GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The way Byron Leftwich tells it, he didn’t have much of a choice in Bruce Arians’ decision to have him call plays this preseason.
Arians has said since January that Leftwich, the former 10-year NFL quarterback who’s starting his second season as the Arizona Cardinals' quarterbacks coach, will be an NFL head coach some day, an opportunity that Arians thinks may come “early and fast.” So when Arians went to Leftwich and told him he’d assume the role of playcaller against the Oakland Raiders last weekend and the Chicago Bears on Saturday night, Leftwich just made sure he was ready.
The early returns, save for a minor issue with the volume in the headsets, were mostly positive. There were a couple of plays that Leftwich wished he had back, including one in particular that he was passionate about, but wouldn’t share the details of.
After his first foray into playcalling, Arians gave him some simple feedback: “Good job.”
“This is B.A. we’re talking about now,” Leftwich said with a laugh.
And whatever Arians didn’t like, he was -- as is typical for Arians -- bluntly honest about with Leftwich. Arians said both Leftwich and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who called plays the past few preseasons and during the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 3, have come to him for feedback.
They’ll sit over a cup of coffee or a cocktail and hash out the good, the bad and ugly of their performances. Although doctors are keeping Arians away from coffee as much as possible these days, most of the conversations tend to be over adult beverages.
But, Arians stressed, their chats aren’t about him telling both coaches just what he didn’t like.
“It’s coaching,” Arians said. “It’s not criticism. ‘Didn’t like this call. Thought this was a great call. Why’d you make that call? Was it a gut? Did you have it planned?’
“They both have studied the teams they’re calling plays against, probably a whole lot more than I would have in the preseason, so that they have a good feel for who they’re going against.”
Looking back on his night in the booth, which resulted in a 20-10 win for the Cardinals, Leftwich wasn’t sure what to deem a success. Sure, the Cardinals scored two touchdowns and two field goals while compiling nearly 300 yards of offense, but Leftwich still believed he could’ve done better.
“This is my first time doing it,” he said. “I’m not in the business of patting myself on the back. It’s just about getting better.
“I’m learning and I’m just going to keep continuing to do my best.”
The more practice Leftwich gets, the better Arians believes he’ll be. Throughout camp, Arians has changed a scripted period to a call-it period on the fly so Leftwich can get more reps at calling plays in live, 11-on-11 situations.
Eventually, Leftwich might turn all this practice into a gig calling plays full-time as a coordinator and eventually as a head coach, but he’s not focused on that. At least, for now. He’s concerning himself with being the best quarterbacks coach he can be. And to do that, he knows he needs to learn the ins and outs of every one of his four quarterbacks. To Leftwich, honesty is among the most important features of his quarterbacks room. He likes to tell Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert and Trevor Knight two things: There’s no right or wrong answer, and they have to be upfront and honest with him. They need to tell Leftwich what kind of plays they like and dislike, what they’re good at and what they’re bad at.
“It’s more about learning the human being,” Leftwich said. “It’s not always learning the football players. Sometimes it’s just learning human being and the more you get to know the guys, the better I believe you can call plays for them.”
It helps that Leftwich can relate to them as more than just a former quarterback. He played two stints in Arians’ offense, in 2008 and 2010, so he brings a perspective to meetings and the field that only a few people in football can. Palmer, who was drafted first overall in 2003, six spots ahead of Leftwich, said it also helped Leftwich that he played in Arians’ offense late in his career when he “was his smartest football-wise.”
Leftwich retired after the 2012 season and wanted to get away from the physical aspects of football. His son was 3 at the time, and for the first time that Leftwich could remember, he didn’t have a meeting to get to or a schedule to be on. He woke up when he wanted to. He played golf when he wanted to.
“That was my plan,” Leftwich said. “I just wanted to spend more time at home. For the first time in my life, that was the time I had to not be on schedule, not have any real structure and just try to relax [and] heal up.”
While he was far away from the daily grind and physical toll of life in the NFL, he stayed in contact with Arians and others. When the time was right for Leftwich to return to football, he came back as a coaching intern with the Cardinals last season, helping coach the quarterbacks. When running backs coach Stump Mitchell left Arizona for the New York Jets this offseason, former quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens was moved to running backs and Leftwich was hired as the full-time quarterbacks coach.
And then he was told he was calling plays.
“It’s great to have B.A. have as much confidence and belief that he has in me,” Leftwich said. “That’s especially coming from a guy like that, that’s always a great thing. ... He don’t hold me back. He turned me loose and let me go.
“That’s what you got to respect. There’s no restrictions on it. It’s do what you got to do to get better and what you see fit, and that’s all I’m trying to do.”