Bruce Arians' first stint as an NFL coordinator began in 2001 with Cleveland, where he inherited a broken offense and a beleaguered quarterback.
The Browns were in their third season since returning to the league as an expansion franchise and coming off back-to-back seasons in which they ranked last in total yards and scoring. Equally worrisome, quarterback Tim Couch was struggling to fulfill the promise associated with being the first pick of the 1999 NFL Draft. His stats weren't awful -- he had thrown for 22 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in 21 starts -- but the effects of being sacked 66 times over his first two seasons were clearly taking a toll.
Arians had spent the previous three seasons as quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, where he helped Peyton Manning develop into one of the game's top young stars. There was no expectation he would make Couch the next Manning, but there was hope he would transform the former University of Kentucky star into an efficient performer who, at times, could lift those around him.
Problem was, the damage had already been done. There had been too many failures, too many absorbed hits on sacks and pressures and too many voices in Couch's ears. Arians was his third coordinator in as many seasons, following head coach Chris Palmer, who essentially functioned in that role the first year, and Pete Carmichael Sr.
"Worst thing that can happen," Arians texted this week when asked what impact constant changes to coordinators can have on a young quarterback. "Learning NEW isn't ever good."
Arians, now head coach of the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, should know. During nearly three decades of coaching in the NFL, he has worked with a range of QBs, some possessing peach fuzz on their face and others with gray in their beards. In 2017, he devoted 256 pages to the subject in his book, The Quarterback Whisperer: How to Build an Elite NFL Quarterback. One of the bricks on the road to success is consistency in messaging, he believes, which makes the recent trend of turnover among coordinators so interesting.
Coaches and personnel people often preach about the importance of continuity and stability, yet three of the five clubs that drafted QBs in the first or second round in 2020 are on their second play-caller in as many seasons ... just as three of the four quarterbacks selected in those rounds in 2019 are on at least their second coordinator ... just as four of the five from 2018 are on at least their second play-caller, with the Browns and Jets being on their third in four years.
Quick translation? Only four of the 14 teams that drafted QBs in the first or second round from 2018 through 2020 have the same play-caller today as when they made their respective selections: Buffalo (Josh Allen, 2018), Arizona (Kyler Murray, 2019), Cincinnati (Joe Burrow, 2020) and Green Bay (Jordan Love, 2020).
Big deal or not a big deal? Depends on the person being asked, based on conversations with a handful of head coaches, offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches.
"It depends on the player," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Some are cerebral and fairly quick studies. A new system isn't really that traumatic. Others can be affected more. Remove rookies because it really can apply the same way with a fifth-year guy."
"With any play-caller and quarterback, it takes time to get to know each other," said a veteran offensive play-caller, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the story. "Veteran players at least have a foundation of experience and a foundation of how to manage certain situations -- maybe it's a two-minute drive or something that comes up in the red zone, whereas with these young guys, they spend so much time trying to learn the language and the verbiage and the specifics of the scheme that it takes away from what I think is critical to playing the position at a high level, which is fundamentals such as footwork and setup. That lack of fundamentals limits their ability to play at the level they're capable of -- or have played at in the past."
The biggest concern among many coaches with young quarterbacks is putting too much on their plate, thereby creating paralysis by analysis. They want the players to be able to feel the game as well as think it. One QB coach said plays often are won or lost before the ball is snapped. It depends on a player's ability to process pre-snap information, such as defensive formation, linebacker alignment, blitzes and hot reads.
"If you're distracted at all before the ball is snapped, you have little to no chance once the ball is snapped," said a veteran quarterbacks coach who has called plays on both the NFL and college levels. "Good quarterbacks, they're really just going through the process of elimination pre-snap, so if it's a situation where you're still deliberating what you have on a play or why we're calling it when the ball is snapped, it can be detrimental. If your quarterback is distracted by anything pre-snap, other than where he should throw the football, you've got real issues. Now they're taking confirmation hitches, which happens when you're not grounded in a mastery of your system."
The most head-scratching change, according to coaches and personnel people around the league, was the Chargers letting nearly their entire offensive staff go after firing head coach Anthony Lynn. The move raised eyebrows because their quarterback, Justin Herbert, was the Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, racking up more completions and touchdown passes than any rookie in league history.
"Doesn't make sense," said one veteran coach. "I was shocked the offensive staff and play-caller weren't retained."
Joe Lombardi, the former quarterbacks coach in New Orleans, was hired to replace coordinator Shane Steichen, who is now the OC in Philadelphia. Quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton is now with the Texans, with passing game coordinator added to his title. How their departures will affect Herbert remains to be seen. Lombardi will bring many of the same West Coast principles and verbiage, but how he teaches concepts will be important. There's also the issue of learning about the player and comfort areas, as well as developing that bond of trust.
Brandon Staley, the Chargers' new head coach, pounced at his introductory press conference when asked his plans for the offense and Herbert. Staley played quarterback in college, at Dayton, and has spent his entire coaching career on the defensive side of the football. He believes that background will help create more opportunities for Herbert to succeed.
"That was what I was so excited about to convey in [the interview] process: my offensive vision, because I do consider myself an offensive coach," he said. "I think what has helped me so much on the defensive side of the ball is my offensive background. I've been fortunate to have some great teachers that have taught me a lot on offensive football. My defensive thinking has been shaped by a lot of those people. I think, when it comes to Justin, just observing and watching him from afar, I think you guys are probably all aware of the excitement about this guy and what he earned in his first year. Being able to play as well as he did through a global pandemic with no offseason, no training camp and then for him to just emerge really a week [into] the season and take this league on the way he did, I think it just shows you what his makeup is.
"I think, beyond his obvious physical talents, it's just what he's made of. I think my vision for the offense really fits Justin, what he can do well, where we want to take it and how we want to play and feature his style of play. Not being able to impose a system on him is creating the system for Justin and uniquely shaping it to his skill set because he is unlike anybody in the NFL. He's his own person. I think my background as a player, my background as a defensive coach, we'll be able to shape that in a really special way."
Whether Staley and Co. will be successful in this pursuit remains to be seen, but this much is certain: A lot of people will be watching. The challenge of bringing out the best in a player who has struggled is one thing. The challenge to build on what a successful player has done is another. Failure to do so, based on recent trends, usually leads to more turnover.