Add this to the craziest, newsiest NFL offseason in modern league history: Bruce Arians, who coached the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl LV victory less than 14 months ago, is stepping aside to take a front-office role with the team effective immediately.
Tampa Bay will install Arians’ preferred successor, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, as the new head coach. Bowles, 58, previously coached the Jets to a 24-40 record in 2015-18, his only full-time head-coaching job. Bowles, who is Black, would become the sixth minority head coach in the league, joining Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), Ron Rivera (Washington), Robert Saleh (Jets), Mike McDaniel (Miami) and Lovie Smith (Houston).
Arians, 69, said his new job would be as “senior consultant for football,” and that gig will start with Tampa Bay’s 2022 draft prep.
The move comes as a surprise but perhaps not a shock. Arians, the most colorful coach in a buttoned-up pro game, said he started thinking about stepping aside at the NFL Scouting Combine a month ago. He is a prostate-cancer survivor and was hospitalized due to an illness late in his first head-coach tenure in Indianapolis in 2012. He’s suffering from a torn Achilles today. But when he explained his reasons, health wasn’t the big thing.
He said he’s relinquishing the Tampa job because “succession has always been huge for me. With the organization in probably the best shape it’s been in its history, with Tom Brady coming back … I’d rather see Todd in position to be successful and not have to take some [crappy] job. I’m probably retiring next year anyway, in February. So, I control the narrative right now. I don’t control it next February because [if] Brady gets hurt, we go 10-7, and it’s an open interview for the job … I got 31 [coaches and their] families that depend on me. My wife is big on not letting all those families down.”
Arians explained his reasoning in a telephone interview with NBC Sports and the Los Angeles Times.
He was scheduled to inform his coaching staff in an 8 pm Zoom call Wednesday, and he planned to send a message to his players explaining his decision competitor with telling his coaches.
In a way, Arians said, Brady coming out of retirement encouraged him to move on. In a 25-minute conversation, Arians explained the reasons for this decision dated back to February 2021.
“It hits me after the Super Bowl,” he said. “I thought really hard about going out on top. Then it was like, nah, let’s go for two. [The 2021 season] was a grind with all the injuries but still winning and getting to where we got. Immediately after, two to three weeks afterwards [I thought] … if I quit, my coaches get fired. I couldn’t do it then.
“Tom was kind of the key. When Tom decided to come back … and all of these guys back now, it’s the perfect timing for me just to go into the front office and still have the relationships that I love.”
Arians said he has wanted Bowles, the architect of the Bucs’ suffocating 2020 defense that held Kansas City to zero touchdowns in a 31-9 Super Bowl win, to succeed him whenever he chose to step down. Arians also wanted Bowles to have the benefit of a great quarterback on the roster to give him the best chance to win. The Bucs’ owners, the Glazer family, agreed. The Bowles hire would be the fourth full-time minority coach hired by the Glazers (Tony Dungy, Raheem Morris, Lovie Smith, Bowles), which is the most in NFL history. No other team has had more than three non-interim minority head coaches.
Four times during a discussion about why now, Arians kept coming back to his coaching staff: “I know my guys are going to be taken care of. I couldn’t leave them hanging.”
What complicated the latter stage of this transfer from Arians to Bowles was the unusual timing of the move. Arians and the Bucs wanted Bowles to get the job, and so they went to the league and said, essentially, Let’s not go through sham interviews when we know we’re hiring Bowles, who will improve the league’s bottom line for minority hires.
It is customary for teams to follow the Rooney Rule in coach searches, mandating that at least two minority coaches be interviewed for every head-coach opening. Because this situation happened after the start of the league year in mid-March, and the NFL allows coaching interviews only after the regular season, it would have been precedent-setting for the league to allow coaching interviews now. The communication between the Bucs and the league on this issue is unknown, but the franchise feels comfortable enough after discussions with the league to confirm the Bowles hire.
The Bucs are expected to hold a news conference Thursday in Tampa, with Arians and Bowles discussing the transition.
The timing brings up what will surely be an internet-fueled round of speculation. It was rumored that Brady had problems with Arians and the supposed lax nature of how the team was handled at times in his first two years with the team, and that factored into Brady’s 40-day retirement at the end of the 2021 season. Brady announced his return to the Bucs on March 13.
The logical question, with Arians’ odd timing about stepping down, will be: Is there a connection between Brady’s return and Arians quitting coaching?
“No,” Arians said. “No. Tom was very in favor of what I’m doing. I mean, I had conflicts with every player I coached because I cussed them all out, including him. Great relationship off the field.”
If there was any conflict, maybe friction is a good thing. In his last two seasons, at ages 43 and 44, Brady had the most explosive offensive performances, back to back, of his 22-year career. In those two seasons, he threw 83 touchdown passes and 9,949 passing yards—his all-time highs for a two-year period. Brady seems set this year to have another productive season at 45.
Arians certainly wasn’t the control freak that Brady had in coach Bill Belichick in his first 20 NFL seasons in New England. But the Arians/Brady combination resulted in a Super Bowl title and a 29-10 record in the quarterback’s first two post-Patriot years.
Arians has a 47-year coaching history, dating back to his grad-assistant days in 1975 at Virginia Tech. He was Alabama’s running backs coach on Bear Bryant staff in his last two seasons (1981-’82) as a coach, and he speaks reverentially of his days as a kid working for Bryant. “I always remembered Coach Bryant’s best advice: Coach ’em hard, hug ’em later,” he said.
He was Peyton Manning’s first quarterback coach in 1998 in Indianapolis, Ben Roethlisberger’s mentor in Pittsburgh till 2011, and was hired to be Andrew Luck’s first pro offensive coordinator in 2012 in Indianapolis. That’s where Arians got his first chance as a head coach at age 60. Early in the 2012 season, Colts coach Chuck Pagano had to take a leave for leukemia treatment. That’s when the Arians star began to shine. He won coach of the year twice—going 9-3 in 2012 in that interim role with the Colts, and then in 2014 with the ascending Cardinals. His 95 coaching victories is a lot for a man who wasn’t a head coach till he turned 60. He coached Arizona to the 2015 NFC title game, and then the Bucs to the 2020 Super Bowl title with Brady.
He’d prefer his legacy to be at least as much about color- and gender-blindness as the wins and the offensive schemes he taught that were heavy on the deep ball. His last coaching staff in Tampa included a league-high 11 Black coaches (including all three coordinators) and two women.
Arians said he was actually energized thinking about staying on the job and entering the season with veteran backup Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask, last year’s unproven second-round pick. “Part of me,” he said, “was excited to coach Blaine Gabbert as the quarterback and prove to everybody, ‘Kiss my ass. He’s good.’ You know?”
He said his son and agent, Jake Arians, has told him it’s not too smart to be stepping away from a potential Super Bowl team. “I don’t really feel like I’m stepping away,” Bruce said. “I’m not retiring. I’m just moving to the other side of the building. I’ll be at practices. I’ll be in the office. Whatever they need me to do.”
The move to Bowles likely will increase the influence of offensive coordinators Byron Leftwich and Brady on game plans and play-calling. Although Arians often credited Leftwich with doing everything in game-planning and running the offense, the philosophy was Arians-based. Take chances, he preached. No risk it, no cookie was a refrain of his.
Lots of coaches say they’re finished. But they find reasons to come back. In recent years, Pete Carroll has shown no desire to leave coaching (he’s 70), and Bill Belichick, who looks like he’ll coach forever, turns 70 on April 16. Arians is in their age bracket but doesn’t sound like Carroll or Belichick.
“No,” Arians said, “this is it. This is it. I’m gonna be 70 in October. I just look forward to helping the Bucs because they’ve been so great to me and my family.”
There’s one other benefit, Arians pointed out, to make this call now.
“I don’t have to worry about how many cocktails I have on Saturday night,” he said.
After this story was published, Arians issued a lengthy statement, which read in part:
“I have spent most of the last 50 years of my life on the sidelines as a football coach in one form or another. Today, I have made the decision to move from the sidelines into another role with the Buccaneers front office, assisting (general manager) Jason Licht and his staff. I love football. I love the relationships, the strategy, the competition—everything. It has been one hell of a ride, but I know this is the right time for me to make this transition …
“I really began thinking about my personal transition plan earlier this offseason. I wanted to ensure when I walked away that Todd Bowles would have the best opportunity to succeed. So many head coaches come into situations where they are set up for failure, and I didn’t want that for Todd …
“Before you start thinking this is about my health, don’t. This is the best I have felt in many years and I’m looking forward to helping this team continue winning through my new role.”