TAMPA, Fla. — To some, he’s merely the former NFL quarterback whose house Tom Brady was trying to enter when he unintentionally walked into the wrong home this offseason. But to those who follow the Tampa Bay Buccaneers closely, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich is the man who, in many ways, holds the keys to Brady’s success in coach Bruce Arians’ offense.
He’s also one of the league’s fastest-rising young coaches, going from an Arizona Cardinals coaching intern in 2016 to their QBs coach in 2017 to the Bucs’ OC — including taking over playcalling for Arians — in 2019. But is Leftwich ready to help Brady vie for a Super Bowl championship while playing in a new offense for the first time in 20 years? How is their relationship?
“You have a guy that’s been there, seen it all,” Leftwich said of Brady. “And just the conversations that me and him have — it’s exciting, man. It’s gonna be exciting to work with him and try to put him in position to play as good of football as possible.”
“We’re pretty close in age, so we’re from the old-school version of football,” Leftwich (40) said of Brady (42). “Me and him talk a lot about the old days where you do seven, eight, nine days of two-a-days in a row. We’re from that era of football in this league. We can talk old-school football — things that happened in ’08, ’09; things that are still relevant in this league.”
Leftwich spent 10 seasons in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers and Bucs. In his two stints with the Steelers, he played for Arians and served as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup, before Arians lured him out of retirement to coach in 2017.
Leftwich credits his time with the Steelers for preparing him for his second act as a coach, not only for helping to understand the system he’s teaching and coaching in, but understanding the psychological needs of a quarterback and even serving as a buffer between head coach and signal-caller. For instance, in Pittsburgh, Arians would sometimes yell at Leftwich to then pass on information to Roethlisberger.
“I remember him, we were in Pittsburgh, he cussed me out one day and I wasn’t even playing,” Leftwich said of Arians last year. “I knew it was for Ben. It’s just having an understanding of the dynamics. It was not the time to say that to Ben, it was to say it to me so that I could relay it to Ben later on — two, three plays later.”
Arians could do this with Leftwich because, as some close to him have described him, he is “even-keeled” and level-headed. So the types of sideline arguments that were documented in New England between Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — which Brady has characterized as overblown — wouldn’t faze Leftwich at all, just as it didn’t faze Leftwich last year when he and Arians were caught chirping on the sideline with each other.
“I think Byron gets along with just about everybody he comes in contact with, ’cause he’s a very personable, outgoing guy,” Brady said of Leftwich. “He’s got great football knowledge. We both have made a huge commitment in our lives to do that, and it’ll be fun to take on this challenge together.”
When Brady signed with the Bucs, Roethlisberger told SiriusXM NFL Radio he texted Leftwich and said, “Hey, don’t screw it up,” to which Leftwich responded, “All I got to do is get out of the way.”
Leftwich understands his role with Brady and how it’s different from last year with Jameis Winston. Leftwich will be doing more listening and taking in what Brady is seeing on the field. And just as Arians gave Roethlisberger a ton of freedom with the playbook in Pittsburgh, believing taking more ownership of the team would help him take the next step as a quarterback, Leftwich is expected to give a lot of freedom to Brady, who is viewed essentially as another coach out on the field.
“He’s about excellence,” Leftwich said of Brady. “He’s trying to do everything possible to make sure we’re as successful as possible. We as coaches are doing the same thing, and it’s great to have a guy like that to come in and lead the guys and to get as much participation as he’s gotten from the guys.”
While it shouldn’t be hard for Brady to master Arians’ offense, Leftwich can take care of the things Brady won’t be controlling on game day, such as the running game, which struggled at times last year (the Bucs averaged 3.72 yards per rush last season — 28th in the league). The offensive line also had lapses in protection — surrendering 47 sacks — which will need to be shored up if they hope to win with a 43-year-old pocket passer.
Expect Leftwich and Brady to collaborate a lot on ideas, even incorporating some of the concepts Brady used in New England, such as more 12-personnel with two tight ends or even three tight ends with 13-personnel, and more passes to running backs. While Leftwich is a risk-taker much like Arians is as a playcaller, he’s perfectly fine with Brady checking down to keep the chains moving, as he has done so many times in his career. And you can expect Brady to have a fairly large role in picking out the plays he wants to run, as has been the case with all of Arians’ and Leftwich’s quarterbacks.
“My philosophy — and which I believe B.A.’s philosophy is also — is that every quarterback I’ve ever been around has a role in the offense. I don’t just call plays; I don’t just come up with plays – I come with plays always with the quarterback in mind,” Leftwich said. “So there’ll be some things that’s different here and there; obviously we want to know everything that Tom knows. Any time you’ve got a guy like this leading your team at the quarterback position, you want to know and put him in the best position possible all the time.”
“There’s not a play that he hasn’t heard of; there’s not a play that he hasn’t ran,” Leftwich said. “Now we just gotta figure out what he does well, and make sure we run a lot more of those plays on Sunday than not.”
Former NFL, college coach Phil Krueger dies at 90
PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — Phil Krueger, who helped build a dominant defense as an assistant for 1967 national champion Southern California and later became part of the first coaching staff in Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ history, has died. He was 90.
Krueger died Monday at his home, his family said.
Skilled in all phases of the game, Krueger coached offense, defense and special teams during more than three decades in the NFL and college. He was the head coach at Fresno State and Utah State, going 31-22, and an assistant at Illinois.
Krueger moved from the field to Tampa Bay’s front office and spent 10 years as an executive, known for his skill in negotiating contracts. He was hired as the Buccaneers’ first general manager in 1991 — prior to that, the team’s coaches made the player decisions.
Krueger worked under famed head coach John McKay at USC and Tampa Bay. Krueger’s fellow assistant at both places was future three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Gibbs.
Gibbs and Krueger were hotel roommates when Southern Cal played on the road.
“I have a lot of great memories from being on the same coaching staff with Phil,” Gibbs said this week. “He was very bright. A sharp guy with a great sense of humor. He was one of those guys that you always enjoyed being around.”
Krueger’s career path was set early on when he switched from grammar to the gridiron. He was teaching English at a high school in Arizona when he took over the football program, and later landed a job as an assistant coach at Long Beach City College.
Krueger was a defensive assistant at USC from 1966-70. In 1967, the Trojans went 10-1 — holding seven opponents to seven points or less — and won the national title.
“My favorite coach of all time,” former Southern Cal and longtime NFL linebacker Charlie Weaver said Saturday from his home in Fresno, California. “He recruited me out of junior college and I couldn’t wait to get to USC to play under the tutelage of Coach Krueger.”
In 1970, Weaver, Krueger and the Trojans were part of one of most significant college football games ever. A fully integrated USC squad went to Birmingham and beat Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama team 42-21 in a matchup not nearly as close as the final score indicated.
“Coach Krueger had us prepared to play, it was a beatdown,” Weaver recalled.
Part of the vaunted “Wild Bunch” defensive front at USC, Weaver said he stayed in close touch with Krueger after their college days.
“We spoke at least once a year,” he said. “What a great man.”
Krueger joined McKay in 1976 on the expansion Buccaneers as an offensive backfield assistant, and they endured an 0-14 season. Krueger was coaching linebackers the next year when the Bucs started out 0-12 before finishing with two wins, including a victory over St. Louis in the final game.
Gibbs was on that Cardinals staff and was let go after the season. Krueger helped pave Gibbs’ move to Tampa Bay.
Krueger worked on special teams when the Bucs made their first playoff appearance, reaching the NFC title game in the 1979 season, and became an assistant to owner Hugh Culverhouse in 1981.
Krueger left the Bucs after one season as GM, but didn’t give up football. After moving to Florida to be near his daughter, Krueger spent three years as a consultant to a pro team in Tokyo, the Kajima Deers.
Born in LaSalle, Illinois, Krueger grew up in St. Louis and played football at Southeast Missouri State. He was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving in the Korean War and earning the Bronze Star.
“Phil Krueger was tough.. the reason I couldn’t get a date in high school (that’s my story),” daughter Kristi Krueger, a longtime anchor at WPLG-TV in Miami, posted on Facebook. “But my friends loved ‘Big Phil’ and he loved them. Dad was a brilliant writer and the reason I love poetry.”
Krueger is survived by his wife of 59 years, Kathy, daughter Kristi and two grandchildren. The family asked that any donations be made in Krueger’s name to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Stacking up NFL teams’ progress in 2020
Better, worse or the same? That’s the question that many fans are wondering about their respective teams for the 2020 NFL season after an offseason of free agency, the NFL draft, retirements of star players and virtual meetings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than offering an overarching answer about each roster as it stands, it’s more telling to examine it piece by piece, position by position.
Here’s a look at NFL Nation teams, listed in alphabetical order, in which reporters have tried to answer the better, worse or the same question for offense and defense:
Offense: The Falcons and coach Dan Quinn enter a pivotal, must-win season coming off back-to-back, 7-9 campaigns. If the Falcons hope to be contenders, a potentially high-powered offense led by QB Matt Ryan, WRs Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, and RB Todd Gurley has to do its part. Read more
Defense: Coming on Monday.
Defense: After a 2-14 season, Cincinnati made an extensive effort in overhauling the defensive roster by shelling out top dollar for players in hopes of improving a unit that ranked 25th in points allowed per game in 2019. Read more
Offense: Despite entering last season with plenty of hype, the Browns faltered to a 6-10 finish, extending the NFL’s longest playoff drought to 18 years. Are the Browns better, at least on paper? Read more
Defense: Cleveland’s new regime in the front office and coaching staff was busy this offseason, making upgrades on the margins to buttress a young core while using all three of its Day 2 draft picks on defense. Read more
Offense: The Broncos were one of the most active teams in a stay-at-home offseason, but it will take a little more than on-paper sunshine and rainbows to shake off four consecutive playoff misses and three consecutive losing seasons. Read more
Defense: If things go as the Broncos hope on defense in whatever becomes of the 2020 season, the two starters they traded draft picks for will have to have a big impact. Better injury luck would help, too. Read more
Offense: For a team that was one game away from the Super Bowl last season, how did the Packers address the offense this offseason? Hint, they didn’t draft a receiver. Read more
Defense: When last anyone saw the Packers’ defense, it was run over by the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game to the tune of 285 yards rushing. Has the unit improved any since that dreadful performance? Read more
Offense: While trading DeAndre Hopkins was the most shocking change the Texans made on offense this offseason, another switch could end up making just as big an impact — coach Bill O’Brien giving up playcalling duties. Read more
Defense: The last time the Texans’ defense was on the field, they blew a 24-0 lead in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs against the Chiefs. Has Houston done enough this offseason to improve the unit? Read more
Offense: In terms of how general manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden have addressed their personnel this offseason following a 7-9 finish in 2019, things look on the upswing. Read more
Defense: After finishing No. 19 in total defense, and just 24th in points allowed, adjustments had to be made on the Raiders’ defensive side of the ball this offseason. And they were. Read more
Doug Kezirian, Joe Fortenbaugh and Preston Johnson are betting under the Raiders’ win total of seven because of their new circumstances in Las Vegas.
Offense: Few, if any, are buying the Patriots as a clear-cut Super Bowl LV contender, nor even the favorite in the AFC East division they have dominated for most of the past two decades. But, is it an accurate assessment? Read more
Defense: The Patriots took some big free-agent hits, with three of their best defenders — Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr. and Danny Shelton — landing with new teams. How will this unit rebound? Read more
Offense: The 2019 Jets were historically bad on offense. They finished last in total yards for only the third time in the past 49 years, and general manager Joe Douglas used this offseason to rebuild that side of the ball. Read more
Offense: The Seahawks hope that a reshuffling of the offensive line and tweaks to the skill positions allow their offense to excel in 2020. Read more
Defense: Seattle’s defense underachieved across the board in 2019, with the exception of forcing turnovers. It’s why general manager John Schneider made notable — even if not marquee — additions at every level. Read more
The backstory of Drew Brees’ viral apology image
Mirko Vitali was relaxing with friends on Giglio Island, just off the coast of Italy, when he learned about his unintended role in a major story in the United States.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had used the Italy-based photographer’s “handshake against racism” image — that’s what Vitali called the photo, part of a shoot six years ago in his home country — for a hotly anticipated public apology on his Instagram account, which has 1.7 million followers. Brees faced criticism from teammates and fans for a comment to Yahoo Finance on June 3 that he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America,” coming off as tone-deaf on the heels of the death of George Floyd and NFL players’ efforts to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
Brees’ apology was not universally praised, seen by some as generic amid a movement built on authenticity. It wasn’t until Brees fought back against President Donald Trump that most believed he finally got the point.
But the photo became a reference point in a controversial moment. By the time NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace used a similar image on the front of his car to support Black Lives Matter just days later, Brees’ post was on its way to more than 330,000 likes and nearly 90,000 comments.
Vitali doesn’t watch the NFL, or stock car racing. He doesn’t know about Colin Kaepernick, why the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback knelt during the national anthem back in 2016, and why it could happen again after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league apologized for not understanding players’ protests earlier.
And he had no idea who Brees was — until Adobe Stock contacted him nearly a week after Brees’ post to stress the photo’s impact.
“My mind is still on the wow effect about one of my images getting so popular,” Vitali told ESPN via email. “Having images all over the web is part of my job. At the same time, I was honored that one of my images was used for such an important message about human rights.”
All this came from Vitali gathering eight models together on a sunny day at Rimini Beach, Italy, in 2014 for a lifestyle shoot “representing friends spending time together,” he said. The Black and white men shaking hands also took pictures with fingers interlocked and in a few other poses.
For the now-famous shot, Vitali clasped his hands together, demonstrating how he wanted the models to capture the look. The models faced each other, locked hands and got the right picture in seconds, a few snaps with sharpness and focus under a blue sky, Vitali recalled. They quickly moved on to the next picture.
That’s how it works when taking a series of “stock” photos that accommodate any setting or background for people or companies to license. The models are considered generic, their names kept private. Attempts to identify the models were unsuccessful, and Vitali said he can’t release their names.
With what he called “open-minded” models cultivating a happy atmosphere, Vitali had modest goals that day.
“I knew that, if my images were good enough, they could have landed on blog articles, social networks, commercial ads and magazines,” Vitali said.
Mission accomplished. The close-up handshake image alone has accounted for more than 2,000 licenses and downloads, Vitali said, and he gets royalty payouts for each one sold.
Vitali is a nonexclusive contributor who helps organize the shoots, takes the photos and uploads them for different companies — Adobe, iStock, Dreamstime and Shutterstock among them — to distribute. He pays for his own expenses.
The amounts paid in royalties hinge on how much customers pay for a particular image. That formula is too complicated to estimate exactly how much Vitali made off this image, he said. But prices for the handshake have ranged from $12 on iStock to $79.99 on Adobe Stock. So if Vitale gets, say, half that total for each of his 2,000-plus downloads, the range averages out to $12,000 to $45,000 for a picture he shot six years ago. The photo has been licensed hundreds of times on Adobe Stock, the company confirmed.
In many cases, companies utilize a purchased photo for any purpose they wish. An example of how stock photography works: One of the handshake models also took a picture giving a woman a piggyback ride on the beach, and that same image was used in a romance novel — “It Had To Be You” by Lizzy Charles — with a grass courtyard in the background.
In Brees’ case, one of his reps, Chris Stuart with Encore Sports and Entertainment, said he believes the former Super Bowl MVP found and/or purchased the image on his own. Efforts to reach Brees were unsuccessful.
Wallace’s team did not purchase the image, but a rep for Richard Petty Motorsports said graphic designer Bradley Sisson searched images of hands together and drew on the hood out of inspiration. The words “Compassion, Love, Understanding” accompany the image.
Wallace’s car — and his stance inside a sport once considered among the least progressive — became a national story.
“The Black fist and the white fist going hand-in-hand speaks volumes — a lot of power behind it,” Wallace said in a video interview with Sisson that Richard Petty Motorsports sent to ESPN.
The image on the hood looks almost identical to Vitali’s. Sometimes photographers pursue copyright claims if a third party’s use of an image is an obvious pull. It’s up to the artist, not the stock photo companies, to make those claims. Vitali says that’s not his style, preferring to “trust the system” and focus on positive art.
Over the years, Vitali said he has seen his photos licensed or downloaded 500,000-plus times, with high scores of up to 10,000 for individuals.
But this one is unique — and he’s grateful for the impact.
“I travel the world a lot, love and respect cultures from any part of our globe, so I’m even more happy that my image was used in favor of human rights by movements against racism,” Vitali said.
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