By Stewart Mandel
January 29, 2010

Joe Tiller never coached a day in the NFL, but he knows a little something about NFL quarterbacks. Next Sunday, two of his former Purdue quarterbacks -- Saints star Drew Brees and Colts backup Curtis Painter -- will participate in Super Bowl XLIV. A third, Kyle Orton, has started three seasons for the Bears and Broncos.

But here's the relevant part for NFL draftniks: All three played in a shotgun-passing offense.

Tiller, 67, retired last season after a 12-year stint at Purdue in which he went 87-62 and earned bowl berths in all but two seasons. A bout of mediocrity toward the end of his tenure with the Boilermakers (who finished seventh or lower in the Big Ten three of his last four seasons) may have tarnished Tiller's legacy, but it's hard to argue with his record of producing NFL quarterbacks -- particularly considering he employed an offense many pro followers consider gimmicky.

So it's worth noting that Tiller got a chuckle this week when reading the alarmist media accounts from Monday's Senior Bowl practice in Mobile, Ala., when Florida star Tim Tebow -- himself a shotgun quarterback throughout his college career -- fumbled several snaps under center.

"I can remember NFL critics saying the same thing when Drew was a senior," Tiller said Thursday. "'He's in that Purdue offense all the time. He lines up in the shotgun all the time, and our guys line up under center.'

"It's not like college football has a monopoly on the shotgun formation. Now that I'm out of coaching, I've watched more NFL football this year than I have the last 10 years combined. There's hardly any team in the league that doesn't have their quarterback in the shotgun anymore -- including [Ben]Roethlisberger, JaMarcus Russell. Not small guys. The entire league is doing what Drew Brees was criticized for coming out of college."

Brees, a two-time Heisman finalist, led the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in 34 years and broke the Big Ten's career passing records. A three-year starter, Brees threw for 11,792 yards, 90 touchdowns and 45 interceptions. Initially projected as a mid-first round pick, Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in the 2001 draft. We all know how that's turned out.

An eight-year starter for the Chargers and Saints, Brees became just the second player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season in 2008 and this season set the league record for completion percentage (70.6).

Painter, a rookie this season, posted similar numbers to Brees' at Purdue (11,163 yards, 67 TDs, 46 INTs) but with far less acclaim. While Mel Kiper Jr. at one time listed him as his top senior quarterback prospect, a miserable final season sent Painter spiraling to the sixth round, where Colts President Bill Polian happily snapped him up, citing his "intelligence to come in here and handle this offense [straight] out of the collegiate level."

Following veteran Jim Sorgi's season-ending shoulder injury in December, Painter will serve as Peyton Manning's top backup in Miami.

It's a wonder Brees and Painter ever got here, what with all that wasted time in the shotgun, no?

"Actually, I think a guy coming out in the shotgun is better equipped than a guy coming out of center," said the ever-outspoken coach. "The one thing that's changed dramatically [in the NFL] is the speed of the defensive linemen and the different ways people are blitzing. The quarterback almost has to be back at shotgun to see it all.

"But the pros have always known more than college coaches know. They must have invented the sport there."

Tiller, a one-time understudy to Washington State coach Mike Price, was among the first coaches to bring a shotgun-spread offense to the major-conference level when he went from Wyoming to Purdue in 1997. There are any number of variations of the spread, and Tiller's was far more pass-heavy with Brees (who once attempted 83 passes in a game against Wisconsin) than in his later years. He didn't emphasize the running game or mobile quarterbacks like current spread savants Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez and Chip Kelly.

He also had the help of some shrewd assistants. Jim Chaney, offensive coordinator for both Brees and Orton, went on to work for the St. Louis Rams and is now back in college as Tennessee's offensive coordinator. Current Tampa Bay Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olsen was their quarterback coach at the time. Ed Zaunbrecher, who tutored Chad Pennington at Marshall and Rex Grossman at Florida, served as Painter's offensive coordinator.

Together, they produced an NFL quarterback assembly line.

"[Tiller's offense] was a college spread but also had sophisticated, timing-based elements that translate well to the pros," said Chris Brown, author of the highly respected Xs and Os blog and himself a Purdue alum.

"I do see where NFL coaches come from in that they need a guy to be able to throw the ball before the receiver is looking and have the whole thing perfectly orchestrated," said Brown. "But Tiller and Chaney were one of the first groups I saw that effectively taught the three-step drop from shotgun. If you think back to NFL guys like Marino and Elway and Jim Kelly who spent a lot of time in the shotgun in the late-'80s and mid-1990s, they never threw [quick] drop passes, which is precisely why Bill Walsh never liked the shotgun and you never saw much of it in the NFL until later. I think it still explains much of the animosity to spread quarterbacks. There's the idea that you can't teach timing. But it's also no surprise that Tiller thinks it's hogwash, because he's been doing it since 1997."

Florida coach Meyer has not yet enjoyed the same track record with his spread-groomed QBs. His acclaimed Utah protégé, Alex Smith, has largely been a disappointment for the 49ers after going No. 1 overall in the 2006 draft. Tebow's Gator predecessor, Chris Leak, went undrafted and now plays in the CFL. Under considerable scrutiny following his star-studded Florida career, Tebow has garnered harsh reviews for his practice performances this week leading into Saturday's Senior Bowl, none more so than from ESPN's draft analyst Todd McShay.

"I've never seen a quarterback at an All-Star game like this with such an obvious delivery issue," said McShay, who called Tebow a "third-round pick at best," adding, "He needs either to strip down and start over completely as a passer ... or he may need to play a different position in the NFL."

Others have been more forgiving, noting Tebow's improvement throughout the week after being hospitalized with strep throat Monday night.'s Don Banks projected Tebow to go late in the first round in his Mock Draft published Thursday.

Brees, unlike Tebow, drew no such criticisms about his mechanics coming out of college; his main issue was his height (6-foot). He did have a similar experience, however.

Projected to be a mid-first round pick in January, Brees performed poorly at that year's NFL combine. According to a Sports Illustrated article at the time, McShay's forerunner, Kiper, dropped Brees -- his No. 16 prospect prior to the combine -- out of his top 25 completely.

He ultimately went 32nd. He's since become a four-time All-Pro.

"It's not a surprise to me," said Tiller. "When he was coming out of high school, the three things that impressed me most were his accuracy as a thrower, his intelligence and his competiveness, and those are still the things to this day that really accelerate him."

Whatever team does draft Tebow will undoubtedly attempt to use him in the now-ubiquitous "Wildcat" formation to take advantage of his running ability. The Wildcat -- surprise, surprise -- is run out of the shotgun.

"They're lining up in the same formation you line up in when you run your normal spread offense -- it's just a running play," said Tiller. "I see more and more colleges do that, but instead of substituting [a running back], they're recruiting the guy that do it, like Pat White. Down the road, the NFL is going to have to go to quarterbacks that are athletes. Five years out, they're going to have to have a bunch of guys that are run first, pass-second quarterbacks.

"But hey, nobody [in the NFL] wants to hear my opinion."

Maybe they should -- if they want their quarterbacks to reach the Super Bowl.

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