The learning never ends, so it’s not as if Mark Brunell had thought he had it all figured out this deep into his career.
It wasn’t just the footwork or constant reminders of the fundamentals. Matt Cavanaugh provided Brunell, and the other New York Jets quarterbacks, plenty of that as a coach. It was also the ability to relate, having played the position in the NFL; the ability to understand pressure and expectations. And the ability to serve as a sounding board, hearing complaints a player might be afraid to issue to others.
That, for Brunell, is the beauty of Cavanaugh, whom the Washington Redskins hired to be their quarterbacks coach Wednesday. This is about off the field as well as on. Cavanaugh played in the NFL for 14 seasons, mostly as a backup (he started 19 games). He’s been an NFL coach for 17 seasons, including four stints where he’s been in charge of quarterbacks.
"I played 19 years and only had a couple coaches like Matt," said Brunell, who spent four seasons in Washington. "Really, there were only two or three like that, who did a really good job in every aspect. They’re hard to find."
Brunell said the fact that Cavanaugh played in the NFL resonates with players. It’s not as much what happens on the field as much as it is understanding what an NFL quarterback goes through in his daily life.
"I’ve always thought that’s been helpful," Brunell said. "Young quarterbacks don’t get that. They don’t understand what the job is. I didn’t understand. Unless you have someone who has been there and been through it and been around a while. You can learn very quickly what the job is and what you can expect and what needs to take place. RG3 had a really good first year, but unless someone is there to tell him, 'Listen, I know you had a good year and did good things, but you’re not even close to where you need to be or could be. Let’s not get too excited about all that success.' ... Matt would be that guy."
The Redskins did have one person devoted as quarterbacks coach -- Matt LaFleur -- in Griffin’s first two seasons. Last year, though, they opted for Sean McVay having the title while also serving as the offensive coordinator. Though he did not have all the coordinator duties, it was an increased role. Head coach Jay Gruden played the position in college, but as a first-time head coach he quickly learned the job pulled him in many directions.
"If one coach is devoted just to your position, you get more attention," Brunell said. "Coaches that serve as coordinators and QB coaches, they’ve got a ton on their plate. It’s not their fault, but the details of the position, like fundamentals, can often suffer. They have 26 other guys to worry about. Some guys can pull it off. But I always felt when I had a specific quarterbacks coach, I felt I would get the attention I needed and the coaching I needed."
Sometimes it’s just as a sounding board.
"Many times they’ll be a buffer between the quarterback and the coordinator or the head coach," Brunell said. "Matt’s a guy you always felt was in your corner. You want a guy you feel comfortable enough with and you can go into his office and say 'this is what’s frustrating me, this is what I don’t like, this is what concerns me.' That’s as valuable as anything else. At that point in my career, I was just a backup. You just want a guy you can trust and talk to. That’s rare. A lot of coaches don’t get talked to, because players are afraid it will go higher than them. There’s a lot of pieces to that position."
One of which is the on-field work. Griffin’s fundamentals have been called into question by his own coaches and numerous analysts. Brunell agrees with them (more on this in a future post). That’s an area Cavanaugh can help, provided the players are focused on the same areas.
"Matt is very good with fundamentals," Brunell said. "We spent more time than most coaches on footwork fundamentals, throwing with your legs. He’s very detailed and he demands a lot out of the quarterbacks. We worked hard, we put in a lot of time.
"You have to consistently stay on the fundamentals, your footwork, because if you don’t give it the attention it demands then you can get sloppy and develop bad habits. We were doing it every day. He was coaching me every day, 'That third step on your drop, get that back further.' I heard that 50 time from other coaches, but if you don’t have someone watching or coaching you a lot of that stuff can slide."
Brunell also liked Cavanaugh’s demeanor.
"What I like is that he was always very even. His highs aren’t too high and his lows aren’t too low. He’s always pretty positive. I don’t remember ever a time with him ever yelling. I remember him getting after us, but he had real good balance as a coach. Some guys are yelling or high-fiving you and there’s no in-between. Matt was always that in-between, really steady. I enjoyed how consistent and steady he was. He helped me out a lot."