Even though the 49ers play Arizona twice in 22 days, things may be very different in Sunday’s rematch. The Cardinals fired OC Mike McCoy a week ago, and former QB Byron Leftwich will call his first game as their new offensive coordinator Sunday.
So can we expect a radically different offense? No, we can’t. The plays and formations have all been installed for months. You can’t start all over mid-season, especially not with a rookie starting at quarterback.
For that matter, Leftwich is pretty green himself (as a coach anyway; he was an NFL QB for 9 years, 2003-2012). Bruce Arians hired him as a coaching intern in May of 2016 and made him the QB coach last year; in his entire life, he has only called plays for a couple of preseason games. This is a huge contrast with Arians, who had coached for 25 years before his NFL play-calling debut in 2001.
So what might change under Leftwich’s watch?
By all accounts — including Leftwich’s — we can expect him to bring back a lot of Arians’ approach, since he coached in that system and most of the team’s players are familiar with it. QB Rosen hilariously told reporters that Arians is “sort of a ghostly legend in this building here.” DUDE! He was the coach last year. You could just call him up and ask him questions, cause he’s old and those people still talk on phones. Arians, ever the hipster, told the Doug and Wolf program (on Phoenix’s 98.7 FM sports station) that he and Leftwich have “texted a bunch” since his protege was promoted last week.
Bruce Arians is one of the great characters in the NFL. The guy wears a beret. He was in the Bear Bryant coaching tree. When he left after two years as Alabama’s Running Backs coach, the legendary HC gave him this advice: “Coach ‘em hard and hug ‘em later.” He also convinced Arians that coaches should go home at reasonable hours and spend time with their families.
Here are some things that Leftwich will likely pick up from his mentor:
1) “No risk it, no biscuit.”
Arians loved to play aggressively, often calling deep shots in unusual situations (fourth-and-two, targeting a running back, for example). There are obviously deep passes in Mike McCoy’s playbook, but the problem for Leftwich is that Rosen is not a big arm guy, relying more on footwork and mechanics. Still, newly promoted safety D.J. Reed better spend Saturday studying all the Bruce Arians tape he can find.
Robert Mays wrote a very interesting feature on top play-calling coaches last year, strangely omitting Kyle Shanahan. (Maybe he didn’t agree to be interviewed.) He notes that Bill Walsh invented the game-opening script, and that Arians scripted 30 plays each game, 15 runs and 15 passes. He brought about six deep shots to every game, four of them scripted. That’s more than one in four pass plays in his script.
2) Free David Johnson!
Speaking to Doug and Wolf, Arians himself mentioned RB David Johnson as a likely beneficiary of the change at OC.
“He can do damn near anything he wants to do. You can dream up more ways and there will be 10 more ways to use him.”
In 2016, before his injury, Johnson had 1,239 yards rushing and another 879 receiving. This year, in almost half a season, he has just 335 yards rushing — 3.2 yards per carry — and only 166 more through the air. Since he’s one of the team’s two best offensive weapons, that is not nearly enough.
A lot of it is the Cardinals’ terrible offensive line, which was a problem for Arians too in his last two years. But McCoy was strikingly uncreative in scheming up ways to use Johnson’s talent. So linebackers, look out for those wheel routes!
3) (and Larry Fitzgerald, while you’re at it.)
The Cards’ star WR has 15,800 yards in his NFL career, but only 255 of those yards have come this year. That’s just 10 yards more than San Francisco fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has 245 yards on 7 fewer receptions. Granted, Fitzgerald is 35 and not the player he once was, but he’ still one of Arizona’s top weapons and McCoy did nothing with him, Fitz had over 1,000 yards receiving in each of the last 3 years so it’s unlikely he just fell off a cliff.
Leftwich is making no secret of his plan to get Fitzgerald more involved.
“Larry Fitzgerald is a uniquely talented human being. He’ll catch everything that comes his way. We have to do a better job getting him the ball and putting him in position to make plays for us. The plays are still there in him. I don’t think he’s dead yet.”
“Not dead yet”? That ought to motivate the future Hall of Famer. If Richard Sherman plays, it would be very interesting to see him cover Fitzgerald (if the matchups go that way). His height would be a plus, not to mention their long history against each other.
While Mike McCoy was strikingly old-fashioned and ineffective in his play-calling, things won’t be easy for Leftwich, either. Johnson is coming off an injury that caused him to miss 15 games last year, and Fitzgerald is 35. There’s nothing he can do this season about those realities, or the terrible offensive line.
And to be fair, Arians himself did poorly in 2016 and 2017, struggling to win 8 games after stellar seasons in 2013-2015, which was a big part of why he retired. So if he couldn’t figure out how to win with this personnel group, it’s hard to see how his ideas are going to make his much less experienced protege successful.
If nothing else, though, a bit of that Bruce Arians swagger should make Sunday’s game more interesting, whoever ends up winning.