An education in quarterbacking: Sports' most difficult position

It's the most important position in football -- and the most enigmatic. Players, coaches and executives open up about a nearly impossible job: quarterbacking an NFL team in 2016.

On a mild, mid-October morning in Madison five years ago, Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider walked up to the University of Wisconsin's football offices at Camp Randall Stadium carrying a warm cup of coffee and a double-shot of healthy skepticism. Schneider, like many others in the scouting profession, was intrigued by a senior quarterback named Russell Wilson who, less than four months after transferring from North Carolina State, had the Badgers rolling toward a Big Ten title. As Schneider watched game tapes of Wilson expertly directing the Wisconsin offense, and later saw him shine in practice, the GM became more and more convinced that this was a young man who possessed the elusive stew of physical and mental attributes necessary to play football's most demanding position at the highest level.

There was just one obvious area in which Wilson came up short.

At 5-foot-10 5/8, Wilson -- unlike Greg Brady's alter ego, Johnny Bravo -- didn't fit the suit. To most NFL talent evaluators and coaches, this made the idea of selecting Wilson with a high draft pick the following spring a non-starter. As Schneider recalls, "There were a lot of people who were like, 'Too bad.' " Yet, there was so much good about Wilson -- his advanced aptitude for learning, unrelenting work ethic and preternatural maturity, for starters -- that Schneider kept an open mind. Ultimately, he and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made one of the best scouting decisions of their lives, concluding that Wilson's lack of height wasn't a disqualifying factor, drafting him in the third round and opening up a quarterback competition that he would seize as a rookie.

Four seasons, three Pro Bowl selections, two Super Bowl appearances and one ring later, Wilson stands shoulder to shoulder with the elite members of his profession, with the potential to soar even higher. And it's now clear to just about everyone that Wilson's genetic predisposition toward doing the toughest job in team sports is off the charts, tape measures be damned.

"There are 32 starting quarterbacks in the National Football League -- it's not an easy job -- and I'm just grateful I have that opportunity," Wilson said last month as he stood on the indoor practice field at the Seahawks' training facility, where he had followed up a training-camp walkthrough with extra throwing drills to some of the team's young receivers. "And with that gratefulness, you put the work in, because you don't take anything for granted, and that's what it takes to do this job. And in terms of finding that skill set, finding that quote-unquote It Factor that everybody talks about, or whatever that may be ... you're definitely born with most of it, and then you craft the rest of it. And you keep building your craft through hard work and attention to detail ... and that's what makes you an NFL quarterback, and that's what gives you the opportunity to be great."

Yet, when opportunity knocks for high-performance football spinners like Wilson, there are a whole lot of forces poised to knock them down, making it tougher than ever to survive and thrive in one of the sports world's most scrutinized vocations. Even with the advent of rules changes designed to protect the quarterback and open up the passing game in the NFL, and despite the increased implementation of simplified offensive concepts and spread formations to help bridge the gap between college and pro schemes, finding and developing a fabulous field general requires a harmonic convergence of foresight, fortune and steadfastness.

It's hardly surprising that when true franchise quarterbacks such as Wilson emerge -- or appear to emerge -- NFL owners don't hesitate to reward them with massive contracts and anoint them as the faces of their organizations.

"People have no idea how hard it is, because these quarterbacks are operating in a world where so many things are working against them," says Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, one of the sport's renowned quarterback gurus. "It's harder now than it has ever been, because defensive players are better and defensive coordinators are smarter. That's why it's the toughest position in the world. This is an all-consuming job, even for coaches.

"You have to know how to raise a guy, from his head all the way down to his feet -- in a league that's designed to bring him to his knees."

*****

"Where will the desk go?" Adam Gase asks his wife, Jen, as they tour the second floor of the home they're renting in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. "Are you putting me in here, or is this one of the kids' rooms?"

It's move-in day, and the Miami Dolphins' rookie head coach wants to know where he'll be sitting while watching film on those rare occasions when he's not grinding away at the team's training facility. He's not hauling a whole lot of boxes on this humid June afternoon, but in a figurative sense, Gase has a lot of experience getting his house in order. As an assistant coach in Denver and Chicago, he helped a dramatically diverse collection of quarterbacks -- from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning to Jay Cutler -- optimize their talents. A couple of hours before checking out the new digs, he sat in his office going over play sheets with his latest obsession: Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins' fifth-year quarterback, a player Gase believes is poised to make the jump from good to great.

Even before taking the Dolphins' job, as part of his interview process at the team's digs, Gase spent some time alone with Tannehill. They sat in a small meeting room and talked briefly, during which Gase assured him, "If I end up being the coach here, you're my guy -- end of story."

Recalls Gase: "I just wanted to make sure that if I ended up being the guy, he'd have no worries about it. I always look at it as, like, you want great alignment between the quarterback and the head coach [and/or] offensive coordinator, because that guy's gonna have to be kind of the torch carrier for what you're doing on offense. He needs to be almost like an extension of the coaching staff, because that's how involved these guys are now. I mean, there are very few guys that are probably not involved in game planning somehow, or not involved in some of the things that you do in practice. Every team's either looking for that guy, or trying to make the guy they have better."

Because that coach-quarterback collaboration is so comprehensive, and because the scrutiny of the men in both positions has become increasingly pronounced (and their respective shelf lives more tenuous), getting That Guy to run an offense has never been trickier. Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman has, over the past five seasons in San Francisco and Buffalo, had success coaching Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor. Ask him why it's so hard to find an elite quarterback in 2016, and he replies, "Well, you're not asking me a hypothetical question; you're asking me a factual question. Because, what is it, 10, 12, people on this Earth can do it at a high level? It's a fact. So, why is that? Well, part of that is the speed of the game. That's never changed; it's always been a tough adjustment for most people. But now, the college game's so different than the pro game. The coverage is different; there's so much more multiplicity of defenses, and you have to read coverages instantly. Some of these spread systems that teams are running [in college] don't work on an NFL field with NFL players and NFL hashmarks. And the windows are so much tighter."

As Gase points out, so, too, are the employment windows for coaches and quarterbacks alike -- a reality that can have devastating effects on a young passer's development.

"What happens sometimes is, there's a coaching change, there's a system change, all of a sudden, he's learning something completely different -- starting over, almost," Gase says. "And you've seen good players have to take steps back because they're learning a new system. Now he can't get everybody else lined up; he's gotta worry about himself. It puts that guy in a worse position. I just keep thinking about Alex Smith -- how many systems did he play in? Then all of a sudden, Jim [Harbaugh comes to San Francisco], and they do a great job as far as using him to his strengths. And now he's in Kansas City, and he's part of the reason why they're able to do what they do. If you ever look at guys that stay in the system a long time, you'll see the turnovers going down, because they know where to go with the ball. It's almost like their offense is in the back of their mind, and they're more focused on what the defense is doing, and, What does the situation call for?"

To reach that level of mastery requires a combination of mental sharpness and a near-constant commitment to the craft -- eventualities that aren't always easy to predict when assessing young players.

"It's definitely a position you can't play if you're not all in," says Taylor, who got his first shot as an NFL starter with the Bills last season after four years as an unheralded Baltimore Ravens backup. "You're basically the coach on the field. You're the offensive coordinator -- you're him orchestrating stuff and going out and executing. And that requires a lot of preparation."

Adds Bills center Eric Wood, an eighth-year pro who, like Taylor, played in last January's Pro Bowl: "It's a lot for them to handle. It's not always the biggest and strongest and hardest throwers who make it; it's the quick processor."

Of course, handling NFL offensive concepts tends to be especially hard for quarterbacks who've spent their college years in systems that don't require a ton of processing. ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, an NFL quarterback from 1994 to 2007, puts it bluntly: "The majority of quarterbacks coming out of college these days are as football remedial as you could possibly be."

Schneider sees the same issue from a scouting perspective: "When you look at college football now, it's harder to evaluate these guys, because the position is so much easier to play. In so many systems, guys are just looking at the sidelines, waiting for the coach to give them a play with minimal options."

Adds Roman: "Nobody can really figure out [if they can thrive in an NFL offense] until you get your hands on them, 'cause they're not being trained to do that. They're being trained to win the next game in college so the college coach can keep his job."

Says Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, whose first draft pick after arriving in Indy in 2012 was Andrew Luck at No. 1 overall: "It is such a challenge to get quarterbacks right [in evaluations]. The greats, a lot of times, are undrafted or low, low picks, while some top-five picks never even scratch the surface of their once-perceived potential from the college tape. [Late Colts Hall of Famer] Johnny Unitas' picture hangs in my office front and center to remind our personnel department that greatness somehow goes unnoticed sometimes to the naked eye. He was a ninth-round pick [by the Steelers] that was cut and out of football. Kurt Warner was stocking grocery store shelves after being cut [by the Packers]. I then watched him do the unthinkable when I was a fortunate member of the Rams during that era of greatness."

Complicating matters for higher-profile quarterbacks coming out of college is the fact that, since 2008 -- when Matt Ryan (drafted third overall by the Falcons) and Joe Flacco (drafted 18th overall by the Ravens) had surprising success as rookie starters -- there has been a growing trend toward throwing upper-echelon draft picks immediately into the fray. While there have been many subsequent success stories, including Cam Newton, Luck and Wilson, others have struggled and/or had their growth severely stunted.

In Grigson's eyes, another reason "the QB position is so hard to evaluate as a whole [is] because, many times, you go into that evaluation looking for physical traits when, a lot of times, history has clearly shown it's more about intangibles than flashy physical ability and body type. When you get great intangibles that converge with great physical talent, then you're probably going to be right more than wrong. But again, there are a lot of unseen factors, too. Does the player fit the offense like a glove, or is there a learning curve? Because if that curve is too steep, then that player may take too many lumps and lose his confidence. That's why raw intelligence is so critical to a rookie having any success."

"I get all the arguments for playing them early," Dilfer says, "but none of them trumps this: You also risk destroying them."

Says Gase: "I've heard Peyton say all the time, 'The best thing that happened was I played right away.' That's how he developed. But then you look at a guy like Aaron Rodgers, who [the Packers] had the luxury for him to not only not play in the regular season, but he was able to take all the reps in the spring. So when they made the transition, he wasn't like, 'Oh, I've never practiced with these guys.' I'm sure it was hard for him at the time, cause he's sitting here going, 'I wanna play.' But I doubt now he would argue with the fact [that when] it was time for his turn, he took advantage of those years he didn't play."

To Taylor, the four years he waited behind Flacco were, "I guess you can say, like redshirt years. Some guys get their opportunity and aren't ready. There's a lot I learned, on and off the field ... just how to carry yourself, how to be the leader."

Perhaps Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who was Taylor's offensive coordinator with the Ravens in 2014, has taken notice: In the wake of Manning's retirement this past April, Denver drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round -- and yet, the current plan is not to play him as a rookie. The Rams are taking a similar approach with Jared Goff, the quarterback who went first overall.

"The game is more demanding from a mental standpoint than it used to be," says Kubiak, a Broncos backup quarterback from 1983 to 1991. "The game's really grown as far as quarterbacks getting into the right play and the right protections. That's because you play against more sub defenses, and formations with three or four wide [receivers] are more prevalent. It's a lot to digest for these guys who come from systems where they never took a snap under center."

He'll get no argument from the first-ballot Hall of Famer who kept Kubiak on the bench all those years: current Broncos general manager John Elway. Granted, Elway took a physical pounding, which -- thanks to subsequent rules changes -- current quarterbacks can largely avoid, making him skeptical of the narrative that playing the position is harder in 2016. Yet, Elway concedes that today's passers have more information to assimilate at the line of scrimmage.

"Teams are doing a lot more in terms of formation, and those types of things, to be able to figure out coverage before the snap," Elway says. "To me, that's the biggest change. Back in my day, we were reading coverage on the way back [after taking the snap]. Nowadays, you're doing everything at the line of scrimmage to try to get the defense to reveal itself. Peyton's kinda been the guy that led that charge, to try to do things with double-cadence to get defenses to move ... then all of a sudden, you go no-huddle, and they can't disguise as well."

And while modern-day quarterbacks may not be getting blasted as often as their predecessors, they're forced to cope with a different kind of pressure.

"The biggest challenge these guys face is that the life of the quarterback is overwhelming today," Dilfer says. "The attention, the scrutiny, the video evidence ... I don't care how good you are, somebody out there has evidence that you didn't do something as well as they think you should have. There's All-22 Film available, and people are posting things on social media, and it's impossible to avoid it -- and whatever you do, it's never good enough. There are few that it doesn't overwhelm."

*****

In early August, after presiding over a quarterbacks meeting at the Browns' facility, Jackson retreats to his office to prepare for a training-camp walkthrough. He's discussing the connection he's working to forge with Browns starter Robert Griffin III, a rookie sensation for Washington in 2012 who is now attempting to resurrect his career in Cleveland.

"We've got our first preseason game coming up," Jackson says, "and on Thursday night, I have to practice talking on the headset to Robert [alone, in front of the mirror]. He's not as familiar with me as he needs to be, so I have to rehearse it. He's gotta start to think the way I think, and I have to start to think the way he thinks. It takes time."

Cramming a massive amount of information into one's brain in a short amount of time is among the most essential skills for an NFL quarterback.

"Imagine this," Jackson says. "A guy has 11 seconds to get the play from me [over the headset]: He has to understand the formation, the play and sometimes an alert. Then he has to tell that play to the offensive team. Then he has to think through the defense. He has to make sure he communicates with [the other offensive players] through words and hand signals. Say it's Trips Right Lizzy Left Quanzi. He's got to get the play. Then give the play. Now he has to decipher what the defense is doing [at the line of scrimmage]: Personnel, front, coverage. Who's the Mike [middle linebacker]? Now you think you figured it out. Then you say 'Set-Hut.' Now the processor is rolling: You've gotta decide in milliseconds, 'Where do I go [with the ball]? What do I do? There's a pre-snap thought and a post-snap thought. Now you got all those dudes on the other side -- they're trying to hurt you, they're growling, talking [expletive] to you. You've gotta handle all that. And now, under those conditions, you're paid to make plays. And if you don't? Well, you've got to repeat the process right away ... And how do you deal with the stress of missing the play?"

The volume of verbiage alone can engulf a young quarterback who's attempting to adjust to the pro game and/or assimilate a new offensive system. Memorization and careful film study are obviously crucial preparation tools. Even then, the actual game can be a daunting experience.

"People's brains are different," Roman says. "In the preseason, [the opposing] defense might play three things. Well, you can process three things. In the regular season, though, now they might do six things while disguising all of them before the ball is snapped. Can you process them this fast?

"Try this: 'Hey, it's second-and-5, we're in Tiger, they just played Cover 3, so let's go Flank Right 2-Jet Z-Sail F-Drive. Tiger is a personnel group. Flank Right is the formation. 2-Jet is the protection. Z-Sail and F-Drive are two route combinations. And that is the simplest play, and formation, I could call: A two-receiver route and [another] two-receiver route, and the first one I said, you wanna start your eyes there. Or the play could end in the word 'alert,' which means if we get a certain look, be alert to audible to a specific play that we memorized during the week. Now, are they in nickel? Are they treating this as three wides or are they staying in base? Oh, they're matching, say, Richard Sherman on [Charles] Clay ... you need to be aware of that. So you've got a pre-snap read, then a drop read and a set read. On your drop, you're reading something -- you have a primary receiver, or a primary route combination -- then once your back foot hits and you don't throw the No. 1 read, then you're into your set read, and now you're getting through a progression: Ding ding ding ding ding. Meanwhile somebody's trying to hold you up and clothesline you. And you have to do all this in maybe two seconds."

Doing this once sounds mentally and physically draining. Doing it over and over again, each time your team has possession during a three-hour window, makes for a pretty exhausting experience.

"Let's say a play just ended -- say Doug Baldwin just made a big catch," Wilson says. "The next thing I'm looking at is, I call it the 'shot clock' -- how much time? Forty seconds on the [play] clock? Thirty? What's the situation? Is it first-down-and-10 now? Is it third-and-3? Then I'm checking out the defensive personnel -- who's coming in, who's coming out? -- and then doing the same for our offensive personnel. You want to know who your guys are, who's the best player for that particular play, who may get open that play ... what the matchups are. And you also want to think about and analyze and visualize what they may do on defense. If you don't like the play, you can check out of it. You can change it. You try to put your team in the best position possible. You try to figure out what the front is and what the defense is doing. A lot of times, it's a pre-snap read. Sometimes, it's the front. Sometimes, it's where guys are lined up, their body position, whatever that may be. And sometimes, just as soon as you snap it, you figure out what they're doing.

"That's where all the studying comes in. You understand and process quickly what's going on in the game, and what their defense likes to do, and what they're best at. They're always gonna want to go with their strengths, obviously, so you want to understand where they're weak and where we're strong ... and you want to try to capitalize on their weakness on that one particular play. And that happens, hopefully, 75 times a game."

All the while, in an upstairs box and on the sideline, some of the sport's shrewdest defensive minds are trying to adjust on the fly and find further ways to confound and unnerve the man who begins each play with the ball in his hand.

"These defensive coordinators are too good," Jackson says. "If you're predictive, they'll swallow you up. Good defensive coordinators will do everything they can to disguise what they're doing and keep you from recognizing what you're seeing. Because at the end of the day, you're not defeating the offense; you're defeating the quarterback."

*****

When Schneider arrived at Camp Randall Stadium on that mid-October morning in 2011, he studied some game tape that showed Wilson smoothly running the Badgers' offense and marveled at what he saw.

"He'd been in one system at North Carolina State," the Seahawks' GM recalls, "and now he was in more of a pro-style system [at Wisconsin] than he'd been accustomed to -- and he'd learned it in, what, a month and a half? I saw the way he ran play-action and utilized the tight end and distributed the ball. I remember watching him throw with anticipation, the way he used his eyes and his feet, the escapability, the way he could keep plays alive."

As the day went on, Schneider had discussions with Badgers coaches and other staff members that left him even more impressed.

"After he got up there [in July], he'd walked around campus with a ring binder full of notecards and would pull them out and study plays -- it was important to him," Schneider says. "Then I went to see Bret [Bielema, then the Badgers' head coach] in his office, and he'd just heard a story from [athletic director] Barry Alvarez about what Russell said in his press conference. They were getting ready to play at Michigan State, and Russell had [told reporters] about using visualization to prepare for the game. It turns out he'd been going on the Internet, and checking out that college video game [NCAA Football 12], all to try to see where the play clock was, so he could visualize looking up at that as he was on the field. And I heard that and was like, 'Who is this guy?' "

Seven months later, that guy -- a third-round pick most people projected to be Seattle's third-string quarterback in 2012 -- showed up at the Seahawks' training facility for a rookie minicamp.

"The first day of that minicamp, he completely took over," Schneider recalls. "He had total command of the offense, and he was totally in charge. Pete [Carroll] said, 'We've gotta mic this guy; this might be historical.' So we did. I had a very quiet lovefest for the guy, and I got a lot of [expletive] for it in the office, early on."

Three months later, Wilson was locked in a three-way competition with incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson, who'd earned a great deal of locker-room capital while gutting out the previous season with a torn pectoral muscle, and Matt Flynn, who'd been signed to a three-year, $26 million free-agent deal that made him the presumptive starter.

"The odds were stacked against him," Schneider says of Wilson. "He didn't care. He went and took it."

Four years later, in the wake of the retirement of star running back and offensive focal point Marshawn Lynch, Wilson hopes to take his game to an even higher level -- which, he knows, will require him to work as hard as ever.

"I would agree with Russell that great quarterbacks are born with the It Factor," Schneider says. "And then you have to have that work ethic and pride to take it to the next level. Some guys want to be good. Some guys want to be great. You can tell by the work ethic. And guys like Russell, because of his height, have always had that chip on their shoulder and a burning desire to prove they belong."

Here's where the math gets tricky: There are 32 NFL teams searching for special quarterbacks like Wilson, and tens of thousands of young passers dreaming that they'll have an opportunity to be one of them. And yet, the formula for becoming an elite player at this ultra-challenging position remains highly intangible and nearly impossible to quantify.

"To me, it's only going to get harder to play quarterback in this league," Gase says. "It's just 'cause defensive coaches are so damn smart. And the athletes seem to be getting better and better and better, especially on defense -- you watch what Denver did last year, and there's not a lot of time to throw. And you've gotta have that mindset of, What do I need to do to beat this defense? And then, OK, now I know what to do -- well, now I've gotta make the play.

"I mean, there are a lot of things going on in your brain to play at an elite level. That's why there's a small group [at the top], then there's a whole bunch of guys in the middle, and you've probably got not a huge group at the back end, and it's make-or-break for them."

If there's one overriding personality trait shared by the elite passers who've made it to the top of their profession, it's probably this: They not only appear impervious to pressure, but they also seem to welcome it.

"I like having more on my plate," Wilson says. "The more that I have on my plate, the more that I feel I can control, and understand, and try to go with when the team needs me to go out and make a play. Going into Year 5, I'm excited. Every opportunity's a new opportunity, and every game's a new game. That's the mentality you have to play with."

Still a little shy of 5-11, Wilson might not fit the suit, but he fits the profile of an elite quarterback in the 21st century, and there aren't many others like him. Chances are, he'll continue to grow -- in an environment designed to bring him to his knees.