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What a Journey, Man: Josh McCown's Wild Ride Through the NFL Rolodex

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistAugust 8, 2017

New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown talks to reporters during the team's organized team activities at its NFL football training facility, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Florham Park, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Josh McCown's teams have lost 65 percent of the games they've played with him on the roster. He has stood on the sidelines for the playoffs once in 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback. He's been cut four times and traded twice. He's played for a different offensive coordinator every year in the NFL and 23 different coordinators stretching back to his high school days. 

He has lived in a dozen places across the United States since his career began. For 10 consecutive years, McCown, his wife, Natalie, and their four children found themselves in a different city on Christmas morning. His daughter, Bridget, has had to go to two schools for kindergarten, two schools for first grade, two schools for second, two schools for third and two for fourth. 

Josh McCown @JoshMcCown12

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Yet, here Josh McCown stands as the quarterback of the New York Jets, and by the time the 2017 season ends, he will have earned more than $38 million from playing football.

How has he lasted? Why did he experience all of this?

Along the way, McCown figured out it's a people business. Relationships matter. His story is one about those relationships and the gifts that come from them.

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ON APRIL 20, 2002, McCown was waiting all day in his childhood home in Jacksonville, Texas, for the phone call. Friends and family had come by. Lunch and dinner had been served. Finally, around nightfall, his phone rang.

After being drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2002 draft, Josh McCown went 10-12 as a starter in four seasons with the team.
After being drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2002 draft, Josh McCown went 10-12 as a starter in four seasons with the team.MATT YORK/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Are you ready to be an Arizona Cardinal?" the voice on the other end said to the 22-year-old out of Sam Houston State. It was then-Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis telling McCown he was being chosen in the third round of the draft.

McGinnis, he would find, was an affable Texan who was all ball. He embraced every part of football—the film study, the practices, the people and, of course, the games. "When I watched him operate, you could see he loves the league, he loves the guys," McCown said.

With McGinnis as an example, McCown came to appreciate how special an NFL career was.

Yes, he was 10-12 as a starter for the Cardinals, but he also got to hand off to Emmitt Smith on his last NFL carry and throw to Larry Fitzgerald for his first NFL catch. On the walls in his home today, McCown has a signed jersey from Smith and a photograph of Fitzgerald's first NFL catch.

   

FOUR YEARS INTO McCown's career, the Cardinals signed the aging Kurt Warner, whose "grocery store stock boy to Super Bowl MVP" story had become legend.

Early in the season, practice had ended and McCown was on his way home. He walked by the quarterback meeting room and noticed Warner was there watching tape. McCown had never seen a quarterback work so hard and so long. He asked if he could sit down. Warner was welcoming.

"So I started to learn his process," McCown said. "The first three years, I might have stayed 30 minutes later, hanging out in the training room. I wasn't really working. He taught me you have to come early and stay late. It's part of it. It was eye-opening, and it began to shape how I prepared."

With Warner on the roster, McCown eventually was pushed out of the Cardinals' nest. But it was Warner who gave him wings for the rest of his career.

    

AT MCCOWN'S NEXT stop in Detroit, he encountered Mike Martz, the man who launched Warner's career when both were with the Rams and created the Greatest Show on Turf offense that pushed St. Louis into two Super Bowls in three seasons.

Though McCown didn't take a snap with the Lions, he credits then-Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz (second from right) with changing the way he sees the game.
Though McCown didn't take a snap with the Lions, he credits then-Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz (second from right) with changing the way he sees the game.CARLOS OSORIO/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

It was the white-haired wizard who gave McCown the confidence to stop worrying about making mistakes. "He would say, 'Throw it like nobody is there; just cut it loose," McCown said. "Even now, as soon as a certain play is called, I can still hear his voice. And so many times, I'll do it exactly how he said it. It helped me see the game differently."

McCown stopped looking to the sideline after every play, waiting to see a grimacing coach. Approaching the game without fear, he even lined up at wide receiver for the Lions in three games.

McCown never took a regular-season snap at quarterback for the Lions, but his time in Detroit with Martz saw McCown take his quarterback play to a higher level.

       

IN 2006, Jon Kitna was known mostly as the one-time backup to Warren Moon. He was a journeyman quarterback on the border between starter and backup, but somehow his presence provided value to every team he was on.

McCown looked up to Kitna, who is six years older. It was Kitna who opened McCown's mind to believing he could be a leader even if he wasn't a star.

During their time together with the Lions, Kitna prodded McCown to think of himself as a flamekeeper. What Moon gave to Kitna, Kitna gave to McCown, and McCown should give to others.

"He showed me the template of how to influence and impact a team," McCown said. "He understood how to help guys develop a sense of self that went beyond the logo they were wearing at the moment. He helped me be a better pro and a better dad."

These days, Kitna is the head coach at Waxahachie High School in suburban Dallas, and he still has sway with McCown. A few months ago, Kitna talked his old backup into moving down the block from him so one day their sons could play together for Kitna.

As Kitna and McCown put their sons through football drills on a field in the Texas sun, it's not hard to imagine their influence on the game spreading far into the future.

   

McCown went 2-7 while suffering 14 sacks in his one season with the Raiders.
McCown went 2-7 while suffering 14 sacks in his one season with the Raiders.Paul Sakuma/Associated Press/Associated Press

AL DAVIS' FACE showed all of his 78 years, and he moved slowly. His mind, however, was still sharp enough to carve up anyone who didn't fall in line.

In 2007, when McCown was a Raider, Davis would ask McCown what he thought of opponents, teammates and even Raiders coaches. It made McCown uneasy. He had to find a way to appease the owner without undermining those he played for and with.

"After the first preseason game, I was outside putting stuff in my car," McCown said. "A black Lincoln town car pulls up. The window in the back goes down. It's Mr. Davis."

Then McCown went into his Davis impersonation. "'Hey McCown, come here. That second-down play in the first quarter. You had [John] Madsen on the corner route. What are they telling you? Why didn't you throw it?' I said, 'Well, it was 2nd-and-1, I kicked it out in the flat and we got the first down.' He goes, 'This is the Raidahs. Throw the ball down the field!' Window goes up, he drives off."

Instead of resenting Davis, McCown admired him.

"He had plenty of money—he could have just rode it out—but he kept doing what he was passionate about," McCown said. "He was still working out in the weight room every day with a walker. He still was fighting it out every day to help his team get better, to maintain his so-called commitment to excellence. He was still doing what he loved. It was an encouraging lesson to never give up and continue whatever it is in your life you feel called to do."

A decade later, McCown still is doing what he believes he was called to do and now stands as he fifth-oldest non-kicker in the NFL. The only other player remaining in the league from his draft class is two-time teammate Julius Peppers, the most athletic player McCown has ever seen.

   

After signing McCown to play for the Dolphins, Bill Parcells spent the offseason explaining how important it was for a quarterback to strengthen his lower body to build a good base from which to throw.
After signing McCown to play for the Dolphins, Bill Parcells spent the offseason explaining how important it was for a quarterback to strengthen his lower body to build a good base from which to throw.J. Pat Carter/Associated Press/Associated Press

BILL PARCELLS HAD seen it all by the time he became the executive vice president of football operations for the Dolphins in December 2007. The soon-to-be Hall of Famer had been around all manner of tough, productive quarterbacks, from Phil Simms to Tony Romo, and he knew what they needed to do to survive and last.

In February 2008, Parcells was ready to pass on that knowledge to McCown, who had signed to play in Miami.

Every day in offseason workouts, Parcells would take a seat on a platform box in the weight room and dispense his wisdom above the clanking of weights. He made sure McCown knew his 11 commandments for quarterbacks. One of them is Fat QBs can't avoid the rush. A quarterback throws more with his legs than his arm, Parcells preached. Squat and run.

"I came out of college as a pretty strong guy," McCown said. "Then, like a lot of guys, I settled into a routine where you feel you don't have to lift that much; you just need to maintain. I allowed that to happen for seven years. Bill kept saying you have to have strong legs to throw the football. He'd tell me Vinny Testaverde squatted 500 pounds when he was 40 years old. It reignited the fire for me. … It's the main reason I am squatting still. I got under the rack yesterday."

Parcells also inspired McCown to pay more attention to situational football. In the middle of practice, he'd have coach Tony Sparano blow the whistle and run up to the quarterback.

Sparano would say something to try to catch McCown off guard, like: "Minute-and-a-half left. Ball is on the opposite 45. We need to get in field-goal range. Call the play."

The point was McCown had to be prepared for every possibility. "After practice, Bill would come up and say, 'You understand why I did that?'" McCown recalled. "I appreciated that, and it's helped me in games since."

   

WHEN THE DOLPHINS released the first depth chart of the preseason in August, McCown was the starter. Four days later, Chad Pennington—whom Parcells had drafted with the Jetswas acquired. McCown soon would be headed to the Panthers in a trade.

Having started 61 games for the Jets before he arrived in Miami, Chad Pennington (right) brought a leadership style McCown had yet to develop.
Having started 61 games for the Jets before he arrived in Miami, Chad Pennington (right) brought a leadership style McCown had yet to develop.Marc Serota/Getty Images

The night before Pennington's first preseason game, he gathered all the skill-position players in a hotel room and presided over a meeting that covered everything from splits to route adjustments. He took ownership of the offense and the game plan.

McCown had never seen anything like it. He asked Pennington why he did it. "It's me out there, my reputation," Pennington told him. "Nobody talks about the other guys; they talk about the quarterback. So I'm going to make sure all of it is right."

Pennington lit up the Jaguars the next night, and McCown experienced a eureka moment. "In those five days, I learned from him that the quarterback drives the ship," he said. "A lot of times as a young quarterback you are concerned only with what you do. The guys who do it at a high level, they run the whole thing."

McCown could have resented Pennington for taking his job. Instead, he learned from him.

   

TOO OFTEN QUARTERBACKS never are told how they are supposed to act. They are left to figure it out themselves, so good role models can make a difference.

When McCown was with the Panthers, he watched starter Jake Delhomme work the locker room. "He got along with every guy," McCown said. "He found common ground with whoever he was sitting with and made them comfortable. He treated everyone with a ton of respect and maintained such humility. How he led the team was very influential with me."

McCown would become the same type of leader in the latter stages of his career, connecting with everyone from the big-headed superstars to the undrafted kids with no chance of making the team.

But after two years with the Panthers, it appeared McCown's chances were also running out. Delhomme was the starter in Carolina, and McCown had evolved into a 30-year-old journeyman. Without an NFL suitor, he volunteered to coach at Marvin Ridge High School in North Carolina and signed with the Colonials of the UFL. He was out of the NFL for 17 months until the 49ers signed him in August 2011.

McCown didn't start in his two seasons with the Panthers, but he did get his one and only taste of the playoffs in 2008.
McCown didn't start in his two seasons with the Panthers, but he did get his one and only taste of the playoffs in 2008.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In training camp he encountered a quiet rookie named Colin Kaepernick. "The coach would say, 'Kap, you're up next,'" McCown said. "He'd say, 'Yes, Coach.' That's all I ever heard him say. 'Yes, Coach.' He's certainly grown a lot since then."

Today, the contrast between them is stark. If Kaepernick is the quarterback without a team because of fears he could be divisive, McCown is the quarterback who is sought after because of the way he brings people together. Many believe Kaepernick would have signed with a team long ago if he were more like McCown.

"Whether it's right or not, the perception is the backup should be seen and not heard and not cause any commotion," McCown said. "There is a lot that follows [Kaepernick] now because of the stance he took. It's sad to me that makes a difference. I think it's admirable that he's followed his convictions."

    

THREE WEEKS INTO McCown's tenure with the Niners, coach Jim Harbaugh called him into his office to cut him.

It was disappointing, but McCown was thinking about the future instead of the present. In Harbaugh, the 14-year NFL veteran quarterback who had become a highly respected coach, McCown saw a potential role model. He had noticed how much Harbaugh seemed to enjoy every aspect of his job even though he didn't need to be doing it.

"Tell me why you coached and how it affected you and your family?" McCown asked.

"You can't just be done and not do anything," Harbaugh told him. "It's great to work. It's important for your kids to see you work and be passionate about it."

When the door to Harbaugh's office closed behind McCown, he thought about the doors that could open. "Pretty cool way to get cut," he said.

The thought was cultivated further in his next stop, Chicago. McCown was reunited with Rod Marinelli, who had been his head coach in Detroit and now was the defensive coordinator for Lovie Smith's Bears. Both Marinelli and Smith encouraged McCown to look at his playing career as the beginning of his football life.

"For a long time, I didn't want to coach," McCown said. "The hours are too long, and you are around guys who are always grumpy. Then you run across guys who do it the right way. Rod and Lovie are similar. They are good men, good at coaching, and they care about the guys in the locker room. So I thought maybe there is a place for that in the NFL. They called that out in me and changed my course."

        

IN DECEMBER 2012, Smith was fired by the Bears, and Marinelli soon moved on. McCown was unhappy to see them go, but sometimes the change we dread is what's best for us.

Former Bears coach Marc Trestman devised game plans so specific that McCown had little time to second-guess decisions he made on the field.
Former Bears coach Marc Trestman devised game plans so specific that McCown had little time to second-guess decisions he made on the field.Alex Brandon/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

In new coach Marc Trestman, McCown found an opportunity for more growth. Previous coaches often had second-guessed McCown in the film room after games. Trestman, more than any previous coach, told McCown exactly what he should do in every situation, which removed the possibility of indecision. That allowed McCown to play fast, decisively, and not worry about being second-guessed.

Twelve seasons and eight teams into his professional career, McCown finally found his groove as a player. "It was the first time football completely made sense to me with how he taught it," McCown said. "I was...like, this is what I've been waiting for. He was the best teacher for me. There is so much I still do in my preparation, what I look for, because of Marc."

McCown started five games under Trestman, and after throwing 13 touchdowns against a single interception, he earned a starting job with the Bucs the next season. Just as importantly, though, McCown's time in Chicago taught him how to teach quarterbacks.

     

IN McCOWN'S EARLY days with the Bears, he scored on a two-point conversion. Then, even though the Bears were trailing the Packers by 13, he dunked the ball over the crossbar. Starting quarterback Jay Cutler, as he was famous for, shot him a glare and shook his head.

McCown did not respond in kind. He wanted to get to know Cutler. He recognized something good in him—a loyalty to people he trusted. He kept trying to be his friend.

In many ways, Cutler and McCown were an odd couple—McCown said they had nothing in common—but somehow they were a perfect pair. Cutler, the pouty, twitchy flamethrower with a surplus of talent but a deficit of self-awareness, needed someone to soften his edges. And McCown could use a little hardening of his.

"He was very direct," McCown said. "He doesn't sugarcoat things. I don't want to say truthful to a fault, but he was very direct. I am not that way. I would tell him, 'Man, you could have said it like this.' And he helped me become more direct, which is important so people know what you think."

While many former teammates have criticized Jay Cutler (right), McCown says he "love[s] him like a brother."
While many former teammates have criticized Jay Cutler (right), McCown says he "love[s] him like a brother."George Gojkovich/Getty Images

Their time together indeed changed them. When Cutler was coming back from injury to replace McCown, he showed a sensitivity he was not known for. "He'd say, 'Is this the right thing for me to come back?'" McCown said. "It wasn't, like, 'Get out of the way, it's my job.'"

Despite their on-field competition, the two became close in their days in Chicago. Cutler became a better teammate, and McCown became self-actualized as a leader. "To see how his relationships with teammates got better was really fulfilling," McCown said. "I love him like a brother. I'm very thankful we connected."

   

McCOWN HAS THROWN to some talented receivers, including Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Smith and Josh Gordon (the most talented of all, according to McCown).

And then there was Brandon Marshall.

Cutler and Marshall had a combustible, unpredictable relationship. So when the hypercompetitive Marshall had difficulty controlling his frustrations on the sideline, it was McCown who usually was assigned to rein him in.

McCown tried different approaches with Marshall. He found what worked best was to give Marshall space when he wanted it.

"In one game in San Francisco, it wasn't going very well for us offensively and he started to get emotional and slip," McCown said. "They asked me to go talk to him. He saw me coming. 'Not today, Josh.' I said, 'OK, gotcha.' I turned around. If I pushed it, I figured out it may have flared up even more. Some people would keep pushing. I learned to respect the boundaries he was trying to set."

With help from McCown, though, Marshall had the best season of his career, catching 118 passes for 1,508 yards in 2012. And McCown found he could be a leader without throwing a single pass.

   

McCown found that Johnny Manziel was a willing student of NFL quarterback play but that off-field distractions made him a different guy away from the team.
McCown found that Johnny Manziel was a willing student of NFL quarterback play but that off-field distractions made him a different guy away from the team.Ron Schwane/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

IF EVER THERE were an ideal mentor for Johnny Manziel, it was McCown. Despite the differences in their personalities and the 14 years between them, they connected easily because of their shared East Texas roots. They bonded over meals, stories and a round of golf.

Even as Browns fans were chanting for "Johnny Football," McCown was telling the NFL's wild child he was his ally, that he would help him achieve his goals and that he was only there to play until Manziel was ready. He meant every word.

In spring meetings before Manziel's rookie season, Browns offensive coaches spoke to the quarterbacks about elementary defense. The players satisfied their coaches that they understood everything, and the coaches walked out of the room.

Then McCown turned to Manziel. "How much of that went over your head?" he asked. Turned out most of it had. "I said, 'Yeah, bro, I've been there. Don't act like you know it. I'm not mad at you. Just tell me and I'll help you. Every day we can do this. We'll just talk."

And so McCown answered question after question. He invited Manziel to stay late, as Warner had once invited him. And Manziel accepted.

But Manziel ended up being better for TMZ than he was for the Browns, consistently creating content with off-field indiscretions. "He worked hard," McCown said. "That's why it was so disappointing when it went the way it went. It's like he was two different guys. The guy who was around us was a cool dude. He had a magnetic personality. Guys loved to be around him."

The Browns washed their hands of Manziel after the 2015 season. McCown did not. He remains in contact with him, hoping to help. "The job is not done," McCown said. "He's fighting some demons that jumped on him when the success came so quick.

"At the end of the day, I don't think he really knew who he was. You throw alcohol and drugs into the environment, and it's not a good mix. The last time we talked it seemed like he was in a better place. But you never know. I wonder how hard he's working. ... I still have hope for him."

       

McCown was brought in by the Jets this past offseason to tutor 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg (right).
McCown was brought in by the Jets this past offseason to tutor 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg (right).Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press

MCCOWN HAS ANOTHER protege now. Christian Hackenberg, the 2016 second-round pick who starred at Penn State, could be the Jets' quarterback of the future. "He's a good kid, and he has the skill set to be a starting quarterback in the NFL for sure," McCown said.

If McCown helps Hackenberg enough, Hackenberg may take his starting job. But that isn't a part of McCown's thinking. What drives McCown now is the social concept of reciprocity.

"It's a privilege to play as long as I have," McCown said. "You walk around sometimes and pinch yourself. A lot of people have helped me. When I see others who may be able to experience this, I say let me give as much as I can so maybe they can enjoy a 10-, 12-, 15-year career. I hope that for Hack."

So McCown throws with Hackenberg. He watches tape with him. He clarifies the playbook and explains the game plans. He sits next to him in the cafeteria and asks about his family. He teaches him what it means to be a pro, a leader and a giver.

It was when he was trying to draw something out of Cutler that McCown took his game to its highest level of consistency. It was when he was mentoring Manziel that McCown threw for 457 yards in a game—more than any quarterback in the 71-year history of the Browns.

"When you are teaching something or passing something along or giving something away, I believe that is when you step closer to mastering that thing," McCown said.

In his time in the NFL, McCown has received many gifts. The best are the ones he can give to others.

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