By Michael Silver | Published Sept. 6, 2016
Illustration by Albert Lee
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.
At the end of the day, you're not defeating the offense; you're defeating the quarterback. Hue Jackson
"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.
To me, it's only going to get harder to play quarterback in this league. Adam Gase
"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.
They're being trained to win the next game in college so the college coach can keep his job. Greg Roman
"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."