NFL quarterbacks coaches play crucial role, just ask Matt Ryan

Greg Knapp is Matt Ryan's sixth different quarterbacks coach since the Falcons drafted him third overall in 2008. John Bazemore/AP Photo

John Elway won an NFL MVP award, a Super Bowl, and had earned eight Pro Bowl nods entering the 1998 season, yet he never considered himself a finished product.

Back then, at age 38, the former Denver Broncos quarterback appreciated having someone admonish him about fundamentals and technique. That someone was his former backup, Gary Kubiak, then the Broncos' offensive coordinator and also Elway's quarterbacks coach. Kubiak's prodding kept the Hall of Famer on top of his game as Elway led the Broncos to another title in Super Bowl XXXIII, earning Super Bowl MVP honors.

"When you create that trust in that quarterbacks coach, there's nothing more important than that for the quarterback to be successful," Elways said. "As QB, your relationship with your QB coach, but also your coordinator, is important -- to know he's going in the best situations to be successful and take advantage of your strengths and try to stay away from your weaknesses. For a QB, that's vital."

Elway had the best of both worlds with his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator tied into one. Four current assistant coaches -- the New England Patriots' Josh McDaniels, the New York Giants' Mike Shula, the New York Jets' Jeremy Bates, and Pittsburgh Steelers' Randy Fichtner -- serve in that dual capacity. Twenty-seven other NFL teams have a designated quarterbacks coach, and the Indianapolis Colts are the lone franchise without one. Head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni enter 2018 sharing those coaching duties, but lack the specific title.

Many around the NFL admit quarterbacks coach is an overlooked position in the grand scheme. However, quarterbacks coaches are by no means neglected by those working close to them. Just ask Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, a renowned quarterback guru.

"I think quarterback coaches are very important because fundamentals erode as the season wears on," Gruden said. "Sometimes, you have to have a guy who stays on top of those things, even if it's a six- to eight-minute individual period that you have; a guy who is great in the footwork, the timing, the precision of the passing game, the nuances you have to have; a guy who is translating things from the quarterback to the coordinator. The coordinator can't always be with the quarterback.

"Also, quarterbacks need a guy they can trust who they can vent with like, 'That Gruden, he's a pain in the ass. I don't like this.' Sometimes that's really important, too."

Scan the league, and you'll find quarterbacks coaches of all varieties. The oldest is David Culley, 62, of the Buffalo Bills. Culley has never been an NFL offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach, yet he spent many years learning under offensive mastermind Andy Reid. The youngest is Kellen Moore, 30, of the Dallas Cowboys, who was Dak Prescott's teammate as a reserve quarterback last season and now is the 24-year-old Prescott's position coach.

New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, working with Drew Brees, once was an assistant coach for the XFL's New York/New Jersey Hitmen. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovich, tutoring Blake Bortles, was an XFL quarterback and once the CFL's Coach of the Year while with the Toronto Argonauts. Tennessee Titans quarterbacks coach Pat O'Hara spent 10 years coaching in the Arena Football League.

The most recognizable name is the Arizona Cardinals' Byron Leftwich, the No. 7 overall pick of the Jaguars in the 2003 draft and Ben Roethlisberger's backup in Pittsburgh for Super Bowl XLIII. Perhaps the most discreet among the group is Rich Scangarello, of the San Francisco 49ers, whose résumé includes stops at Wagner College, Northern Arizona, Millsaps College and UC-Davis, along with brief stints with the Raiders and Falcons.

No matter their age, background or experience, these coaches have the task of keeping a veteran signal-caller playing at a high level, getting more out of a guy who hasn't played up to his potential, or developing a young quarterback.

"I don't overlook it," said Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien, once the quarterbacks coach in New England. "I think the quarterbacks coach is a great conduit between the play-caller or the head coach and the quarterback. Every quarterback that's any good wants to be coached, so I think it's a very important position."

Enhancing a veteran

Matt Ryan constantly searches for ways to elevate his game. That's why the 2016 NFL MVP is thrilled about one specific offseason addition.

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn hired Greg Knapp, 55, as the team's new quarterbacks coach after Bush Hamdan left to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Washington. Knapp previously was an offensive coordinator for the Raiders, Seahawks, 49ers and Falcons.

"I think he can bring new ideas to Matt Ryan, because Greg's been around," said Elway, who is now vice president of the Broncos and saw Knapp coach Denver's quarterbacks for three seasons (2013-16). "Greg's really good at what he does."

Knapp is Ryan's sixth different quarterbacks coach since Ryan was drafted third overall in 2008.

"Those guys teach you so much," Ryan said. "They help you so much during the week in terms of getting prepared for games and having to break down stuff. They make your job a lot easier. They're a very good set of eyes on the field if they're down low. I've been fortunate to have some really good QB coaches."

Judging by Knapp's on-field interaction with Ryan during the offseason, the marriage between the two should benefit the Falcons, particularly as Ryan moves into Year 2 under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

"I think Greg is great," Ryan said. "He's smart. He's on top of it. He's got familiarity with our system, having been in Houston, which is similar to what we do. [Backup] Matt Schaub speaks very highly of him, having worked with him, and Shaubby's a guy that I trust on a lot of things. I think Greg will be a good addition to our staff."

Said Knapp: "In my experiences, it's only as good as the 'want' of the quarterback is. Does that quarterback really want to be coached, and how hard does he want to be coached? And a guy like Matt, he loves being challenged on footwork, on reads, on defensive recognition.

"Quarterback is the most important position maybe in all sports. There's got to be a set of eyes on the most important position player on the field."

Of the eight current NFL quarterbacks who have won either MVP or Super Bowl MVP, six -- Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Nick Foles [Carson Wentz' 2017 replacement] and Ryan -- have new quarterbacks coaches this season. The most intriguing pair might be Rodgers with former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. Rodgers was upset about the Green Bay Packers not retaining Alex Van Pelt, a coach whom Rodgers had established a strong tie with, and now holds the same position with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Reigning MVP Tom Brady would have worked under a new quarterbacks coach had McDaniels not backed out of an agreement to coach the Colts. Instead, Brady will pair with McDaniels for a seventh consecutive season.

"They have a great relationship, and Josh does an unbelievable job with him," said Houston's O'Brien, who was Brady's quarterbacks coach before McDaniels. "Every guy is coached a little differently relative to their experience. Obviously, Tom and Josh have been together for a long time. The coaching technique there is a little bit different than when you're coaching a rookie."

Developing inexperienced QBs

Hue Jackson knows quite a challenge awaits him this season.

Not only does the Cleveland Browns coach have to show remarkable improvement coming off a winless 2017 season, Jackson also has to oversee the development of a rookie quarterback with No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield behind veteran Tyrod Taylor.

Jackson has faith in new quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who last was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati and will have a big hand in aiding Mayfield's maturation.

"I think those guys are invaluable because they are the first line of communication next to the coordinator," Jackson said. "The quarterback coach becomes these quarterbacks' big brother. Some coordinators get a little hot-headed. When the quarterback can't get the answer from the coordinator themselves, they get it from the quarterbacks coach.

"As a coordinator, I want to make sure the fundamental pieces are detailed out for that quarterback before I meet with him on game planning. Then I want to make sure that when I go to bed on Saturday night before calling a game on Sunday that the quarterback is crystal clear on how this is going to go. That really starts with the quarterbacks coach."

This year's draft saw five quarterbacks selected in the first round: Mayfield, Sam Darnold of the New York Jets, Josh Allen of the Bills, Josh Rosen of the Cardinals, and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens. The onus will be on the quarterbacks coaches to get those players up to speed with the playbook quickly as training camps begin. Watching James Urban tutor Lamar Jackson in Baltimore should be interesting considering Urban worked with both Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia.

With Mayfield, Hue Jackson can put his own quarterbacks coach experiences to use in assisting both Zampese and new Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Jackson was instrumental in Flacco's development with the Ravens back in 2008-09 as Flacco's position coach, and it helped him earn the head-coaching position he has today.

"Your goal as the quarterbacks coach is to keep the coordinator out of the room," Jackson said. "You want to feel comfortable that the message [the coordinator] wants to send, [the quarterbacks coach] is sending the same message. That's why he has to be somebody you trust."

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has faith in his quarterbacks coach, Scangarello, regarding the continued development of talented Jimmy Garoppolo, but Shanahan also has first-hand experience to relay. He was the Texans' quarterbacks coach in 2007 under Kubiak, then doubled as the offensive coordinator in 2008 and '09. In 2009, Shanahan was instrumental in Schaub's career year, as Schaub led the league with 4,770 passing yards.

"I think everyone needs a quarterbacks coach," Shanahan said. "You just need different aspects from them. When you get a guy who is new to an offense, you need someone to sit there with them and go through the hours of explaining the playbook. When you've got a guy who knows the stuff in and out, you want a guy who can help prepare him with film more, get him ready for, 'Hey, I know you watched two hours of it, but I've been here watching 12 hours of it.' It's just hard to get random guys and patch them together. You've got to be together and communicate the same way."

O'Brien has that type of communication working with his quarterbacks coach, Sean Ryan, as they develop Deshaun Watson, who starred as a rookie last season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in November.

"Sean does a good job with him, and they're in the room a lot together," O'Brien said. "They talk things out. And then, Sean can answer certain questions if I'm in with another position somewhere else. We're in there a lot together, all of us. And we have a good room. There's a lot of give and take. We're together so much, there's humor. It's not always the most intense meeting every single minute of the day, but I think that's a good thing."