Ever wonder how Lincoln Riley became the first head coach in history to produce back-to-back Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks? Or back-to-back No. 1 overall NFL Draft picks? Or three NFL starters in three straight years?
Thirty years ago, 10 years ago, even five years ago, such a thing seemed inconceivable.
Joe Montana, John Elway, Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubauch, Troy Aikman, Johnny Unitas — they all struggled as rookies. They all threw a lot of interceptions early in their career. They all played for bad teams.
Even Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady had massive ups and downs in the early stages of their careers.
And not that Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts haven’t struggled at times.
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But Mayfield, a former two-time walk-on in college, took the forlorn Cleveland Browns to the playoffs last year. Murray, a barely-5-foot-10 baseball player, became the first quarterback in NFL history to — well, the list is too long to recite, but he basically did something unprecedented every week. And Hurts, whose game was often one-dimensional in three seasons at Alabama, needed just one year at Oklahoma to become a rookie starter in the NFL.
This is not normal.
“No. 1, they know how to win,” said former NFL and college football head coach Jim Mora. “They're at Oklahoma. Big expectations, right? Stadium’s packed. Passionate fans. Great competition every week. Expected to perform on the largest stage and perform well and win. And they're winners. So they've learned how to win.”
Mora, now an ESPN and Sports Illustrated football analyst, said the No. 2 thing is Lincoln Riley himself.
“System quarterbacks,” Mora said, so often fail in the NFL because they’re “not necessarily taught to read coverages at the depth that a guy like Kyler and Baker and Jalen are, and other people that have played played for Lincoln,” Mora told SI Sooners. “Route structure, reading progressions, going through progressions, understanding where your checkdown is. I'm not sure that everybody teaches it with the detail that Lincoln does. Well I'm sure I'm sure they don't. There are some that do. But when you take the combination of the skill set that he has, with those players, and then his ability to coach them up — he just prepares them for the next level.
“And I don't think it's an active part of his process to say, ‘I’m going to get you ready for the NFL,’ ” Mora added. “I think he’s saying, ‘I’m going to get you ready to be the very best quarterback you can be here at Oklahoma right now, and in that process you will become ready to play early and have success at the NFL level.’ So it's a great formula.”
After two years of winning one game and losing 31, Mayfield almost led Cleveland to the playoffs as a rookie. The Browns endured massive upheaval on the offensive line in his second year, and his performance took a step back. In year three — under his fourth head coach, his fourth offensive coordinator — he took Cleveland to its first playoff appearance in 18 years, and its first postseason win in 26.
In throwing for 26 touchdowns and 3,971 yards and rushing for 11 and 819 last year, Murray became just the third player in NFL history to reach 60 career total touchdowns in their first two seasons, joining Marino (70) and Cam Newton (62). Murray had 61.
And no one gave Hurts much of a chance to break in with the Philadelphia Eagles so soon, especially since incumbent starter Carson Wentz just signed a massive contract extension. But as Wentz struggled, teammates gravitated to the rookie Hurts, and he eventually won over the coaching staff and became the starter.
Mora said Riley has excelled at recruiting the right player to fit his system and his personality.
“He looks beyond just their football ability,” Mora said. “He looks at their football character: do they love to play football? Is it bred inside of them that they have to win? Are they great competitors? Are they going to be great teammates, great leaders? So he's looking at some of the intangibles, beyond just their height, weight, speed, ability to run and throw the football.”
Mora said another of Riley’s strengths is that he adapts to his quarterbacks’ strengths and weaknesses, rather than making them adapt to his system. Mayfield, Murray and Hurts all have vastly different skill sets, yet all three shredded the OU record books. And Riley, who came up in Mike Leach’s offense at Texas Tech, had never had the benefit of a running quarterback before he brought in Murray — but he adapted.
“If he's recruited the right guy,” Mora said, “he doesn't have to conform a lot.
“And I think maybe more importantly than all of that is, rather than just teaching them to play quarterback, he teaches them how to be great quarterbacks, and that's so much more than just what you do on the field.
“It's how you act around your teammates, it's how you study, it's your work ethic, it's your attention to detail, it's a standard that you hold everybody to, it’s the way you project yourself on and off the field. It's, you know, it's the most high-profile position on the team, and the most high profile position, besides the head coach, in college football.
“And so he teaches them more than just how to play quarterback. It's how to be a quarterback, and then when they go to the next level, they're prepared, you know? They're not just good athletes who can throw the ball around. They're men that understand what it takes to be a great quarterback.”