Developing a Quarterback–Part I
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…