Tutors emphasizing mechanics, techniques
Once a novelty around the league, now all but two franchises have designated assistants to tutor QBs.
Shortly after finishing an impressive seven-on-seven drill during an evening practice two weeks ago, a segment which began with a 60-yard bomb to Eric Moulds and concluded with a laser-beam slant to Josh Reed along the right hash, Drew Bledsoe retreated to a vantage point 10 yards behind the Buffalo Bills huddle to watch his backups go to work.
And as if Bledsoe were some Pied Piper of the Pass, he was followed closely by a trio of coaches, all seeking a snippet of his time.
Offensive coordinator Tom Clements stood next to Bledsoe for a minute or two, the men discussing some pass route adjustments. And then quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche sidled over to make some salient points with animated jabs. Finally, a procession of quarterback counselors ended with a brief visit from rookie head coach Mike Mularkey, who offered up a few bon mots of his own.
In a span of perhaps three minutes, Bledsoe had three coaches in his ear, three different and distinct voices rattling around in his head.
Part of all the individual attention being lavished upon Bledsoe, of course, is that Buffalo is desperate to rehabilitate the 11-year veteran, who is coming off the worst full season of his career. For the Bills to contend for a playoff spot in 2004, Bledsoe, a onetime franchise-type player whose performance slipped considerably last season, must regain some of the brilliance that allowed him to pass for over 3,000 yards eight times in his career.
But the three-on-one tutorial sequences that Bledsoe is experiencing in training camp are not necessarily unique to him. In fact, what transpired during that Bills practice a couple weeks ago is more indicative of what is becoming the norm league wide, as NFL coaching staffs are creating considerably more input for their quarterbacks.
Some overkill here? Perhaps. But also a sign of the times.
"Hey, a lot of teams have one (assistant) who coaches the (offensive) tackles and another one who works with the interior linemen," noted Bledsoe, who has been sharper in camp than he was a year ago. "Teams will have a coach for the safeties and another coach for the cornerbacks. So why not have a separate coach for your quarterbacks? It's a position where, definitely, the demands of the job keep getting tougher."
And a position where, increasingly, NFL franchises feel a quarterback-specific coach -- as opposed to the old staff model in which the offensive coordinator characteristically was also the quarterback mentor -- is a priority.
Consider this: Twenty years ago, for the 1984 season, only nine of 28 teams employed a quarterback-specific assistant coach. In 1994, the number had grown to 13 of 28 teams. And in the past decade, the figure has exploded exponentially. Entering the '04 season, just two teams, Jacksonville and Minnesota, do not have quarterback coaches.
There are myriad reasons for the increased number of quarterbacks coaches.
Houston offensive coordinator Chris Palmer allowed that the time demands of his job -- "All of the paperwork and video work (inherent) to the job, the sophistication of defenses around the league, the importance coaching up the quarterback position in general," he said -- make it imperative to have a quarterbacks-specific assistant on staff.
The fact so many teams have opted to play with quarterbacks drafted in the lower rounds, and avoided investing in first-rounders, places a premium on development and, thus, a lot more hands-on coaching. Suddenly the significance of mechanics and techniques, beyond just the physical act of throwing the football, have taken on added importance. Two head coaches conceded to ESPN.com that their quarterbacks coaches are essentially assigned as that one coach termed "a mechanics maintenance guy."
Whatever the rationale, regardless of the reasons posited by head coaches, quarterback aides have apparently become hot commodities.
The Baltimore Ravens hired former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel this spring and, while his title is senior consultant, his job ostensibly is to turn second-year starter Kyle Boller into a productive player. Even the venerable Dan Henning, offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers and a coach who has always preferred to work with the quarterbacks himself, has ceded some of those duties to offensive assistant Mike McCoy.
Coordinators Bill Musgrave of Jacksonville and the Vikings' Scott Linehan still prefer the one-on-one interaction with quarterbacks, and no middle men, but they are among a dwindling breed who want the only fingerprints on the quarterback to be their own.
Of the seven quarterbacks surveyed for this story, only two suggested that they might be the victims of excessive attention. Said one of them: "I've got so many hands on me that, if you dust me for fingerprints every day, you'll never find just one set. It's too much."
ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski has insisted for years that the quarterback spot is the worst-coached position in football. Now it might be the most over-coached position. It is the age of specialization, it seems, taken to the Nth degree. What was once just a cottage industry has grown into a burgeoning business.
In Philadelphia, for example, head coach Andy Reid is a former quarterbacks assistant. As is offensive coordinator Brad Childress and senior assistant Marty Mornhinweg. And the Eagles, in addition to those three, employ Pat Shurmur as a quarterbacks coach, too.
Childress acknowledged that, with so many voices now coming at the quarterbacks, staffs must consciously avoid turning daily tutelage into a football tower of babble. But he noted, as well, the benefits to having so many eyes on the quarterback, and also having multiple sets of ears tuned in to return feedback from the men who play the position.
"It's important that input from the quarterback -- maybe a play he doesn't like, or wanting a route run a different way, things like that -- get communicated," Childress pointed out. "And when you've got people listening, well, then that information usually gets sent up the pipeline. There's more awareness, I think, of the quarterbacks' different preferences."
|“||Hey, a lot of teams have one (assistant) who coaches the (offensive) tackles and another one who works with the interior linemen. Teams will have a coach for the safeties and another coach for the cornerbacks. So why not have a separate coach for your quarterbacks? ”|
|—Bills QB Drew Bledsoe|
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden, a former quarterbacks aide who now has at least three people in direct contact with his passers, agreed with that assessment. He pointed out, as well, that not every quarterback can be coached the same way, from a physical and an emotional standpoint.
Said Gruden: "You just need to have somebody tuned into those guys, you know, a coach who has his hands on them every day. I mean, I'm apt to find out something about one of my quarterbacks -- stuff that's bugging him, maybe something that is a problem at home, a kid being sick or something -- from the coach than I am the quarterback. It just gives a little more insight."
Indeed, beyond the need for coaching quarterbacks on the field, there is a perception that players at the game's most crucial position also require "their own guy" as a confidant. About 15 years ago, then-Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach John Becker described his job as being "equal parts father confessor and mother hen." It was a terrific appraisal, long before its time really, of part of the job description.
More than players at other spots, quarterbacks apparently need someone to vent to, a guy who can serve as the buffer between him and the coordinator, an advocate and shoulder to cry on at times.
"That's not to supercede the coordinator or anything," said David Carr of Houston, "but sometimes, yeah, you like to have a go-between or a mediator. I don't think that's a bad idea at all. There's really not enough time, given what the coordinator's job has become, for a lot of dialogue. You can bring up stuff in the quarterback meetings, and say it to the quarterback coach, that you know will get filtered back."
Toward that end, several teams have hired former NFL quarterbacks to tutor the position, and assistants like Wade Wilson (Chicago) and Jim Zorn (Seattle) have gained respect for their abilities to relate to the problem innate to the position. It means more, quarterback Rex Grossman of Chicago allowed, discussing problems and situations with a coach who has experienced similar circumstances first-hand.
"You know with Wade, when you start describing something to him, that he understands exactly what you're talking about," Grossman said. "There's just a certain bond there."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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