SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As a wide-eyed rookie out of Eastern Illinois, New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was simply trying to keep his head above water when he had an important revelation.
After weeks of watching up close future Hall of Famer Tom Brady's obsessive commitment to his craft, it struck Garoppolo that to succeed in the NFL he would have to make some changes to how he went about his business.
"It's tremendous for a quarterback to sit his first year," Garoppolo said. "You get to sit there and see a guy, if you're lucky, like I got to watch Tom. You kind of try to put yourself in that situation, how to learn from it, what you would do if you were in the spot they were in. There's a ton of things that you could benefit from, and I think if you use it properly, it's good for you."
Pressed on what his "a-ha" moment was, Garoppolo declines to offer detail, but now, almost five years later, he calls it "eye-opening."
On the surface, such moments seem like they'd come easier for someone like Garoppolo because he was sitting behind Brady. The same could be said for Aaron Rodgers as he waited his turn behind Brett Favre or Philip Rivers behind Drew Brees.
From the outside, it seems there's something inherently advantageous to sitting behind a legendary quarterback, as though there's such a thing as football osmosis where simply being in the same vicinity as a top signal-caller will make everyone in the room equally great someday.
In reality, the common thread among successful young quarterbacks following long-established stars isn't something they're taught or something found in the way they play. It's in the way they prepare.
"I think [it's] the preparation part of it," said Rivers, who was the backup to Brees for his first two seasons with the Chargers. "We had different styles of leadership, and different routines -- but just to have a routine. Mine is not the same as his, but whether it was Monday morning or Tuesday evening -- if it was 10 o'clock and he was normally doing that, he was doing it at 10 o'clock, it didn't matter what happened the day before. So I was kind of like, 'Wow, that's different.' Because this is a 16-week season and there's a lot of ups and downs, but that was impressive to me."
Rare is the quarterback who enters the league with that understanding already ingrained. Peyton Manning had it. So did Brady.
As he waited behind Drew Bledsoe, Brady lived in the End Zone Motor Inn in Foxborough, Massachusetts, spending most of his time poring over tape of himself running the scout team in practice.
That persistent approach to preparation allowed Brady to lead the Patriots to victory in Super Bowl XXXVI in his second season and eventually allowed him to know every team's tendencies and keep a mental dossier on most opposing defenders.
While Garoppolo had no problem putting up big numbers in college, he soon realized that it would take much more if he wanted to make it in the NFL. He occasionally looks back at his time at Eastern Illinois and wonders why he didn't do more during the week leading up to games. It wasn't until he got to see Brady do it that he understood what was required.
"I think every guy, it's kind of a feel thing," Garoppolo said. "It kind of hits you at one point or another throughout your rookie year. It's a really good learning experience. Some guys it hits early, some guys it might not hit until your second or third year. When you realize you have to be a pro and hold yourself accountable more than having a coach do it for you. I think once you get to that point, it gives you a chance to be successful."
Earlier this year, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made headlines when he expressed surprise that the team had drafted quarterback Mason Rudolph in the third round. Roethlisberger also joked that he would not help Rudolph if he had questions as he adjusted to the league.
But there was also some truth in what Roethlisberger said. The job requirements of a starting NFL quarterback are already demanding enough without taking on the role of a mentor willing to hold the hand of a rookie quarterback coming for his spot. Which is why players such as Garoppolo and Rodgers were better served to closely observe their counterparts and fire off the occasional question without being overbearing.
Rodgers, of course, is the ultimate example of waiting his turn. He was drafted in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers and spent three seasons behind Favre, something he's been getting similar questions about for most of the past 14 years. That much time also brings added perspective, and Rodgers maintains that having to wait was good for him.
According to Rodgers, things might be a bit different if he entered the league today.
"The quarterback today is a lot more ready to play than I was," Rodgers said. "And the best thing to happen to me was sitting behind Favre for three years and learning the game and getting my body in the right shape and being ready to play in Year 4. But some of these guys, because the coaching's improved and the quarterback play in general I think has improved at the lower levels and you're seeing more of the spread stuff coming up from the high school and college ranks, these guys are ready to play, and they're playing well."
Brady seems to agree with Rodgers' take. Last week, Brady went on WEEI radio in Boston and said the pro game has evolved so much that the transition is much easier for young quarterbacks than it used to be. Brady called pro football "more glorified college football" and noted the changes in some of the more physical elements to the game.
That could, perhaps, help explain why Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been able to light up scoreboards all over the league in his first season as a starter. Mahomes came from Texas Tech, known for its spread concepts and air-it-out approach. While Kansas City coach Andy Reid is unafraid to innovate and add wrinkles from other offenses, the first thing he mentions when asked about Mahomes' immediate success has to do with getting to wait his turn.
While Alex Smith doesn't fall into the same category as legends like Brady and Favre as a player, he is widely regarded by former teammates and coaches as a Hall of Fame person.
"Not everybody does it like Alex, that's the thing," Reid said. "I've been doing this for a couple years and so not everybody does it, goes about their job as thorough as Alex does. And then Alex is a very intelligent guy on top of all that, so you combine those two things, that's why he's been successful. And for Patrick to see that, Patrick also is very intelligent and he wants to be good and he's humble and all that. So, he wasn't afraid to learn from Alex. As a coach, we can tell you to do this and that, but to have a guy like that be able to come in and be able to follow somebody who does it perfect in preparation, that's something special."
Mahomes said he took notes on Smith's weekly routine, from which games Smith would watch on which days to little things like honing his cadence. The key, according to Mahomes, isn't to imitate Smith's plan but to understand how detailed that routine needs to be and then come up with one that works for him.
"I've kind of taken stuff from that and made it my own," Mahomes said. "I make sure I'm prepared for every single situation. That's something he was great at and still is. That's helped me a lot on the field."
Of course, for every quarterback who sits and learns from a legend and goes on to success, there are many who have failed. It's why there was so much consternation in New England when the team traded Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers after he appeared poised to be Brady's heir apparent.
And there are many young quarterbacks now entering the league who are having quick success even without sitting at all.
In Philadelphia, Carson Wentz had a rookie season full of growing pains but was on track to be league MVP before a knee injury ended his 2017. In Los Angeles, Jared Goff had many detractors calling him a bust after one bad year in an offense that running back Todd Gurley likened to a high school scheme. Now, Goff is neck-and-neck with Mahomes for early-season MVP honors.
"Every situation is different," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Sometimes, it's about the person and what their personality is. Sometimes, it's about the team. Some guys need to get in there and play whether they succeed or they don't succeed. They learn from every situation. Some guys need some early success to give them the confidence to lead them to continue to get better. So, I think you've always got to look into the person and think what's best for them. But you've also got to look at the type of team you have, what your other choice is at quarterback and how good people are around him to where if you do put a guy in, what are his chances of succeeding?"
Indeed, there is no tried-and-true method for a young quarterback to enter the league and succeed other than to fully embrace the amount of hours and attention to detail that go into making it happen. Which means the advantage for young quarterbacks learning behind legends is this: To see is to understand.