Troy Aikman remembers standing in the pouring rain, his passes
and his composure slipping away. It was Halloween 1993 in
Philadelphia, and Aikman was living in a quarterback's house of
horrors. His Dallas Cowboys were clinging to a three-point lead
over the Eagles, and Aikman's waterlogged throws were as
accurate as Darryl Strawberry's income tax returns.
After watching yet another incomplete pass slide off his hand,
Aikman stomped to the sideline, picked up the telephone and
began talking with his mentor, Cowboy offensive coordinator Norv
Turner. During this crisis the bond between the two men was
"What's the problem?" Turner asked from his perch adjacent to
the Veterans Stadium press box.
"What do you mean?" Aikman shot back.
September 3, 1995
"You're throwing the ball like crap."
"Yeah, 'cause it's wet," Aikman explained patiently.
"Well, you're throwing it differently."
"I am notthrowing it differently."
"Oh, hell, you're not even trying."
"----, yeah, I'm trying!"
Actually, the salty banter between quarterback and mentor spoke
to the health of their relationship. Aikman and Turner, who is
now coach of the Washington Redskins, fought through their
frustration and forged ahead with the game plan. "He and I would
yell at each other a lot of times, and that game was maybe the
worst of them," Aikman says. "But we wouldn't take it to heart.
We had the ability to truly tell one another how we felt,
without having to worry about the other getting upset."
The two men escaped from the City of Brotherly Love that day
with a 23-10 victory. Three months later the Cowboys won their
second straight Super Bowl. Virtually every successful team has
a mentor--be it the head coach, offensive coordinator or
quarterbacks coach--with whom the quarterback has a significant,
thriving relationship. The chemistry that existed between Aikman
and Turner was a key element in Dallas's winning equation.
"Without question, it's the most important relationship on a
team," says quarterback guru Bill Walsh, who coached the San
Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl triumphs. "That's because
the quarterback is under such tremendous stress. The entire
defensive team is after him, and consciously or unconsciously it
wants to knock him out of the game. He's being threatened, and
if he doesn't get full support around him or doesn't have
confidence in the person calling the plays, he's going to
While standing on the Veterans Stadium turf that dreary day,
Aikman knew he was prepared for battle. But without a calming,
commanding presence on the sideline or in the coaches' box, even
an experienced signal-caller can be undone. "It's like being
lost out there," says former Redskin and Philadelphia Eagle Hall
of Famer Sonny Jurgensen. "I had eight head coaches in 18 years;
I know what it is to have help or not."
Helping the quarterback survive and thrive may be the toughest
coaching job in sports. The mentor must, at times, be a
babysitter and a slave driver. From July to January he may spend
more time with the quarterback than he does with his wife. The
mentor must establish a bond, but without getting so close to
his pupil that respect vanishes.
The mentor's first chore is to assess his pupil's mechanics.
Then he can either fine-tune or overhaul the quarterback's
delivery and footwork. The coach's next job is to establish the
quarterback's timing, perhaps the most essential aspect of any
passer's repertoire. In 1971 Walsh took the Cincinnati Bengals'
Virgil Carter--a quarterback who, by Walsh's admission, "really
didn't have the tools"--and turned him into the AFC's most
accurate passer. Walsh compensated for Carter's lack of arm
strength by developing a timed passing game in which most balls
were thrown eight to 10 yards down the field.
Winning the quarterback's trust--and bolstering his confidence--is
the mentor's next responsibility. Finally, the mentor must be an
innovative producer of game plans that play to the quarterback's
strengths. Of equal importance is the mentor's ability to
explain the plan to the quarterback in the days leading up to
the game, because game day is too late to talk theory.
The best of the mentors--from the Green Bay Packers' legendary
coach Curly Lambeau, who guided quarterback Cecil Isbell and end
Don Hutson to the Hall of Fame, to the much-traveled Sid
Gillman to present-day gurus like Walsh, Turner and Denver
Bronco coach Mike Shanahan--are granted cult-hero status by their
pupils. John Elway, for example, says that he will be "twice the
quarterback" he has been over the previous three seasons now
that Shanahan is back in Denver, where he was the offensive
coordinator from 1985 to '87. "There have been a lot of
quarterbacks stuck in bad coach-player relationships," says 49er
quarterback Steve Young, last year's regular-season and Super
Bowl MVP. "When quarterbacks sit down together, those are the
things we talk about; we recognize that we're not independent
contractors. We try to coordinate things on the field, and if
you don't have a guy off the field trying to do the same thing,
it's a problem."
While All-Pros like Young, Aikman and Dan Marino of the Miami
Dolphins have been groomed by some of the game's best teachers,
and emerging star Drew Bledsoe appears to be well positioned for
success under the tutelage of New England Patriot coach Bill
Parcells, many other talented passers have not been as
fortunate. One reason for the oft discussed dearth of productive
young quarterbacks may be the scarcity of capable mentors on NFL
coaching staffs. "It's the worst-coached position in the
league," says Jurgensen, now a Redskin radio commentator.
Says Walsh, who also developed Dan Fouts of the San Diego
Chargers and the Niners' Joe Montana, "People are more
interested in studying strategies--like how to beat the nickel
defense--than in the basics of coaching the quarterback. Teaching
quarterbacking is not the strongest point in the NFL, but it's
One sign of improvement is the growing presence of the
quarterback coach. A decade ago the job was a novelty on NFL
staffs--sometimes the offensive coordinator filled both jobs--but
14 of the league's 30 teams will enter the season with a man
specifically designated to coach the position. This development
is welcomed by Gillman, whose attention to the position dates
back to Hall of Famer Norm Van Brocklin in their days with the
Los Angeles Rams of the 1950s.
"Here's a guy who handles every ball that comes from center,"
says Gillman, "and still they're just getting around to getting
quarterback coaches. It's crazy. If I were a young man and
coaching a team, the first thing I'd do is find the smartest guy
around and hire him as the quarterback coach."
Another measure of the growing importance of the job can be seen
in the number of coaches who have used it as a springboard to
head jobs. In addition to Shanahan and Turner, the Packers' Mike
Holmgren and the Atlanta Falcons' June Jones are head coaches
who won their jobs in the '90s because of their skill in
handling quarterbacks. Playing for one of these men, or for a
noted mentor like Houston Oiler offensive coordinator Jerry
Rhome, can have a profound impact on a career. For every
Montana, who teamed with Walsh in San Francisco to produce a
system that made both men legends, there is a Jeff George, a
bionic-armed No. 1 overall draft pick who began to flourish only
after he left the Indianapolis Colts following the 1993 season
and hooked up with Jones in Atlanta.
Jurgensen recalls watching George in his rookie year in
Indianapolis, when Ron Meyer was the Colt coach. "Meyer asked
me, 'What do you think of my boy?'" Jurgensen says. "I told him
that some of his fundamentals needed improving, that he loathes
going backwards, that he throws off-balance and doesn't get
himself set. I asked, 'Who's your quarterback coach?' He told me
he didn't have one. I said, 'How can you bring in a guy and give
him millions and not work with him?'"
Similar questions have been asked before, for example when the
Patriots selected Jim Plunkett with the No. 1 overall pick in
1971. "He was not brought along as he should have been," Walsh
says. "His life was saved when he left New England. And then
there was Archie Manning, who I think was one of the greatest
quarterbacks ever. He went through a series of coaches and teams
with terrible chemistry that weren't as committed as he was to
Manning is a case study in how lack of continuity can hamper a
quarterback's development. He spent virtually all his 14-year
career with the New Orleans Saints (1971 to '82), and he played
under eight head coaches and 11 offensive coordinators. Having
to constantly adapt to new systems kept Manning from blossoming
into a pure pro passer early in his career. "I played your
typical college system [at Mississippi], a sprint-out offense
where the quarterback has a pass-run option," says Manning. "The
only time I ever dropped back to pass was when we were way
Recently Manning and his son Peyton, now the starting
quarterback at Tennessee, watched films of Archie's senior
season at Ole Miss in 1970. "He was laughing his head off,"
Archie says. "I was terrible. I was dropping too far back,
looking behind me--all the things you see when you go to a high
school quarterback camp."
Marino came from a more advanced passing system at Pitt, but the
real difference was the way in which he was treated by coach Don
Shula, a master at adapting to his personnel. Shula had gone to
Super Bowls not only with Bob Griese, a good passer, but also
with David Woodley, whose physical skills were limited. Shula
paid extra attention to Marino, threw him into the lineup almost
immediately in his rookie season of 1983 and, since then, has
constructed an offense around the medium and deep passes to
which his quarterback is suited.
A few years ago it seemed as though Young might go the way of
Manning. Though tutored at various times by Gillman, Walsh,
Holmgren and Shanahan, he had yet to carry a team to a
championship. However, last year, his third with Shanahan as
his offensive coordinator, Young, who was once criticized for
his failure to read defenses and his penchant for making hasty
decisions, evolved into the league's dominant player. "So much
of that was due to Mike," Young says. "He created in me a desire
to prepare harder. And the more willing I was to get ready, the
more he was able to fill me up with substantive stuff."
Toward the end of last season Young and Shanahan were
anticipating one another's thoughts as though they were twins.
Says Young, "We mapped out the Super Bowl, and I've never
experienced anything like that. It was exactly what he had
Says Shanahan: "When the quarterback is on the field, I feel as
if I'm on the field, and if he doesn't make the right decision,
I'm looking at myself making a mistake."
Shanahan's relationship with another premier signal-caller,
Elway, makes for an even more intriguing study of the mentor's
role. When Shanahan joined Dan Reeves's Bronco staff as the wide
receivers coach in 1984, he earned Elway's respect by joining
him in workouts and weightlifting sessions and pushing him to
throw in the off-season. When Elway tried to beg off with the
excuse that no receivers were in town, Shanahan would lace up
his sneakers and run patterns for him in Piney Creek Park.
When Shanahan left to coach the Raiders in 1988, a great deal of
strain developed between Elway and Reeves. After being fired by
Raider owner Al Davis during the 1989 season, Shanahan returned
to Denver, first as the quarterbacks coach, then as of fensive
coordinator. Elway's mood perked up, but Reeves fired Shanahan
after the '91 season, resulting in an open clash between Elway
and Reeves that led to Reeves's being fired the next year.
"It's almost like when Mike left there was more responsibility
on me," Elway says, "because the coach that came in [Jim Fassel]
didn't do things the same way and wasn't as organized. I had a
good relationship with Fassel, but he had only been in pro
football one year when he came here. There were times when I had
to teach him the game. Plus, Mike was kind of my buffer. I could
tell Mike what I was thinking, and Mike could go talk to Dan
about it, and Dan would yea or nay it. With Mike gone, Dan and I
Now Shanahan is back in Denver, but with more responsibility,
meaning his relationship with Elway must change. In addition,
the new offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, was Elway's backup,
drinking buddy and roommate on the road for nine seasons.
Sensing the distance their new situation will require, Elway has
avoided acting chummy toward Kubiak in the presence of
teammates. But the true test will come during games, when Kubiak
will demand that Elway defer to his authority. "A coach has to
be able to jump on your butt," Elway says. "Otherwise you don't
have that same respect."
Walsh agrees: "The relationship can't be so familiar that the
quarterback doesn't take his coach seriously. A lot of these
coaches are overwhelmed by the significance of the quarterback.
They're in awe of him. They're just pleased to be in the
quarterback's company. So they become an errand boy."
When asked to cite an example of the mentor-quarterback
relationship at its best, Elway recalls a game in the late '80s.
He doesn't remember the opponent, the year or the location, but
he does recall a chat with Shanahan that included a lot of
"We were on the phone, and it got ugly, so I just hung up on
him," recalls Elway. "He came up to me after the game, put his
finger in my chest and said, 'Don't you ever hang up on me
again.' Then I apologized, and we both started laughing. That's
the type of relationship we had."