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Developing a Quarterback–Part I

5 December 2012 Kevin Curtis 21 Comments

Bill Walsh and Steve Young.

At the end of the summer of 1985, I had just completed an incredible run as a utility player for the Stanford Cardinal baseball team and was contemplating a few of life’s important questions: Why didn’t God give me better hand-eye coordination? Who would want to marry an over-achieving, seldom-used college player? And, what should I do for a living?

The legendary Bill Walsh, at that time a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, was holding a quarterbacks camp for “invitees only,” at Santa Clara University. My buddy, Tim Ammonetti, was a football player for Stanford and knew I wanted to be a football or baseball coach some day.

“Timmy” pulled a few strings and I placed a phone call to a former coach, both of which weaseled me into an invite.

The gathering was in a classroom with stadium-like seating and I sat on the front row. I had arrived 45 minutes early and watched as coach Walsh set up the projector which he would run and stop during the 90 minute presentation. He also set up one of those mobile chalk boards in which he would diagram the basics of the West Coast offense for us “invitees.”

Because I was the only guy in the room at the time, he introduced himself as “Bill Walsh,” and asked me what my coaching experience had been so far? “I’ve never really coached,” I said lamely. His repsonse has stuck with me for the past 27 years. “Of course you’ve coached,” he stated. “We are all coaches, some are just better at it than others.” He then looked me in the eye and squeezed my left shoulder. I was the student and he was the master. I was an immature Luke Skywalker and he was Yoda.

The room slowly filled with high school and local college coaches with a few prep quarterbacks in attendance. Of note in attendance were Joe Montana, John and Jack Elway, 49er running back Paul Hofer and Tampa Bay QB Steve DeBerg. We all took notes like law students in front of the famed professor. I knew I was in the presence of greatness, but was never one to feel in awe because of someone’s fame. I knew they were great and I wasn’t all that great and that the Universe had arranged in that way.

For whatever reason both Hofer and coach Walsh took an interest in this young Jedi and eventually I had inside access to the San Francisco 49ers, their summer practices and film sessions. However, I never saw a playbook nor did I ever seek one out. Honestly, I don’t know if a West Coast offensive playbook existed. I’m sure it did, I was just never privy to the classified material.

The West Coast offense is a concept of routes labeled with a  number sequence of one through nine with adjustments according to what the defense is doing. If you learn the route sequence, the spacing, the cuts and double moves, then a receiver is always open. “The defense is always wrong,” Walsh would later say. “Teach your quarterback to see it, exploit it and execute it. And don’t let him make excuses. Tell him to go into politics if he starts making excuses.”

Obviously, coaches since Walsh have made adjustments to the West Coast offense, more in language than concepts, but the ideas and principles remain the same.

The first thing coach Walsh said to the group in that room at Santa Clara University was “The most important player on a football team is the quarterback. Gentleman, if you want to win, then consider it priority one to develop your quarterback.”

He then showed film of Joe Montana and his five-step drop. He talked about the snap exchange, how the quarterback is to open his hands and take the ball in unison with the center giving the ball, all in perfect sequence. The important step back was the first and it was to be the biggest gap of the five step drop.  Walsh explained the position of the toes in relation to the shoulders, the position of the ball in the hands, not hand, but hands; the forefinger at the front of the threads, the hitch step or steps up into the pocket depending on the route call, hot read and defensive coverage and blitz.

The quarterback was to stand tall, on his toes, with the ball up by his right ear, unless he’s left handed, before releasing it above the ears as he was to push off the back foot and throw from the core and hips like a pitcher in baseball, only without the benefit of a wind up. However, the quarterback doesn’t step as long into a throw, he steps through a throw. The body throws the ball, not the arm.

It was all choreographed and scripted.  Walsh then turned some time over to Joe Montana who showed how Freddy Solomon and Dwight Clark would run routes, then adjust routes as Montana would scramble out of the pocket with his eyes down field looking left to right, scanning the defense, knowing that his receivers would be working their way back to him in open space.

Montana showed one play where Solomon had caught a ball in his chest on a crossing route. Solomon had to slow just a bit to catch the ball and was then drilled by the free safety. Everyone in the room was oohing and ahhing at the tackle on Solomon when coach Walsh raised his hand.

The room went silent and Montana said, “Yeah coach, I know.” “What do you know Joe,” asked Walsh. “It was a bad throw,” he said. “I should have hit Freddy in stride so he could continue his route.”  Walsh not only designed routes to get the receivers open, he designed them so the receiver could continue through a defense. Details were never forgotten and always emphasized by the Wizard of the West Coast Offense.

Coach Walsh then analyzed Montana’s throwing motion, how his back foot wasn’t on its toes and how his left hand (non throwing hand) didn’t “lead the throw.” An interesting note here is that Walsh was so unassuming or casual about his demand of Montana, that one hardly saw him as an intense coach or great motivational speaker.

Walsh’s knowledge of the game of football and the quarterback position was not only precise but was also as if he himself was the creator of such. His depth was intense but his voice was calm in its exactness. If Walsh had said, “If ye say unto this mountain, be ye removed hence and this is how you do it,” then those of us in the room would have seen how a master moves the elements of his creations into perfect harmonious position.

Later Hofer told me that Walsh is the same guy where ever he goes. “Bill is the same yesterday, today and forever,” Hofer said in quoting scripture as it related to Walsh. But if a player didn’t show improvement or is any way seen as a “draw on the team,”  then Walsh would have one talk with that player and only one. After that, if the player didn’t perform or improve as he was capable, then the player would either be traded or cut.

The key to coaching according to Walsh is getting a player and team to perform according to his or its capability at all times. Of note is that the San Francisco 49ers hold the record for most NFL road wins at 18 from 1988 to 1991. Walsh wasn’t a screamer, something long forgotten in today’s coaching circles, but he motivated his players in and through expectations. Winning and performing under pressure was the motivator, not some canned line made for the movies.

Football wasn’t a religion like it is in the Southern states or like it can be at BYU, but it was a lifestyle or rather winning was cultivated in the culture of the San Francisco 49ers. I will discuss more about this in Part II. I have my theories about the returned missionary LDS athlete at BYU, but give me some time to think through as I broach this delicate topic.

During our three-day camp with Walsh and company, and for me in the ensuing weeks to follow, he constantly emphasized three important qualities that are absolutes to be a successful quarterback. First is skill set which includes foot work, arm strength, release and accuracy.

If I have a criticism of most college quarterbacks and their coaches is that they tend not to master the basic skill set of being a quarterback. They tend to win because of superior talent as scramblers and runners, and the hoax of winning immediately covers the poor skill set, and then the players bomb in the NFL–especially against the elite defenses.

Secondly, is the ability to read a defense. However, Walsh always kept the quarterback reads simple.

The idea was that the quarterback should know where his receivers would be, hence don’t focus on your Xs, focus on the back seven or six or five depending on the defensive blitz. In reading a defense Walsh cut the field into three sections heading down field. “There will usually only be two defenders per section,” he would remind us. “At the most three. Find the two or three defenders and forget the others.”  In the West Coast offense, if a zone or section was to be flooded by receivers, then the spacing needed to be a minimum of 10 yards apart, preferably 12.

The third quality, which Walsh insisted could be developed, but also felt that in most quarterbacks was an innate attribute, was performing under pressure. “The worst thing an offense can do under pressure is turn the ball over. Its the death knell of any drive,” he insisted. “A quarterback who fumbles or throws interceptions under pressure shouldn’t be on the field in the first place,” he said.  “But the great ones always find a way to score under the squeeze of game-time pressure.” Walsh didn’t develop just good quarterbacks, he developed great ones.

Stay tuned for Part II…

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  • Devin said:

    This was a fantastic read. Very insightful without being too overtly critical. I hope BYU’s looking at ways to get back to this precise a level of QB play. It seems we’re relying a lot on raw talent and not doing enough to teach guys how to be better QBs. Everybody talks about the need to develop a QB, but it was great idea to explore how that is actually undertaken.

  • Jeffrey said:

    Amazing read. Thanks for the insight to a great coach. I question more the ability of the current staff to coach up the talent properly. I don’t want to sound too negative, but look at the development of Max Hall and subsequent QBs. I don’t put John Beck into the mix because he only had 1 full year with the offense that Anae ultimately ran for the majority of his career (remember the change of emphasis to rely more on the running backs in the middle of the first year).
    Hall came in and had a good sophomore year, had a great junior year (Collie and Pitta both 1,000 + yards), and didn’t really progress his senior year. That indicates to me that he either didn’t put in the time, didn’t listen to what the coaches said, or he performed up to the level of coaching. I definitely disagree that he didn’t put in the time, he was an emotional leader, but I would be shocked if he didn’t listen to Doman. That’s my opinion, I’ll be interested to hear contrary views.
    The past three years we have seen what has happened… the biggest indicators being Heaps’ sophomore slump and Nelson’s……. Nelson. I will say it again… I have never liked the idea of Doman having both the OC and QB coach on his plate. If he wants to be an OC: please, please, please, please Holmoe at the VERY least bring in either an experience QB coach or someone that has more experience than two years on a pro team. That isn’t too much to ask is it?

  • rtimesr said:

    Best read I have ever seen on QB development. Seeing Steve Young in the pic with Walsh makes me ask if Young would be interested in a PT coaching position… dream on.

  • BigCougar said:

    wow…two great quotes:

    “If I have a criticism of most college quarterbacks and their coaches is that they tend not to master the basic skill set of being a quarterback. They tend to win because of superior talent as scramblers and runners, and the hoax of winning immediately covers the poor skill set, and then the players bomb in the NFL–especially against the elite defenses.”

    spot on, and in some cases (*cough*cough* RILEY) the player with the poor skill set bombs against good (not even elite) college defenses.

    “A quarterback who fumbles or throws interceptions under pressure shouldn’t be on the field in the first place”

    ‘Nuff said.

  • Walt Hanssen said:

    Amazing article and undoubtedly Kevin had the opportunity to sit at the feet of the master of all offensive coordinators. Scoville and Holmgren were not far behind which is why our offenses in the 80’s were hard to stop.

    Can’t wait for part 2 & 3.

  • El Jefe said:

    What type of routes were we running this year? I would love to have game film to be able to see what happens downfield on our passing plays. That’s a great idea to pass to guys who are open but that the route is designed to be open after he has caught it. Most of the passing routes that worked for us never allowed for much YAC

  • Devin said:

    Indeed, Jefe. I’ve been saying all year that one of the biggest visible differences in our passing game now as opposed to what it was under John Beck a few years back was yards after the catch. He was so, so good at hitting guys in stride right in a perfect hole in the defense, so those guys could catch the ball on the run and pick up big chunks of yards, frequently making a move to beat a one on one defender.

    Two things I remember fondly from the offense of Beck’s senior year were the piles of scoring drives of two minutes or less, because BYU was so adept at moving the football, and the announcers saying in every game that Beck had thrown to 11 or 12 different receivers, which suggests that he was very good at reading the entire field and finding an open man, rather than getting into trouble and looking for one target, which Max Hall was frequently guilty of with Collie, and Riley has done at times with Hoffman.

    I’m still wowed by this article. Really great stuff.

  • Scott said:

    Jefe, the reason for no YAC was accuracy, or lack thereof, from the QB. Riley was horrible on accuracy past seven yards, and had to rainbow it past seven yards to get it to his receivers. Bottom line is the offense sputtered due to poor QB performance this year. Until the last game.

    With so many successful QB/OC coaches that have come through BYU over the years you would think that the current coaching staff would be willing to reach out to one of them to come in and offer advise on how to get better. But that leads us into the competency of the current coaching staff…..

  • ccgj said:

    Great read. Thanks for the insights. What an experience that camp must have been!

    My biggest take away from this is the idea that the QB is the most important position on the team. I couldn’t agree more, but I am concerned that perhaps there is a stigma under the current coaching staff that a “team” means that no one is more or less important that anyone else. That simply isn’t true. The NFL has a great way of showing which player is the most important… it’s called game checks. Very rarely are there guys cashing much larger checks than the QB (assuming he is any good).

    So, if that is the case, treat them like that.

    One final thought, from an insightful person, not a football person, that takes this idea of the QB being the most important position and the “grittiness” we have seen enthroned this season… In discussing how Riley is a bit of a “Rudy” type personality and player, this person noted, “Yeah, but Rudy didn’t play quarterback. I’m not sure the analogy holds for all positions, does it?”


  • El Jefe said:

    I understand Riley’s inaccuracy has caused problems with YAC but I wonder if the routes being called would even allow for YAC. It seems like there is 4 or 5 routes that have worked this year. Our TE curl, Hoffman slant, Apo 4 yards and out, and falslev slanting to the middle then cutting back to the outside. All these routes could get open but were easy for the defense to limit YAC. What was mentioned in the article about routes that would be open and allow for big gains afterwards is what I would like to see.

  • Devin said:

    I think both Scott and Jefe are correct. The routes that lead to high YAC were not very often implemented this year, and that was because of Riley’s accuracy. He’s not skilled enough to lead a receiver to a spot in the defense, so there’s no way you can trust him with those kinds of throws. I was so tired of screens, curls and cutback routes this year, all of which make the receiver stop to catch the ball or come back for it. Hitting a receiver in stride didn’t ever seem like an option. I wonder if the routes were called that way because of Riley’s arm (which I suspect is the case) or if that’s just Doman’s playbook (which I doubt).

  • David Walton said:

    Who did Doman train under when he was with San Francisco? I wonder if he knows any of this information? I totally agree with the idea that the Y needs two separate coaches for OC and QB, and definitely one with more experience.

  • Steve-inator said:

    This is the best article I’ve read on DSB. Fact rules over opinion (in my opinion) and this article was full of incredible facts. Keep it coming!

  • Walt Hanssen said:

    Doman’s head coaches were Steve Mariucci in 2002 and Dennis Erickson in 2003 & 2004. Offensive Coordinators were Greg Knapp in 03, Ted Tollner in 04. There record while Doman was there was 10-6, 7-9 and 2-14 so they were not very good. I don’t know if Doman ever saw the field but if he did it was seldom. I doubt that he knows the game nearly as well as Ty Detmer.

  • John Melvin Dodd said:

    My memory is that Bill Walsh had a tremendous influence on BYU quarterbacks and our offense because LaVell Edwards went to Walsh for advice and hired his recommendations, who then taught the West Coast offense. Clearly Doman is not doing this!!!

  • Jared (the original) said:

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I think as Dodd expresses here, Bronco needs to get a hold of some past BYU extremely successful minds (such as Andy Reid, Holmgren, Young, Detmer) and ask them who we should hire to improve our offense. Yes there are times when it is good to learn on the job and let the employee learn to do it. But we should be an elite school (like we were back when) and only be hiring the best minds who have already proven themselves and want the BYU experience.

    I had a professor who came from the corporate world who took a huge pay cut, because his dream job was to work at BYU. He said he still dabbled in searching the market for high paying jobs (min 6 figures 30 yrs ago), and knew of several right then he could pursue, but was doing what he always dreamed of here at the Y. The Y is a unique experience and culture, and has it’s own drawing power to the right mind. Money is smaller here, but the outer world doesn’t offer what is the normal culture here. Some of these guys that we know nothing or very little about, but are known to the West Coast Offense circle of coaches, would very likely become successful here.

    We don’t need beginners here, good quality people who learn on the job. We need seasoned minds. Ones that are steeped in the theory and have each position’s minute details down and fully analyzed.

    I am sure Andy Reid could suggest a few names. Or Detmer, Young, Holmgren, or Gifford Neilson, or Marc Wilson, or others who have gone before. We have got to get away from the option background and get back into the elite development of qbu.

  • DLPorter said:

    There was a conversation a while back about why Utah sent more players to the NFL that BYU. One of the answers offered was about player development. It seemed Utah was way ahead of us in that area. Then, just this year before this season started, when Nelson was asked if he felt his accuracy had improved, he said Max Hall taught him a lot about body position, setting his feet, and some other fundamentals like reading defenses. He said those things should help his accuracy. Later, I thought about what Nelson said and wondered, What? You mean Doman didn’t teach you those things? Where was Doman when Max was trying to teach Nelson, and is player development the reason we don’t have a tight end like Pita and George? It seems the coaching staff is much more concerned about developing team execution and talent than individual player development and talent. If they don’t have the coaching ability to take each kid aside and spend time developing individual skills, then we have an inadequate coaching staff.

  • David said:

    I have to believe can call a solid passing game. We saw that against NMSU. I believe Doman/Lark could have reproduced that against better teams had Lark been the QB as he should have been once it was clear Heaps was not the man. The jury is out whether or not Doman can develop a QB. But I do believe he can call a good offensive game. Probably another reason why we need a FT QB Coach allowing Doman to focus on calling the game.

    Hopefully this is the last time I will need to get this off my chest. It was nothing short of a complete coaching failure to name Riley Nelson the starting QB. It was unfair to the team, the fans, the other QBs on the roster and to Nelson himself who may have actually carved out a nice career at safety given his leadership, athleticism and work ethic. A lot of players do not pan out for various reasons. But it was clear to anyone watching that Nelson simply did not have the tools to begin with to be a BYU QB. Not seeing that as a coach was a huge mistake. Even in his best games it was clear he was not an elite QB and had many limitations to his skill set.

    BYU has excellent historical connections with Bill Walsh. Virgil Carter was the first QB to ever run the West Coast Offense under Walsh in Cincinnati. And then Steve Young perfected it in SF. And Lavell and his staff benefited from Walsh over the years as well. Great article!

  • Walt Hanssen said:

    Kevin & Brett-

    It is a shame that there haven’t been more comments on this article but it just goes to show you that the type of articles that do garner attention are controversial topics like, “Has BYU Hit Its Ceiling?” and “Is Bronco Mendenhall Insane?”.

    I think everyone is waiting for part 2 & 3 of this article by Kevin.

  • Kevin (author) said:

    Thank you Walt as well as others who are reading our articles. Part II has been submitted for posting so stay tuned my friends.

  • Steve said:

    Excellent article! Fans keep screaming that Bronco has an inability or reluctance to recruit elite athletes and I have always contended that BYU has never consistently won with elite athletes, more so they have won with well trained athletes that were precise in their craft. Bronco seems to emphasize effort over skill and execution. Effort should be a variable that never changes, what needs to change is the execution. This year was marked with poor fundaments, bad decisions and sloppy play. All of those are a reflection of coaching. I attended practice this year and I was appalled at Riley Nelson’s accuracy and if you cannot perform in practice you certainly won’t perform in a game. When you play the game the correct way it is actually fairly simple.

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