Byron Leftwich has climbed the NFL coaching ladder like an American Ninja Warrior, going from intern to Cardinals offensive coordinator in less than 30 months.
The 38-year-old will get his first regular season shot to call plays on Sunday against the 49ers, where he will be tasked with – in no particular order – reviving a moribund offense, unleashing running back David Johnson and making sure Josh Rosen takes a step toward franchise quarterback status.
That’s quite the expectation for a debut -- especially for a guy who planned on walking off into the football sunset when his playing career ended in 2012.
“I really wanted to get away,” Leftwich said, “… and it just kept pulling me in.”
When Leftwich retired after 10 seasons as an NFL quarterback, he had a multitude of reasons to stay away forever: he could spend ample time with his son; focus on getting his body healthy; be a regular civilian; and play a ton of golf.
The plan may have remained if he didn’t own a television, but every football game that caught his eye helped set this meteoric rise in motion.
“I couldn’t walk by the screen,” Leftwich said. “I had to sit down and watch a game. Miss appointments, miss everything. It’s amazing how you get when you lose the structure you had for 20 years. You become this big lazy guy. I loved it for two, three years, but when it got cold in (Washington) D.C. I couldn’t play any more golf. Something different had to happen, and I had no other hobbies. I had never done anything else.”
After badgering Leftwich to join him for years, then-Cardinals coach Bruce Arians made him a coaching intern in May of 2016. A season later, Leftwich became the quarterbacks coach, even calling plays twice in the 2017 preseason.
“He was outstanding,” Arians told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Thursday morning. “He was always a play ahead.”
Arians retired in January, but by then Leftwich was hooked. His reputation was sterling within the organization, and it was no surprise when new coach Steve Wilks retained him.
The most recent step came Friday morning, when Leftwich was elevated to offensive coordinator after Mike McCoy was fired. Even though Leftwich is light on coaching experience, no one blinked an eye when he was named the replacement.
“This is the right call,” Wilks said.
Much of Leftwich’s fate will be tied to Rosen. While the rest of this season could be a trial run for Leftwich’s longterm viability in the role, he said the main goal is to help his rookie quarterback develop.
“The things I’m trying to put in, you guys might not see on a day-to-day basis, because this thing’s about longevity,” Leftwich said. “I want this kid to play 15 years in this league.”
If Rosen’s progress is the primary goal the rest of the season, turning Johnson back into a superstar is 1B. Johnson has only 335 rushing yards and 166 receiving yards through seven games. In Leftwich’s first season on staff in 2016, Johnson finished with 1,239 rushing yards and 879 receiving yards.
Leftwich was asked Thursday what he will take away from Arians’ usage of Johnson.
“Everything,” Leftwich said. “I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with B.A. every day I was here. There have been a lot of long nights sitting next to him, us nodding off together.”
The Cardinals’ scheme under McCoy was criticized, and while Leftwich cautioned that only so much can be done midseason, there could be changes. Rosen is eager to see if a blend of current ideas and some from spirits past can achieve results.
“Byron is a B.A. descendant,” Rosen said, “and (Arians) is sort of a ghostly legend in this building here. I think he’s putting in some new stuff, but also pulling in some past knowledge. I’m looking forward to what we’re about to do with it.”
Leftwich’s golf game, by the way, is struggling. He’s only played three rounds since becoming a coach. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald tried to get him on the course once but Leftwich “ducked me.”
“He’s not on my level on the golf course,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s one of those type of guys, they try to run from you.”
Leftwich may be avoiding the greens these days, but he’s no longer running from the coaching profession. If he keeps up his trajectory, he might follow Arians again – all the way to the top.
“I’m glad he got me into this thing,” Leftwich said, “because I’m loving every minute of it now.”
Images of the Cardinals cheerleaders during Thursday night's game against Denver at State Farm Stadium