TAMPA, Fla. -- On fourth-and-4 against the Green Bay Packers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, with 13 seconds left before halftime and looking to pad a 14-10 lead, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians told his punt team to get off the field -- they were going for it.
“I was like, ‘We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,’” said Arians, whose "no risk it, no biscuit" philosophy -- not only on the field but off -- is one of the big reasons the Bucs are headed to the Super Bowl this year.
“The coaches told us ... all week, ‘We’re gonna be aggressive, we’re gonna go at 'em, we’re gonna take chances with the guys that we’ve got, that’s what we do,” said wide receiver Scotty Miller, who, after a 6-yard catch by Leonard Fournette to convert that fourth down, caught a 39-yard touchdown to extend Tampa Bay's halftime lead to 11 points.
By contrast, Packers coach Matt LaFleur kicked a field goal after being down 31-23 with 2:09 to go in regulation and never got the ball back.
Added Miller: “It was a risk at the time, but there was only 13 seconds left, so if we didn’t run a play, we’d probably waste six [seconds], and then they’d probably throw a Hail Mary as well, so why not let us do it?”
Arians, a 68-year-old whose health issues led him into retirement after the 2017 season, didn’t come back to football in 2019 to play scared, to hold back or leave things unsaid. He takes risks, makes unpopular decisions and does so with conviction -- much of that stemming from the long wait he had to become a first-time NFL head coach at 60.
“For me, there were times when I never thought it would happen,” Arians said Sunday. “I never thought I would get a head-coaching job. After the cancer scare in Arizona, sitting out that year and then coming back -- this has been the most rewarding year of coaching in my life.”
He told reporters at the NFL combine last February that if he could have his pick, he wanted quarterback Tom Brady, an audacious statement considering the Bucs’ 7-9 record at the time. Then when he got Brady, he was scrutinized for his candor talking about Brady’s mistakes publicly, which never happened in New England. Yet Arians scoffed at any notion of friction.
When players expressed outrage over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin this summer, Arians challenged them to take their frustrations beyond protesting. If they wanted to move or cancel a practice, he’d support it, but he wanted to see a plan, telling them, “Your responsibility is to take action.”
Members of the players’ social justice committee responded by meeting with community leaders. They launched the Buccaneers Youth Leadership Program, pairing staff members in all departments with middle school students in East Tampa. They also created a #BucsVote campaign to promote voter registration.
Arians' unique coaching style has also been about conveying support, which in numerous instances, made a world of difference for players and his assistants.
When offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich's playcalling was called into question at times, Arians stood by him, not once considering taking back those duties.
When running back Ronald Jones had a costly fumble at the New York Giants, and then again at Carolina, Arians didn't scold him on the sideline, or bench him. Recognizing Jones was "in the tank," Arians pulled him aside and said, "‘Let it go. The team’s going to need you today, so you got to get back out there.'" Jones ripped off a 98-yard touchdown in the second half.
Arians welcomed wide receiver Antonio Brown, who served an eight-game suspension this season due to multiple violations of the NFL's personal conduct policy, after the coach had said just a few months earlier that he “wasn’t a fit.” Brown was accused by two women of sexual misconduct.
But Arians didn’t just tolerate him -- he went to bat for him, knowing the criticism that would come given Arians’ advocacy for women and his desire to give second chances.
Fournette was another player who came to Tampa looking to start over.
"I tell AB every day at practice, 'Just thank God for second chances,'" said Fournette, whom Arians had to sell on being a backup in Tampa after he was used to having entire offenses run through him in Jacksonville.
“We had our personal talks,” Fournette said. “And he asked me through the duration of the season, ‘What do I see myself [as] or what do I want to be?’ Because I was upset plenty of times after the games because I wasn’t getting the ball or anything. He just sat down and had a real talk with me.”
Arians held Fournette out an extra week in Week 6 – against Green Bay -- because he was concerned the running back's ankle wasn’t 100%. He told Fournette, “We’re gonna need you for the long run.”
At first Fournette was angry, but he gained respect for Arians for making the decision. He realized Arians was trying to protect him. And he thought he and Jones made a great one-two punch.
Lo and behold, when Jones suffered a quad injury and became a late scratch just before the Bucs’ wild-card game at Washington, Fournette gashed his way for 93 yards, with 39 receiving yards.
That’s how “Playoff Lenny” was born. His 313 yards from scrimmage have been the most of any player this postseason. He’s fresher than he has felt in years and believes Arians has helped prolong his career. Which is why he jumped at the chance to answer Arians' call on fourth down.
Fournette told him, "Let's just keep fighting."