Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Blast from past: When Jimmy Garoppolo dropped the name of Jeff Christensen at the Super Bowl as his personal QB coach, I did a double take.
“You knew he was the Browns quarterback during the 1987 NFL strike games, right?” I said to Garoppolo.
(Hours later, I realized Garoppolo was four years from being born when the NFL staged strike replacement games for three weeks during the 1987 season. That made me feel old and dumb.)
“Really? I never knew that,” Garoppolo replied.
When I re-told that story to Christensen, he chuckled.
“You fell for that? Let me tell you, this kid is dumb like a desert fox,” Christensen said.
Christensen, who launched his Throw It Deep throwing academy 20 years ago, started working with Garoppolo before the young QB's junior year at Rolling Meadows High School outside Arlington Heights, Ill., eight years ago. Garoppolo was a 180-pound linebacker and a baseball pitcher.
“I told him he had four flaws, but he had good fingers and the ball came out of his hand well. He spun it well. But it was going to take a lot of hours and dedication [to make him a quarterback],” Christensen said. “Being a baseball pitcher, he was an over-strider and he locked his left leg. But he had a lot of good qualities that he did naturally that overshadowed the deficiencies.
“Going into his senior year, he started getting a lot better. In his sophomore year at college [Eastern Illinois], I told him, ‘You’re going to make $100 million in this game.’ His release was getting so quick and he wasn’t losing velocity and his accuracy was going up.
“I said, ‘All you have to do is weigh 225 pounds and keep working on your body and game.’ Because his technique was getting really good.”
Garoppolo, 25, who filled out at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, is one of the most talked-about players of the 2017 NFL transaction season. The New England Patriots backup quarterback could wind up in Cleveland as the Browns’ next hope, or with his hometown Chicago Bears or someplace else. Or he may stay as Tom Brady’s understudy.
“I know what I think, but I’m not going to speculate,” said Christensen.
Ready as he’ll ever be: Christensen’s early work with Garoppolo centered on quickening his release of the ball. Now, that mechanic is Garoppolo’s strength.
“He is a real interesting case because I’m the only guy who’s ever coached him [on mechanics],” Christensen said. “When he gets in the games and he gets harassed and starts getting hit and hurried, when he deviates, he deviates back to proper.
“When most guys deviate, they start over-striding or start doing something that’s been a hindrance. When [Garoppolo] starts getting hit and harassed, his technique actually gets better. That’s the perfect dream student because he only knows one way, what I taught him. Your feet, knees and hips and your balance -- things I didn’t understand when I played -- are what control your arm. Your arm reacts to your feet.”
While Christensen considers Garoppolo’s mechanics “perfect,” he believes what will make him a success when he takes over a team are his three years in the Patriots’ system.
“When I taught him, I made the conscious decision eight years ago that Tom Brady had the best technique in football. So I taught him off a Tom Brady film. That’s the only person we looked at. So it’s kind of eerie that [winding up as Brady’s understudy] happened.”
Now could be the time Garoppolo steps out of the shadow of Brady if New England coach Bill Belichick decides to proactively trade him for draft picks to build his next championship team. Is Garoppolo ready to take over his own team?
“Anybody that asks me that question, here’s my answer: If he’s not ready now, he’ll never be,” Christensen said.
“For three years, he got to be in the same room with Mr. Belichick, who is probably one of the greatest defensive schemer/minds/preparers for a football game in the history of the game. He got to watch Tom interact with Bill and how Tom does his business. So if you’re not ready now, then you weren’t taking any notes.
“Because of who [Garoppolo] is, the way he is … he has a huge amount of moxie and savvy and riverboat gambler, and he is dumb like a fox. He’s pretty wily. So in my opinion, he is 120 percent ready.”
Regrets? He’s had a few: Remember the famous NFL quarterback class of 1983 that produced six first-rounders: John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien and Dan Marino? Jeff Christensen -- of Garoppolo’s Eastern Illinois -- was the next quarterback taken, 137th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals, in the seventh of 12 rounds.
Nine more quarterbacks were taken in that draft, including Gary Kubiak, who backed up Elway as a player and then coached the Denver Broncos to the NFL championship in Super Bowl 50.
Christensen believes that had he made better decisions, he would still be coaching in the NFL today.
He bounced around as a player and ended up in the Browns training camp in 1987. He was cut when the Browns traded for Mike Pagel as quarterback insurance. The Browns called Christensen back as their “scab” quarterback five weeks into the season when owners plotted to break the players’ strike with “replacement” games.
When Christensen drove into Browns headquarters on the day replacement players arrived, striking safety Ray Ellis stopped his car and dumped a bag of garbage on the windshield.
“The emotions are so across the board,” Christensen said of the three 1987 strike games. “It marked the end of my playing career. I should have recognized myself early that I wasn’t good enough.
“My mistake was this: When Marty [Schottenheimer] first cut me that year … my oldest son, Jake, was 2 weeks old when I got cut, and I was really upset and pissed off. Instead of being mature and telling Marty that I wanted to make football my life, so let me coach … instead of doing that, I stormed out, went [home] to Chicago and for many years, I don’t want to say hated football, but I really took it out on football and didn’t wake up early enough.
“The next year [linebacker] Bill Cowher hurt himself in camp. Bill was mature enough to do it and he became Bill Cowher, the coach.
“My memory is I was not mature enough to handle and recognize that I never would be able [to play]. Had I done that, I’d probably still be coaching in the NFL, because I’m pretty good at the mental aspect of the game. So it’s a very bittersweet memory for me because of how it earmarked my fate. Even though I recognize I did it to myself.”
So it would be quite the story if Garoppolo somehow made it to the Browns, and Christensen would have been partly responsible.