The man who trained Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles throughout the pre-draft process has some thoughts about terminology. "I don't want to be a guru," Jordan Palmer said. "I don't want to be a coach. I'm just a quarterback consultant."
Palmer prefers that term because his work with Bortles, Washington's Keith Price, San Jose State's David Fales and Wyoming's Brett Smith is a side gig. His primary job? Backup quarterback for the Bears.
Palmer wasn't sure how much football he had left when he signed on with EXOS (which was called Athletes Performance at the time) last year to train quarterbacks for the draft. After leaving UTEP in 2007, Palmer was drafted in the sixth round by Washington and cut before opening day. He signed to play in the Arena Football League, but before he joined the Arizona Rattlers, he was picked up by the Bengals. In Cincinnati, Palmer spent the next three years backing up older brother Carson. After Carson demanded a trade in the 2011 offseason, the Bengals elected to part ways with both Palmer brothers. Jordan caught on with Jacksonville in November 2012, and things looked promising, but then the entire staff was fired and he was cut. He spent two weeks with the Bears in August 2013 before getting cut again, but the Bears brought Palmer back in October and signed him to a one-year deal earlier this year. This week, Bears coach Marc Trestman told reporters that he feels comfortable with Palmer backing up Jay Cutler even though Palmer has yet to start an NFL game.
It's quite possible Palmer's star student will be the first of the two to start. Bortles likely will go in the first round to a team in search of a new starting quarterback. Meanwhile, Price, Fales and Smith could go late in the draft or get picked up as free agents afterward. One could wind up with the Bears, where he would compete with the veteran who trained him. "Trust me," Palmer said. "I've thought about it."
But Palmer isn't too worried about the possibility that he might have trained someone who could take his job. In every locker room in the NFL, veterans help rookies with the knowledge that the rookie may eventually replace them and put them out of work. In this case, the student-teacher relationship would have been more formal. The results would be the same. "If a guy comes here, I'm supposed to help him get better," Palmer said. "The entire room is going to get better, and that means this team is going to get better."
That, Palmer said, is part of being a pro. That concept is what Palmer hopes his students grasped during their time with him in Carlsbad, Calif., these past few months. "The goal with training these guys is not to get them ready for the combine," he said. "It is not to get them ready for their pro day. It's to expedite the process of them becoming a pro. When somebody says, 'Hey, that guy is a pro,' that's kind of the best thing somebody can say about you."
Palmer's quarterbacks practiced all the throws. They drilled daily. But Palmer believes the greatest advantage he can give them is the knowledge he gained by bouncing around the league. Palmer has had to adapt to six different offensive systems, and each time he had to learn the playbook quickly or get cut.
Since January, Palmer has taught his quarterbacks how to break down a playbook using one he designed specifically for them. He took 20 concepts, six protections and 20 formations that are in every NFL playbook and taught the players to install the offense just as they would if they'd just joined a team. "If you get a new playbook and you're new to the pros -- or you've been in the pros for a while -- and you stare at that playbook and try to memorize it, you're screwed," Palmer said. "If you have a process for how you learn that, then you have a chance. Not only a chance, but you can fly through it."
That should help Bortles learn his new system faster, but it could be even more important for the others. If they can master offenses quickly, it could make the difference between getting cut and staying on the roster as a backup. One thing he did not spend much time on was scripting and rehearsing their combine workouts and pro days. Though Bortles had an impressive pro day in Orlando in March, he didn't devote the preceding two months to a 65-throw workout in shorts. He and Palmer began prepping for pro day a week before. Any sooner, Palmer said, would have been a waste of time. "If you really want to be the No. 1 pick in the draft," Palmer said, "we shouldn't need to practice this for a month."
Though Palmer is only 29, he's far more familiar with the pre-draft process than some of his fellow coach/guru/consultants. Obviously, he prepared for his own draft day. He also got a close look at his brother's preparation when Carson left USC. But Jordan Palmer's education went deeper. He played at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High for Bob Johnson. Johnson, the father of former USC and Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson, has trained clients of David Dunn's Athletes First agency for years. So when the younger Palmer was 15, he began helping Johnson. He'd run routes for quarterbacks or throw for receivers. Palmer was catching passes from Drew Brees when Brees was a draft prospect out of Purdue. During breaks from college, Palmer would return home and do the same thing. "That's my 10,000 hours," he said.
Palmer also has spent the past few years working with Trent Dilfer at the Elite 11 quarterback camps, and the chance to work with high schoolers of wildly varying skill levels has helped Palmer become a better coach of mechanics. "I see 1,100 kids a year," he said. "I'm explaining how to do things to some really bad throwers. When you do that, it's like putting a doughnut on a baseball bat. It becomes very easy to identify the portions of Blake Bortles' mechanics that he wants to improve on."
In working with Bortles and the others, Palmer noticed something else. He improved as a quarterback. "It made me much, much better as a player," Palmer said. "I've never spent that much time doing football stuff in January, February and March. Blake and these guys are so smart. I got pushed a lot to know more and bring more."
Palmer hopes that will help him with his day job. He'll be at the draft in New York, ready to give Bortles a chest bump when his name is called, but his mind will be on the playbook in Chicago. Palmer isn't sure what the future will bring, but he believes he's discovered his post-football calling. Still, he hopes post-football doesn't come for quite a while. "I'm not even thinking about next year," Palmer said. "I'm trying to win the No. 2 job and win a championship this year."