TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, aka the QB whisperer, joining forces with Tom Brady, aka the GOAT, was arguably the biggest offseason story. The Bucs, hardly a blip on the national radar since they won the Super Bowl in 2002, managed to lure the six-time Super Bowl winner to the land of palm trees and perpetual losing, with what had been the NFL's second-longest playoff drought at 13 seasons.
Many wondered how the Arians-Brady marriage would work, with the 68-year-old coach and 43-year-old quarterback bringing two vastly different styles of play -- and two different personalities. That union continues to generate significant interest around the NFL, mainly because Arians is so colorful and a stark contrast to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, under whom Brady thrived for 20 seasons.
“I feel like we have a great relationship,” Brady said of Arians, who has given Brady heavy input on devising game plans and the ability to change plays to his liking. “I certainly appreciate all the insight he gives me and the way he coaches and leads.”
“The chemistry really started in our first meeting," Arians said. "We first started talking offensive football and then the Tampa Bay Bucs. His excitement level and my excitement level just kept growing and is still growing."
The connection has been strong enough to propel the Bucs (11-5) to the postseason for the 11th time in franchise history and first since 2007. They'll face the Washington Football Team on Saturday at FedEx Field (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC). What’s behind the connection between Brady and the coach he chose to help guide him in this late stage of his career?
'He's honest ... he coaches you hard'
Arians raised some eyebrows after the Bucs’ Week 1 loss at the New Orleans Saints. When asked what happened on Brady’s two interceptions, Arians talked about Brady’s mistakes publicly, which surprised some despite it being consistent with how Arians has coached in the past.
"I think the last person you want to call out after the first game of the year is Tom Brady," Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre said on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
Brady's former Patriots teammate Rob Ninkovich went so far as to say he thought Brady needed a new coach.
“Asking him about Tom Brady being confused by coverages -- I don't think Tom Brady gets confused by coverages,” Ninkovich said. “It's the first time Tom Brady has ever had a head coach throw him under the bus like this.”
Brady chalked it all up to noise.
“There’s nothing about me or my game that’s infallible,” Brady said in an interview on NFL Network. “I’m a player like everybody else, so I’m trying to be coached and I think the team has very high expectations for me. When I don’t meet those, he should be pissed at me. Ya know? That’s just rightfully so. There’s probably nobody more pissed than myself, but when you hear it from your coach, too, you know, it does motivate you.”
What is Arians’ style? Direct, with tough love and no sugarcoating. When he was the Indianapolis Colts' QB coach in 1999, he infamously told Peyton Manning, “Your footwork looks messed up,” before playing the Patriots -- not because Manning’s footwork looked sloppy, but because he could sense Manning was tense and wanted to give him something to think about other than his anxiety.
“You just understand BA is going to be BA. He isn’t changing for no one,” said offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, who also played for Arians for three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. “He’s going to do what he do, the way that he do it."
"He's honest, he challenges you ... he coaches you hard," former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said after Arians was hired by the Bucs.
Brady echoed that.
“Working with BA has been really great for me in a very different way,” Brady said on NFL Network. “You know, he’s very tough on you when things aren’t the way they need to be.”
“I think part of it is his age . He can go to the lake and retire and be good,” said Arians' son, Jake, who was a kicker for the Buffalo Bills in 2001. “Some of these young guys really watch what they say because they’re kinda coaching for their next job, so to speak. … He doesn’t care."
Bruce Arians added: "Sometimes you don’t like the truth, but I’m going to give you the truth and it’ll hurt for a minute, but it’s real. ... I think our guys appreciate that.”
‘He built this confidence up in me that I’d kind of lost’
That honesty and transparency are what quarterback Drew Stanton came to appreciate most. He followed Arians from Indianapolis to Arizona hoping for a chance to compete for the starting job, but he was told up front that they’d be bringing in another quarterback as well as who they were considering -- Mike Glennon, Ryan Mallett or Carson Palmer. They wound up trading for Palmer.
“He put it out there, and I was well aware of it, even before I signed,” Stanton said of Arians. “He said, ‘This is our plan, this is what we’re gonna do, but I want you here no matter what.’”
While Stanton was disappointed (he eventually started when Palmer was injured), he credits Arians for giving him a mentor in Palmer, and helping him reinvent himself, calling those five years “the best stretch of my career. … He built this confidence up in me that I’d kind of lost in my time in Detroit.”
Arians also knows when to ease up on the straight talk and offer encouragement.
“He’ll coach you hard and come and give you a hug,” Leftwich said.
“He walked in and was completely different from what I expected,” Jake Arians said. “He said, ‘We’re fine. We’re right where we want to be. Let’s go be the Colts. We’re gonna kick this thing in the end zone, we’re gonna get a turnover and we’re gonna score a touchdown. And we’re gonna come back and win this game.’”
They came back to win 30-27 and delivered the game ball to Pagano.
Stanton believes that Arians is able to push the right buttons because he takes the time to get a proper gauge on not only the player, but also the person.
“He invests time in the players ... and I think understanding what makes people tick -- you can’t motivate everybody the same way,” Stanton said. “There's this trust and this respect that’s built up over that period of time that allows people to have this relationship where if he needs to put his arm around you, he’ll put his arm around you.
"He’s also great with quarterbacks from the standpoint of he’ll probably cuss the quarterbacks coach out, but then he’ll walk over to the quarterback and say, ‘All right, baby, let’s keep going.’ That’s how he is.”
‘I can’t wait to get to know his family’
The relationship between Brady and Arians hasn’t gotten the chance to fully blossom off the field because of COVID-19 -- at least not in the way Arians has enjoyed with his previous quarterbacks such as Luck, Palmer, Stanton, Leftwich, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. That’s a big part of the equation. Arians learned about those players off the field so he could find out what makes them tick, but also because he has genuinely enjoyed those connections. His quarterbacks become extended members of the Arians family, something his family enjoys.
“Ben’s like a little big brother, at this point, knowing his family, seeing the kids and the man that he’s turned out to be,” Jake Arians said. “I love the fact that we get to know ‘em off the field. I look forward to that. And Tom and I were at the combine together. We’re the same age. It’s pretty funny.
“I can’t wait to get to know his family like we’ve gotten to do [with the other quarterbacks]. I hope we get a chance to do that with all these guys that we’ve gotten to know, knowing that Andrew got engaged and got married, Drew’s having kids, and meeting Carson [Palmer]’s wife is phenomenal, and their kids -- they’re just so unique, that family is so awesome.”
Brady hasn’t yet witnessed one of Arians’ legendary temper tantrums on the golf course. Arians believes that golf provides a valuable change of scenery.
“That’s what I’ve always done. The quarterbacks that play golf -- I always love to play with them, especially in the open days, just to relax,” Arians said. “It’s one thing to sit around an office and ask questions. It’s another thing to go out and enjoy yourselves and have that time together where you can still get some things done that are very, very important.”
The NFL nixed their plans for a Brady-Arians golf outing during the bye week, deeming it a violation of coronavirus protocols.
“It’s been a different year for all of us dealing with those type of circumstances where normally you would have opportunities to get to know each other in a different way,” Brady said.
Roethlisberger said that when it does happen, Brady will be in for a blast.
“He’s gonna get to look forward to golf, a lot of laughs, and other things BA loves doing -- having a couple drinks or two,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s really fun because I’ve enjoyed being around BA on the golf course -- one, because he’s a good golfer and we match up well.
“He’s been around football for so long. He’s got so many stories. I love digging into his past, like when he played quarterback. Those are some of my most fun stories because I can kind of get him going and get him fired up about when he played quarterback and this, that and the other. He’ll get a lot of stories and a lot of golf.”
As for now, they have some important business to tend to, and possibly some new stories they can write together, and later reflect on.