Tom Brady may have won the MVP award for leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-9 Super Bowl LV win against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the real heroes of the game at Raymond James Stadium were a couple of guys barking out instructions from the sidelines. Three of them are on the coaching staff of the Buccaneers.
In all, in what may be a first in the Super Bowl, three African Americans from the same team were called into prominent duty as shot-callers for their respective teams. A fourth, Eric Beiniemy, is the offensive coordinator for quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense. His counterparts working for the Buccaneers are offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Leftwich, in steering Brady and the Bucs offense, and Bowles, whose defense held Mahomes and the Chiefs to single-digits for the first time this season, came out of Super Bowl LV as clear-cut winners in the jockeying for head coaching openings for next season with their apex game strategies.
Leftwich appearing at his Super Bowl postgame press conference smoking a celebratory stogie, shouted out, “How about them Bucs, baby!” Before he got an opportunity to talk about his gameplan in causing nightmare scenarios for Kansas City’s defense, Leftwich was put in an awkward position to answer several questions about what Bowles did on his side of the football.
But Leftwich did talk about the respect he has for Bowles and what he was able to do in getting the Bucs defense to shut down Mahomes and Co.
“I felt good going into the game for just who he is and the players we have on defense,” Leftwich said. “Todd’s a great coach. We’re a different team than the team we played earlier in the year-offensively and defensively. It’s not a shock. It’s not a surprise to us. We both felt good about our gameplans, so this is the outcome. Todd is just great…he knows what’s he doing. He’s put guys in position, and I’m just happy we were able to pull this out.”
Bieniemy can take solace in the fact that he guided Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs’ offense to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. Essentially, it was a good night for black coaches as Leftwich, Bowles, Armstrong, and Bieniemy were all in the primetime position of being the center of attention.
However, whether this bit of history will translate into NFL owners finally opening their eyes to give more Black and minority coaches a shot at running a franchise as a head coach is up for interpretation. When asked about this possibility, Leftwich, who was part of the Pittsburgh Steelers when they won Super Bowl XLIII, had a candid response to a reporter’s question about this too-well known dilemma.
“Probably not,” Leftwich quipped.
The NFL’s Rooney Rule, which was created in 2003 to help create coaching pathway opportunities for Black and other minority aspirants, has largely been a symbol of what the league wants to achieve. The cold-hard reality is that the Rooney Rule needs a little more teeth to it as league owners have found ways to sidestep this tool of inclusion.
The Institute for Diversity in Ethics and Sport (TIDES) gives the NFL a D plus in the hiring of people of color for head coaches, according to its 2020 Racial and Gender Report Card. At the same time, the TIDES study gives the league an A for the racial hiring of assistant coaches. African Americans make up 30.5 percent of all assistant coaches in the NFL.
Leftwich clarified his earlier remarks by saying that Bowles, Bieniemy, and himself appearing in prominent roles on the sidelines might create an avenue of head coaching opportunities down the line.
“If it does, it does,” Leftwich said. “Hopefully, so. But I just know that me and Todd’s focus was doing what we needed to do to win the football game. To have this opportunity, to have three African American coordinators on the same team (Keith Armstrong, Tampa Bay special teams coordinator), and to find a way to win the Super Bowl, obviously, it’ll open some people’s eyes.
“But I can’t speak if it changes anybody’s mind or changes any thoughts about the hiring process,” Leftwich added. “All we can do is coach good football. I know all three of us-me, Todd, Keith-all we’re trying to do is help these men grow; be in the best position, be the best football players they can be. That’s our goal.”
Leftwich proved he should have a head coaching gig. Ditto for Bowles. Armstrong has over two decades of coaching experience. For the last two seasons, Bowles has toiled in the trenches as the defensive coordinator of the Buccaneers. Neither Leftwich and Bowles couldn’t scratch the side of a bucket during the recent NFL head coaching carousel.
The NFL had seven coaching vacancies. All seven of those positions are now filled. David Culley, hired by the Houston Texans, is the lone African American to make the cut from those openings to be a head coach.
In addressing the obvious about the lack of minority head coaches, especially African Americans in the NFL, Culley suggested that he got the gig simply because he was the right fit for the job.
“I’m the head coach here for a reason,” Culley said during his introductory press conference as the Texans’ new head coach. “I don’t feel like I’m the head coach here at the Houston Texans because I’m a minority,” Culley said. “I feel like I’m the head coach here with the Houston Texans because the McNair family and Nick (Caserio), with a collaborative effort felt like I was the best guy for the job. What does that mean? That means that David Culley was the best hire for this job for this family and this franchise, who just happens to be African American. And that’s how I look at that.”
Bowles, who was head coach of the New York Jets for four years before taking the defensive coordinator reins of the Bucs defense prior to the 2019 season after being fired, said the gameplan to shut down Mahomes was to bottle up his wide receivers long enough so that his defensive line could put pressure on him.
“Well, the biggest thing was to cover up the receivers and make him hold the ball a little bit so our rush could get there, and I think mixing up the coverages and moving some guys around and making him think a little bit and take away his first read allowed those guys to get off upfront and covering the guys in the back,” Bowles said.
The Buccaneers’ march to Super Bowl glory was predicated on Bowles’ defense doing its job. In order to get to and win the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay had to go through Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, and Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Bowles-led Buccaneers defense put the lid on all three of these elite quarterbacks and their respective offenses.
Now, will that generate buzz for Bowles in the next NFL head coaching go-round? As Leftwich perfectly said: probably not. It should.
Bowles added that the opportunity is not lost on him on the showcase that Black assistant coaches like Leftwich, Armstrong, Bieniemy, and himself were on during Super Bowl LV. Currently, there just three African Americans working as head coaches in the NFL.
“It shows that we’re good at our jobs as coaches,” Bowles said. “It gives younger people inspiration. Hopefully, to just see us as coaches and see that we can be one of these types of people. If we put our minds to it anything is possible.”