft pick. He has completed 1,183-of-1,922 passes for 14,628 yards and 88 touchdowns, but Tampa Bay has a 21-33 record with him at the helm. Since entering the NFL in 2015, only one quarterback (Roethlisberger) has thrown more interceptions than Winston’s 58. Thus, a reduction in turnovers is a key area in which Arians needs to focus on with his protégée.
Winston needs someone who believed in him to show him the way, and Arians is just the man to do that. The two go back to when the quarterback was an impressionable teenager. In high school, Winston attended a Birmingham, Alabama football camp of which Arians and his son were a part. Arians inspired the kids by letting them try on the Super Bowl ring he won as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. It left a taste in Winston’s mouth that he’s had a hunger for ever since.
Can It Work
There isn’t one organization Arians has gone to and not improved the play of its quarterback. With that history and reputation, it’s safe to hope he can inject life into Winston, and mold him into the consistent, solid offensive leader the team and fans have been craving since day one.
The offensive guru can work wonders for someone of Winston’s caliber, however, this is one of the rare times in Arians’ head coaching career that he will not be calling plays. That monumental task is being shouldered by an inexperienced Byron Leftwich, whose first time serving as offensive coordinator was half of last season for the Arizona Cardinals (he was promoted from QB coach midway through the season after Mike McCoy was fired).
Can Arians shape Winston into a Manning or a Roethlisberger? That has yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain; if Arians can’t, it’s doubtful anyone can.