A little more than three years ago, Peyton Manning underwent the first in a series of neck surgeries that ultimately ended his iconic run as the face of the Indianapolis Colts. And callous as it sounds, the timing couldn't have been better. Might Manning have kept winning in Indy? Sure. But with the quarterback stuck on the sideline in 2011 and the rest of the roster decaying around the game's most important position, the Colts sank to 2-14. For the second time in 15 years, they were bad at just the right point in history. With the league's worst record, the Colts earned the rights to the No. 1 overall pick, which they used on wunderkind quarterback Andrew Luck -- thus extending the team's competitive window into the foreseeable future.
That, in 2014, is the power of having the right quarterback. Losing one can trigger a catastrophic drop-off. Adding one can breathe an incredible amount of life into an organization.
The catch here: A franchise quarterback isn't easy to find.
By Albert Breer | Published Sept. 3, 2014
The plan is to meet Art Briles in Copperas Cove, Texas, but he calls ahead to say he's headed through Austin to his lake house anyway, so he'll cover the 70 miles of country road and come meet in the state capital instead.
Ninety minutes later, Briles' truck pulls into the Starbucks parking lot on W. 15th and San Antonio. The Baylor coach strolls in looking like he just walked off the practice field, wearing a Baylor hat, a dry-fit long-sleeve shirt and mesh shorts, unaware of the double-takes he's eliciting from about a half-dozen folks otherwise immersed in caffeine and iPads.
Unknowingly, Briles is painting a picture of change.
In so many ways, he's still the guy who led Stephenville High to four Texas state championships in the 1990s, pulling it off in large part thanks to a blistering offense that forever altered the schoolboy game in this football-obsessed state.
His scheme continues to evolve, but the base principles don't. Instead of asking "Why?," it's always been "Why not?"
Stephenville -- which calls itself the "Cowboy Capital of the World" -- is 109 miles from Dallas, and if Briles wanted to win big, he needed to create advantages. So he countered norms, gambling that a high-flying, aggressive style could topple the giants still adhering to the game as Darrell Royal saw it. And boy, did it ever work.
It continued to work at the University of Houston, where Briles landed his first head-coaching job in the collegiate ranks. It's gone to another level at Baylor. And as Briles has made things happen in Texas, the NFL has been changing, too, with free-thinkers like Chip Kelly tearing old you-can't-do-that-at-this-level pages out of the conventional-wisdom playbook.
"In high school, you coach who walks through the door," Briles explains, now back at Baylor's campus in Waco. "You don't go out and recruit, you don't draft. Whoever walks through that door, you gotta coach. And so you gotta figure out something that makes them have an opportunity to be successful with your schemes. So you take those people, you figure out something that works, and then you go on the field and do it."
Briles' approach did more than rack up victories for Stephenville. In addition to compiling a 90-2-1 record over one six-year stretch during his dozen seasons at the high school, he also churned out six Division I quarterbacks, underlining a truth about Texas: If you want to find the next great quarterback, this has become the place to start.
Consider that 12 former Texas high school quarterbacks started NFL games last year. Eight of those 12 will start for their teams again this fall. And another Lone Star State product just went in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. The state can, in fact, provide a window into the changing face of the American signal-caller.
Just as Briles reshaped the high-school game, the position's evolution has accelerated and diversified. Prep recruits are now more polished and ready, and the NFL is picking from a more varied pool of passers coming out of college. At each level, coaches have become more malleable, to accommodate different skill sets schematically.
Of course, vast evolution spawns vast challenges.
Finding a truly great quarterback has never been more complicated. Having one has never been more meaningful. And there is more to the position now than ever before.
With high school two-a-days still a few weeks off, Boerne High is coming out of the half on Field 4A at Veterans Park in College Station. The team sees Cuero, its first opponent in pool play at the Texas State 7-on-7 Championships, loafing back, so quarterback Quinten Dormady hustles his guys on. When the whistle blows, Cuero isn't lined up, and Dormady quickly rifles the ball out to the right boundary. His receiver takes it from there to pay dirt.
In every way, the Tennessee-bound Dormady is a field general. His dad, Mike, is watching, but as the high school coach at Boerne, he's prohibited by tournament rules from directing the 7-on-7 squad. Usually, a parent or former player handles that part, but really, when it comes to 7-on-7, most of the responsibility falls to a teenaged quarterback.
"Our coaches work us out throughout the offseason quite a bit; we have a conditioning camp," says North Carolina-bound Celina quarterback Nathan Elliott, another coach's son. "But as far as running routes, working on plays and stuff, I have to do that myself. I text them, I have a group message, and I'll send them a message, 'Hey, we're gonna throw at 2 or 3.' And we'll go throw."
The 7-on-7 revolution in Texas was copycatted from a model born in California in the 1970s to advance the passing game at the prep level. In the late '90s, Doug Stephens, now the head coach at Rowlett near Dallas, noticed a study by The Dallas Morning News that indicated the state's propensity for developing future NFL players lagged at quarterback. He wondered why. A rule allowing just four kids from one school to play together on a summer team had changed a couple years prior, and so Stephens looked into the idea of developing 7-on-7 leagues and tournaments.
Less than two decades later, just about every high school in the state competes, with 128 qualifying for the two-tiered finals down the street from Texas A&M's campus. And the emergence of 7-on-7 was just the beginning. In Texas, playing football is a 12-month proposition. Students have an "athletic period" built into their class schedule, where they can go meet with their coaches, whether it's October or April. There's spring practice and winter conditioning.
No one has felt the change more than the quarterbacks, who are shouldering heavy leadership responsibilities, in some cases, before they have a driver's license.
"When I was younger, it was a lot more fun," says Houston Kinkaid QB J.T. Granato, who's committed to Rice. "Now, playing, it's mental and obviously physical. The game has changed because I'm so into it, and you have to be if you wanna be good. When I was young, obviously I loved the game, but now it's like a job. And that's exciting."
Randy Rodgers now runs his own recruiting service in Texas. He was once the recruiting coordinator at the University of Texas, and his sons went through the Austin Westlake powerhouse that reared Drew Brees and Nick Foles. So he's seen the evolution like few others have.
"I think it's easier to find them, because there are more of them," Rodgers says. "The hard part would be trying to figure out who's the very best one guy. That's where the real evaluation takes place."
Indeed, it's rare to find a quarterback who goes from being a five-star prep recruit to a top-10 draft pick to an NFL superstar. Peyton Manning is one. But he's the outlier. Brees might have landed in the Ivy League, had Joe Tiller not gone from Wyoming to Purdue during the QB's senior year at Westlake. Aaron Rodgers had to go to junior college just to get a Division I offer. Tom Brady methodically climbed the depth chart at Michigan and held off an uber-recruit (Drew Henson) to keep his job as a junior and senior.
Even Andrew Luck was the 68th-ranked recruit in his class by Rivals.com, placed firmly behind fellow quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor, Blaine Gabbert, Dayne Crist, EJ Manuel and Mike Glennon.
Separating one from the next, like Randy Rodgers said, isn't easy. Bill O'Brien recruited a QB many regard as the next great one to Penn State, and as the first-year Houston Texans coach now tells it, there wasn't anything overly scientific about finding Christian Hackenberg. O'Brien recalls going through a stack of DVDs during the 2011 playoffs -- he was finishing out his final season as a member of the New England Patriots' staff and taking late-night time for Penn State work -- with fellow Pats assistant George Godsey.
Hackenberg was physically impressive, but after that, it came down to feel. O'Brien only got a real handle on Hackenberg a couple of months later, when three quarterbacks visited Penn State's campus.
"Christian, to me, was the most impressive guy," O'Brien says. "He came from a great family; his parents were there. The way he carried himself in the meeting room, you could just tell; the way he looked you in the eye, the way he spoke to you. That was your first impression of the guy. And that was a big deal."
Briles can recall the moment he knew with each of his star signal-callers.
He had history with Kevin Kolb, since Kolb hailed from Stephenville, and that was enough for the coach to know what a student of the game he was. A couple of years later, he found Case Keenum at his camp at Houston, playing what the coaches called "CougarBall." In this game, which lacks a line of scrimmage or any stoppages, Keenum displayed unusual instinct and control in a chaotic, backyard-type environment.
And then there was Robert Griffin III, recruited by the powerhouses as a safety or receiver and ranked outside of the Rivals250.
"He comes to camp (at Houston) and I watch him throw the ball two times, and tell Coach (Philip) Montgomery, our offensive coordinator, 'Hey, we gotta hide this guy. This guy is unbelievable,' " Briles recalls with a smile. "I knew he could run, I knew he was athletic; I did not know he could throw the football like that. They really didn't throw that often in high school, off the tape. And I saw him throw it two or three times and said, 'This guy is different now. He's gonna be hard to keep.' "
Following the workout, Griffin and his mother and sisters went to Briles' office. After that, they watched tape. In the process, Briles put the puzzle pieces together. Griffin initially committed to play for Briles at Houston, then followed the coach to Baylor.
Four seasons later, he won the Heisman Trophy.
By then, the reasons for his success seemed so simple: A smart, athletic, big-armed quarterback had conquered the college football world. It's a shame that, for so many coaches, identifying those qualities in a prospect isn't so easy.
Before Texas became the hotbed for quarterbacks, California held that title -- and so it makes sense that Steve Sarkisian had his moment of clarity with regard to identifying them at the Fairmont San Jose in January 2007.
The then-32-year-old Cali-bred USC offensive coordinator was on a recruiting trip with his boss, Pete Carroll, who had arranged for breakfast with Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. Sarkisian asked about the one trait Walsh would look for in a quarterback.
"Can he throw a catchable ball?" Walsh answered. Pressed to elaborate, the legendary former 49ers coach continued. "Well, everyone goes to the (NFL Scouting Combine), they tell me how tall he is, they tell me how much he weighs, they tell me how big his hands are, how long his arms are. They tell me how high he jumps and how fast he runs. I go into these meetings with our scouts, and they tell me how strong his arm is, they tell me about the offense they had. And all I want to know is, when he throws the ball, does he throw it where the receivers catch it?"
Sarkisian shuffled through his mental Rolodex, thinking about how Joe Montana threw the ball, how Steve Young threw the ball. Neither Hall of Famer broke fingers with velocity.
"It was interesting, when you started thinking about it," explained Sarkisian, who has since assumed the top job at USC after a five-year stint at Washington. "To do that, you have to, one, know your offense really well. Two, know defense really well, so, how your plays mesh with the defensive call that's coming. Then, three, do you have the ability to anticipate the throw based on the coverage you're getting? Four, do you throw the ball in a spot where the receiver is in position to get it? And five, is it actually a catchable ball, or is it going 100 miles per hour and the guy is juggling it all the time?"
In other words, throwing a 5-yard slant in an area that allows the receiver to catch the ball and turn upfield looks pretty easy, but being able to do so efficiently depends on the quarterback. Plenty of guys can throw the ball in the right spot, but mentally, few can consistently dial up the right play at the right time. The fact that the final result appears to be much simpler than the process of achieving that result illustrates the challenge of evaluating the position.
"There's so much that goes into it that's not physical. That's probably the biggest reason as to why it's maybe the hardest to evaluate," said San Diego Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, who worked with the Indianapolis Colts during the infancies of the Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck eras. "There's so much that goes into it that's based on decision-making and intangibles and makeup; it's not the easiest thing to scout. The physical stuff is the easy stuff -- size, speed, strength, arm strength, mobility."
It's harder, as Telesco says, to discern the ability to digest information, think quickly and react. And it's not easy to measure the drive a guy has to put all that together, either.
Chargers coach Mike McCoy has a picture of Peyton Manning thumbtacked to a bulletin board behind his desk. In the shot, which harks back to McCoy's days as the Broncos' offensive coordinator, Manning's hands are submerged in a tub of ice, and Denver receiver Eric Decker is walking by, turning slightly in an attempt to figure out what his quarterback is doing. Every couple of minutes, the story goes, when his hands were sufficiently frozen, Manning would grab a ball and throw a half-dozen passes.
The picture was taken during the week of the divisional playoffs in early 2013, before the Broncos and Ravens played under a sub-zero wind chill, and it illustrates the common thread McCoy has seen in his best quarterbacks.
"It's a burning desire to be great," McCoy explains. "If you look at Jake (Delhomme, whom McCoy coached in Carolina) and Philip (Rivers) and Peyton, it's never good enough. That's the way they are, whether it's practice, whether it's games, whether it's in meetings. There's always so much detail that goes into it. The other ones, not that they aren't good quarterbacks, but it's that it factor (with the great ones). It's never good enough."
It's never been good enough for Manning's chief rival, either. When O'Brien was elevated to quarterbacks coach and play caller in New England in 2009, the first thing Brady said in their initial face-to-face meeting was blunt and direct: "Look, I want to be coached. Make sure you know that I want to be coached."
O'Brien didn't need to be told twice, and that contributed to a well-documented sideline showdown between the two during a game against the Washington Redskins in 2011. But what O'Brien remembers as much as the frank language was how they were flipping through Polaroids "five seconds after that happened" -- something he viewed as an extension of No. 12's information-gathering process, which invariably would contain an unending string of phone calls and emails over the course of any given week.
Then there was the power of having Brady on the field during those times when the quarterback didn't need any coaching at all.
"We're playing Green Bay on a Sunday night, and we were in no-huddle, and we're going fast, and I called a bad play -- I called a run play into a blitz," O'Brien said. "And in that moment, he changed the play, he changed the protection, he moved two receivers, he made the correct 'Mike' call for the protection, he signaled the receiver out to the left with what route to run, and he threw a touchdown pass to that guy. So he did about six things with about 10 seconds on the play clock to create a touchdown."
That 2010 touchdown, a 10-yarder to Aaron Hernandez, was a fourth-quarter game-winner for the Patriots that night.
McCoy remembers a similar moment with Manning that had an even bigger impact -- a moment that didn't just save a game, but maybe the whole 2012 season. The Broncos were 2-3, and had fallen far behind San Diego on a Monday night in October. At the beginning of the second half, Manning found a flaw in the Chargers' defense and picked at it for 85 yards, cutting the deficit to 17.
"Peyton came to the sideline and said, 'We got them,' " McCoy recalls. "It was right then, our whole team, our whole organization, after seeing that, after that first drive being down 24-0 and not blinking, and him changing a few things at the line of scrimmage and doing some things we hadn't done until that point in time, from that point, our whole team was in. We won 11 in a row."
The small details -- like the idea to freeze his hands to prep for the cold -- paid off again.
Tom House can't teach it, but he believes he can cover just about everything else.
The former major league pitcher and current USC baseball assistant got involved with NFL guys 10 years ago, almost by mistake. His neighbor in Del Mar, California, was then-Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who set him up with Brees, San Diego's quarterback at the time. They worked together over the next few years, ramping things up after Brees injured his throwing shoulder in 2005. Around then, House picked up Matt Cassel, an ex-USC pitcher, as a second student. Cassel referred Brady to House after Brady's longtime coach and mentor, Tom Martinez, passed away in 2012. And House added Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Matt Barkley, Tim Tebow, Terrelle Pryor and Brady Quinn to his client list.
Everyone who's signed up is chasing the details House has; the mechanics guru studies the science behind the position and believes inefficiency runs rampant in quarterbacks.
"Correct me if I'm wrong: I think they're chugging along at about 80 percent," House said, quantifying the holes he sees in quarterback training while looking over to his assistant, Adam Dedeaux, for affirmation. "Even the old guys, the old quarterbacks, we've improved all their long balls, every one of them. We've improved their accuracy. Just by showing them a better process to follow; nothing magic."
House's study of "rotational athletes" started with what he knows -- baseball -- but has grown to include golfers like Phil Mickelson, as well as volleyball and tennis players. And he doesn't limit himself to the highest echelon of each sport; he also works with kids at the youth levels.
There's always so much detail that goes into it. The other ones, not that they aren't good quarterbacks, but it's that it factor (with the great ones). It's never good enough. Mike McCoy
That last part is becoming more and more common. Just as the high schoolers in Texas are quarterbacking year-round, pre-teens are being drilled on the position at younger and younger ages, a sign that specialization is hitting football full bore, the way it already has baseball and basketball and hockey.
House, like many others, thinks it's a little much. His research shows kids should be playing all sports before they turn 12 and continuing with a few after that while putting muscle and nerve together, only beginning to specialize at 17 or so. He points out that Brady was a baseball star, and that Brees was both that and an exceptional tennis player.
Sarkisian is another example. He hadn't begun working with a personal coach, Steve Clarkson, until after he turned 18. And Sarkisian actually went to USC to play baseball before landing at BYU as a quarterback. Sarkisian mentions that his quarterback at USC now, Cody Kessler, was a fantastic high school basketball player, and that the reigning Heisman winner, Jameis Winston, is still playing baseball.
"Personally, I love seeing that, the guys that can do more," Sarkisian says. "That doesn't mean that's the only way. But I like to see that, because it tells me a lot about the individual. It's great doing drills. But drills aren't a game. Whatever the game is, the ultracompetitive guys, no matter what the game is, they're gonna compete at the highest level."
The idea here is to keep them playing, on all fields, when they're kids, and they'll never want to stop when they become adults.
That insatiable hunger for competition is exactly why House believes Brady and Brees will never burn out on the game. That hunger explains why, on a USC practice field this past spring, Brady was chewing out Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, saying that the play they'd just botched was the same one he believed cost the Patriots Super Bowl XLVI. And it also is instructive in showing why both quarterbacks are insistent that they can play into their mid-40s.
House thinks that can be done, too, based on his own work with legendary MLB pitcher Nolan Ryan decades ago.
"Our research says there's no reason at all why you can't do at 45 what you did at 25, if your process supports it," he said. "I'm really proud that I'm hearing that from a couple guys, Brees and Brady, that they both literally want to play until they're 45. It's been proven. Nolan Ryan threw his seventh no-hitter when he was 44. He didn't go out because he couldn't play anymore; he went out because he couldn't recover anymore.
"He didn't stop pitching because he couldn't throw hard anymore. He stopped pitching because he couldn't recover in a five-day time frame. So it's possible."
And the desire, with rings and stats in the books, to keep chasing the new possible past age 40 can tell you plenty about players like Brady and Manning and Brees.
So how do you find the next guy who can achieve greatness by 25, sustain that through 35 and still have the desire to pursue it until 45?
It can be tough. But once you see it, it's unmistakable.
Just ask Telesco about Luck. He only needed a few days to see it in the Colts' young quarterback.
"Usually, I don't have answers for these questions, I can't remember anything, but yes," Telesco says. "His first rookie minicamp, we got to see him Friday, Saturday, Sunday. When you scout a guy, you never see him for a whole weekend or even consecutive days, usually. You either see him in a game, see him in a practice, see him in a workout. Seeing him for three straight days, it was one of those 'Holy s---, this kid is really good, really good' moments."
Luck represents the prototype, but to Telesco, it wasn't about his physical ability. It was about how he looked like he'd been running then-Colts coordinator Bruce Arians' offense for a few years, not a few days.
It's about the non-physical traits that champions -- both big (6-foot-6 Ravens QB Joe Flacco) and small (5-11 Seahawks QB Russell Wilson) -- possess. That's not to say arm strength and size and athleticism are irrelevant, because to be a pro, any quarterback needs a certain blend of those qualities.
But even with regard to those, the NFL has become more flexible, because it's so hard to find the intangible mix that the great ones have. O'Brien puts it this way: "If you have, let's say, 12 qualities you're looking for in a quarterback, they better meet just about all 12 of them."
And if you can check off those 12 boxes, you're in business.
"In my opinion, it is the most important position in sports," Sarkisian says. "Because of everything. I think a football team that doesn't have belief in their quarterback doesn't have a chance. If you really wanna win a championship, if everybody in the organization doesn't believe in the quarterback, I don't care what level you're at -- sooner or later, you're gonna be beat."
Sarkisian has commitments from two of the Top 10 high school quarterbacks in America. Briles has Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Petty. McCoy has Rivers. And O'Brien just started looking for his next Hackenberg or Brady.
Finding that guy, as all coaches know, will be hard. But in today's NFL, it's vitally important.
Even the Starbucks gawkers could tell you that.