Bruce Arians was a no-show Tuesday morning at the NFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings. The explanation given was “personal reasons,” but now we know what happened:
He was stabbed in the back.
Chalk up another win for Tom Brady, who in recent years has become more assertive about controlling his career after years of subservience to the Patriots.
First, Brady famously came out on top when the Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo. Then he negotiated for his freedom from the Patriots, making sure that the team granted him free agency and couldn’t use the franchise tag.
Now it appears that Brady made Arians walk the plank after two seasons — and one Super Bowl victory — together.
Arians and the Buccaneers put on a happy face about his surprise retirement Wednesday night. They framed it as his choice to move into a role as senior football consultant. Arians, 69, said he had nothing left to prove in a coaching career that began in 1975 and has netted him three Super Bowl rings. He said he always had a succession plan in mind with Todd Bowles, and that with Brady and the Buccaneers’ core returning for 2022, this was “the right time to pass the torch.”
Brady also offered a glowing goodbye to his coach. He said on Instagram that it was a privilege to play for Arians, and congratulated Arians for “how you positively impacted me and everyone else in the game of football.”
But the events of recent weeks paint a far less rosy picture — one of Brady winning a power struggle and forcing his head coach into a retirement he wasn’t quite ready for.
On March 12, a still-retired Brady was in the United Kingdom, taking in the Manchester United soccer match with the Glazers, who own both Man U and the Bucs.
On March 13, Brady came out of retirement after just 40 days.
On March 30, the Bucs announced that Arians was out. Everyone else on staff stays.
It seems pretty clear to me that Brady either explicitly told the Glazers that he couldn’t play for Arians anymore, or the Glazers took the hint. Either way, Brady won.
It’s not as if Arians and the Bucs gave any indication that he was on the way out the door. At the NFL Combine, Arians went through the “media car wash” like all the other head coaches, giving a long press conference, then appearing on several TV and radio shows. This past week at the owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., Arians was a boisterous presence around the hotel Sunday and Monday, regaling his friends and wearing his gaudy Super Bowl ring.
Tuesday morning, he vanished. By Wednesday night, the move was official.
The Brady-Arians relationship always seemed a bit forced. They struggled to mesh their offenses in 2020 until Brady basically took the reins at the end of the season, leading to a Super Bowl victory.
Word of a rift between Brady and Arians emerged in February from, randomly enough, Rich Ohrnberger, Brady’s teammate in New England from 2009-11. Ohrnberger tweeted that Arians would undermine the work done by Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in game planning, which caused the relationship to sour.
Heard some interesting things recently... The Tom Brady & Bruce Arians honeymoon was over in Tampa. The retirement announcement wasn't because of the trouble seeing eye to eye on the offensive game planning, but the relationship was souring.— Rich Ohrnberger (@ohrnberger) February 18, 2022
While it seems strange that a radio host in San Diego would have the pulse of the Bucs locker room, Ohrnberger is a former college teammate of and best friends with A.Q. Shipley, who was an offensive assistant with the Bucs last year.
Everybody loves Arians away from football. There’s no one you’d rather drink a beer with in the parking lot after the game, or sneak out for 18 holes with after practice.
But as a coach, he could be a little tough to handle, and a little too honest for his own good. It was common for Arians to criticize Brady in postgame press conferences, then walk it back Monday or Tuesday.
Brady always took it in stride, but no one likes to be aired out publicly. Brady had his issues with Bill Belichick, but Belichick always kept his criticism internal.
Arians, who went 31-18 in three seasons with the Bucs, is right in that this offseason is a good time for him to step aside. Most of the work was already being done by the Bucs’ two coordinators, Leftwich and Bowles. Arians had pulled back on his responsibilities in recent seasons because of health, and was more of a figurehead and team spokesman.
But Arians still got the bulk of the credit for the Bucs’ success, as much as he tried to deflect it to his assistants. Now it’s time for Bowles and Leftwich to get their turn in the spotlight, and run their units without Arians’s looming presence.
Bowles, 58, is well-regarded in NFL circles and deserved another head coaching opportunity despite his 26-40 record with the Jets. He also gives the NFL, struggling with its diversity record, a sixth minority head coach out of 32.
Leftwich, meanwhile, is a promising young coordinator who no longer has to deal with Arians’s shadow. He almost got the Jaguars head coaching job this year, and should get a head job before long.
Arians’s best impact on the Bucs was his commitment to diversity. The Bucs were the only staff with three minority coordinators — Bowles, Leftwich, and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong — plus assistant head coach Harold Godwin. Arians also was the first coach to hire a woman as a full-time coach, adding Lori Locust as an assistant defensive line coach in 2019.
“You are a true NFL legend and pioneer for all the work you have done to make the league more diverse and inclusive,” Brady said.
The Bucs made the landing for Arians as soft as possible. Everyone loves “BA” the person, and no one wants to tarnish his image as he heads out the door.
But the reality seems pretty clear. Tom Brady wins yet again.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.