This story appears in the Sept. 24, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
A few days before Sam Darnold would become the youngest quarterback in modern NFL history to start a season opener, at 21 years and 97 days, he watched his 39-year-old backup, Josh McCown, fish a little blue pill out of a bottle and wash it down.
“Aleve?” Darnold said, mocking him for taking the all-day pain reliever that’s typically marketed in commercials toward the Baby Boomer generation. “Oh, that’s such a dad move.”
McCown, who has a daughter roughly the same age as Darnold, laughed because he likes his millennial protégé. Despite being in direct competition with each other for playing time, theirs is a good-natured, joking relationship. Darnold sometimes calls McCown “Dad” as if they were related and often reminds him about his upcoming eligibility for senior citizen discounts. McCown returns fire, relishing his ability to wake up in the predawn darkness without any difficulty.
Not long after the team plane landed at 3 a.m. on Sept. 11 following the Jets’ 48–17 season-opening victory over the Lions, McCown perked up after getting just a few hours of sleep and began texting Darnold, who was surely still in bed. “When you’re old, you can only sleep for so long, then you’re up. He could have probably slept all day,” McCown says. “I was just sitting there texting him like, ‘Hey, bro, you gonna wake up or what?’ ”
In March, McCown signed on for a 16th NFL season, agreeing to a one-year, $10 million deal while he was in the drive-thru line at a Chick-fil-A in Texas. An unrestricted free agent who’d started 13 games for the Jets last season, he was viewed as the quarterback of now and a bridge to the future. A month later, the team traded up in the draft to snag Darnold out of USC with the third overall pick. Playing on a rookie contract that pays him a $480,000 base salary this year, Darnold earned the starting job when coaches realized he wouldn’t be derailed by mistakes and could adapt at the line of scrimmage. (His 41-yard touchdown pass to Robby Anderson against the Lions is a perfect example: Darnold was supposed to throw short on third-and-two but realized Anderson had found a soft spot in Detroit’s zone coverage and let it fly when it was still a one-score game.)
Was McCown hurt by the demotion? Angry? Bitter?
Try: happy. Regardless of how much or how well he might have played this season, McCown received his highest single-season salary ever because he was always going be a Yoda-like figure to the incoming rookie QB. It just so happened that McCown and Darnold have hit it off like mismatched partners in a buddy-cop movie featuring a sage old Texan and a wise-cracking kid from Capistrano Beach, Calif.
“Throughout this process, he’s been nothing but the best,” Darnold says. “I tell my parents all the time how awesome it is to have a guy like Josh.”
McCown has become something of an assistant coach and tutor for Darnold, who has already experienced moments of indecision and restlessness that often plague first-year quarterbacks. (The first pass of his career was an ill-advised cross-field throw on the run that went 37 yards for a pick-six.)
In practice, McCown often watches Darnold from an unlikely vantage point, standing over the center like a blitzing linebacker and tracking his every move. He and coaches make identical hand gestures diagnosing the trajectory of Darnold’s passes, like stock traders following the market on the floor of the exchange. McCown will also help identify the fat in the weekly game plan—extraneous verbiage, for example—that can be cut so as not to overload the rookie. And on game day, McCown stays right next to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates on the sideline, reminding the play-caller not to get conservative just because Darnold had thrown another head-scratching interception. (He had two more of those in a 20–12 home loss to the Dolphins in Week 2.)
Though he’s learning as much as Darnold about his new role, McCown’s mission isn’t a unique one in a game that has seen a reduction in practice time and an influx of young signal-callers in recent years.
To thrive into the industry of late-career QB mentors, one must become part hip stepfather and part overeager fraternity big. There are pep talks, man-dates and steep learning curves about what the kids are up to these days.
Browns quarterback Drew Stanton was welcomed into the NFL in 2008 by former Lions starter Jon Kitna, who found out that Stanton liked baseball and invited him to help coach his son’s little league team along with Calvin Johnson, then a second-year wideout, and fellow quarterback Dan Orlovsky.
Now the oldest player on Cleveland’s roster, the 34-year-old Stanton has been trying to close the 11-year age gap between himself and Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. He started by feigning interest in Fortnite, the online video game, but their budding friendship hit a snag when Stanton thought one of Mayfield’s favorite musical groups, Migos, was called, The Amigos. But Stanton also saw an opportunity: To get Mayfield upset or make him laugh, he continues to deliberately call them The Amigos. Stanton learned this bit of tradecraft in 2012, when he was Andrew Luck’s backup in Indianapolis. He says it’s important to find a little thing that can set off a rookie quarterback in order to maintain the brotherly aspect of the relationship. (Luck would bristle when Stanton purposefully used incorrect grammar, saying “Good!” when Luck asked him how he was doing.)
“At my house we play a lot of Future,” Stanton says, referencing another favorite rapper of Mayfield’s. “I’ve learned a lot about Future. My wife was making fun of me because I was Googling—not Googling, but Apple Music or whatever—I would listen to all the songs by Future just so I could relate to it.”
Both Stanton and McCown have an unofficial and endless list of administrative duties that doesn’t change based on how many snaps they’re getting. The vets must be able to offer advice on diagnosing coverages and game preparation, which includes distilling massive amounts of data into actionable chunks and learning how to pick up new info from film review when your eyes are ready to glaze over. Beyond providing opposition research and encouragement, the older quarterbacks also offer something invaluable: an example of how to take notes, how to ask incisive questions in meetings, and how to be leaders in the locker room.
“Words can’t really describe what he’s been able to do for me,” Darnold said of McCown after being named the starter in late August. “Not only teaching me football things, but also life things—showing me what it means to be a professional.”
In 2001, Matt Hasselbeck was a third-year quarterback who’d never started a game before winning the job in Seattle. That year, he began learning the finer points of being a pro from Trent Dilfer, who narrowly lost the position battle but handled it with grace.
Despite his penchant for chewing tobacco and other machismo, Dilfer has always been rooted in wine country and educated Hasselbeck on the best grapes on the West Coast. Dilfer would purchase Hasselbeck a bottle of wine for each touchdown he threw (during their time together in Seattle, Hasselbeck tossed 70). The cost of the bottle was proportionate to the level of the play’s difficulty.
A five-yard screen pass? That was worth bottom-rack table wine. Audible, on the road in Baltimore, Bang-18 post in front of a swarming Ed Reed? “I’m getting something sick, something from Napa,” says Hasselbeck, who would later look at the play description written on the label rather than the price tag when he wanted “special-occasion” wine.
Hasselbeck felt immense pressure to pay it forward, which meant forcing his family out of its comfort zone when he was with Luck in Indianapolis from 2013 to ’15. Luck lived in a trendy downtown high-rise, so Hasselbeck moved his family as close as possible, nixing his wife’s request to live in the bucolic suburbs. Luck liked to find local craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants, or go out and play darts at night. Hasselbeck would have to set a 10 p.m. alarm on his phone, pull himself out of bed and slog into the bar. The hardest part was pretending that he hadn’t already been asleep for a few hours, having gone right to bed after helping his two kids finish their homework.
After one memorably brutal game for Luck in November 2013, the second-year quarterback wanted to start his treatment early and soak in the cold tub. He asked Hasselbeck to hop in the one alongside him. Typically, this wouldn’t have been problem when both were overheated and sore after practice. But this was after a game in which Hasselbeck hadn’t played. Already stiff and freezing, he did it anyway. “It’s a little thing I hope someone would do for me,” says Hasselbeck, who always knew there’d be a day when he’d have to throw himself into a pupil or find himself expendable and unemployable.
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It’s a reality of the game that McCown knows all too well.
Walk next to him, and you’ll hear a near constant clicking sound, like the seal-locking mechanism on a gas cap.
“My ankle,” McCown says. “Too many 360 dunks.”
He’s only half-kidding about that. A video of McCown dominating in a game of pickup basketball was tweeted by the Jets’ official account this spring. Just 10 months shy of his 40th birthday and coming off a career year in which he threw for 2,926 yards and 18 touchdowns, there’s no doubt he can still play. He was the ultimate journeyman before arriving in New York last year, with stops in Arizona, Detroit, Oakland, Carolina, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Cleveland. And now, after finally taking control of the Jets’ offense, he’s supposed to teach the kid all that he knows?
“There’s no substitute for playing,” McCown allows. “That’s why we do it. But if you understand the league and the law of averages, time is undefeated. For me, I can compete in this sense: What a great feeling it will be when Sam Darnold is leading this team to the playoffs and championships over the next 10 years.”
On game days, McCown is often the last person to speak with Darnold before each drive. When the rookie comes off the field, they meet a few yards off the sideline and debrief. After each of his two interceptions against Miami, Darnold didn’t need any prompting to list the coverages and critical errors on the errant throws. “Obviously, you never want it to happen,” McCown says, “but we’re gonna look at every play.”
After the game, McCown sought out Darnold’s parents outside the locker room and hugged his mom, Chris, and shook his dad, Mike’s, hand. Then he found his own family, who had fled the Charlotte area for the weekend to get away from Hurricane Florence’s punishing rains. Later that night, McCown met Darnold got together to start preparing for the Browns on Thursday night.
McCown makes it look effortless, folding someone else’s emotions, goals and desires so seamlessly into his own. He seems to have turned Darnold’s success into a personal compulsion. A few days before that Dolphins game, at the end of a long walk across the team’s practice facility in Florham Park, N.J., McCown began to squirm like a first date standing on the doorstep. For the past 20 minutes, he’d been going on and on about Darnold. But somewhere through the double doors and down the hallway, part of the game plan was being put together and film was being cued up. The kid was in there, where he needed to be. “He’s probably wondering why I’m not in the meeting right now,” McCown said, before jogging in after him—the ultimate dad move.
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