Life in an NFL QB Room

How does the Eli Manning-Daniel Jones dynamic compare to Joe Flacco-Drew Lock? Or to Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers? B/R dives deep on how mentor-prospect relationships really work.
photo of Mike TanierMike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 23, 2019

The "mentor" quarterback is a strange character with a mysterious job.      

Sometimes, he's a former champion on his last legs. Other times, he's a drifter roaming from team to team, earning a lot but playing little, sharing secret wisdom with rookies and prospects.

For a coach, a mentor quarterback can be an indispensable asset. "If you are investing in a first-round pick, you should have quality veteran leadership to help that guy early in his career," explains Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell.

Yet veterans might bristle at the label. "I don't look at that as my job," Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco said when asked this offseason if he would help develop rookie Drew Lock. "My job is to go win football games for this team."

Meanwhile, fans often wonder why some broken-down 30-something is earning millions of dollars to do what appears to be a coach's job. Is he a wandering sensei? Or a charlatan hawking patent medicine? Or a wrestling jobber who makes his positional competition look close? Or a deluded has-been coasting on past accomplishments? Or just a therapy pet for offensive coordinators with the rookie-starter jitters?

It differs from situation to situation, but as Bleacher Report embarked on a training camp tour to better understand the rookie-mentor, starter-backup dynamic, one constant stood out: There's a lot more going on between the veterans, rookies, starters, backups and coaches in the quarterback room than meets the eye.

"The guys in that room can add to a quarterback's growth and support," says Josh McCown, one of the NFL's most legendary QB mentors, "and sometimes take away from it."

Before we dive into the dynamic between Eli Manning and Daniel Jones, and between some other rookie quarterbacks and veterans (past and present), we must take a peek inside this mysterious "quarterback room."

Let's familiarize ourselves with the typical cast of characters—the Five People You Meet in the Quarterback Room:

The established starter: He's one of the most important men in the organization, and he rarely has time to worry about whether some newcomer knows how to identify a "Mike" linebacker. "If you are a Philip Rivers-level starter, you probably won't cognitively say, 'I'm going to help this kid along,'" explains former Rams offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who oversaw the QB room in the late days of the Greatest Show on Turf. "You think, 'I'm gonna operate the way I operate, and this kid's gonna have the luxury of being around me 24 hours a day to see what I do.'"

The prospect: Preternaturally talented. Supremely gifted. And largely clueless. "I would pull the rookie aside on the first day and say, 'Look, you have no clue right now,'" Fairchild says. "Speak up, ask questions and do whatever you need to do to learn. But you'd better be humble and hungry. We don't care what you did at Missouri or Ohio State. These dudes played in the NFL."

The young backup: An often-overlooked character but a common one. The NFL is full of quarterbacks like Kyle Lauletta, Jake Rudock, Kurt Benkert, Taylor Heinicke, Tyler Bray, Ryan Griffin and on and on. They were never really talented enough to qualify as "prospects," but they lack the game experience to be veteran mentors. These unassuming fellows can actually be a negative influence on a prospect if not managed properly. "He's eager to help, not just the young guy but the starter. So maybe he speaks up too much or puts the cart before the horse on things," McCown says, admitting that he was once that guy. "The coach has to be careful what he's allowing that guy to say, just so that he's not working against the coach." Ironically, this overeager young backup is a prime candidate to someday become…

The coach: Nowadays, the quarterback coach and/or offensive coordinator is likely to be younger than the typical veteran quarterback, and he usually has far less game experience. O'Connell, for example, is 34 years old and attempted only six regular-season passes. He's a former young backup who became interested in coaching when he found a niche between veteran Mark Brunell and rookie Mark Sanchez for the Jets, creating statistical breakdowns of opponents' coverages and tendencies to provide a framework for the group's film sessions. "Everyone finds their role in a quarterback room," O'Connell says.

The designated mentor: Ideally, he combines game experience to rival an established starter with a breadth of knowledge to rival the coach and a young backup's willingness to contribute. The best mentors know they are mentors. McCown even started watching the draft late in his career to determine where his services might next be needed. "My situation was to look for a place where I could play, because that's the most fun thing to do, and then to help a guy," he says. "For some guys, that's not their nature. They need that edge over the other guy."

Indeed, the five characters in a quarterback room can operate together smoothly if everyone plays their part. But few quarterbacks fit snugly into any one category. There's no bar mitzvah to celebrate the exact moment when a prospect no longer needs mentorship. There's no precise demarcation line between young backup and mentor or between prospect and young backup.

"That phrase, 'quarterback room,' has become so proverbial," McCown says, "because it literally feels like that group of people has to be as tight as those four walls."

And then there's the moment when the established starter is no longer quite so established. Along comes the prospect, and the expectation that the veteran will happily help the newcomer take his job, money and status away.

"That's when it's dicey," Fairchild says.

There is no quarterback controversy in Giants training camp. The Giants are making sure of that.

Eli Manning, 38 years old and coming off a pair of disappointing seasons, is the starter. Daniel Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft, is supposed to watch and learn. Indefinitely.

Sarah Stier/Associated Press

"I hope Eli has a great year and Daniel never sees the field," team owner John Mara said in mid-August. The Giants organization clearly wants Manning and Jones to settle into a traditional veteran starter-rookie prospect relationship, if such a thing exists.

"Eli is going to be a professional about it," former Giants quarterback Danny Kanell told Justin Terranova of the New York Post in early August. "He's going to be a role model for Daniel Jones to watch. Whether or not Eli takes him under his wing, he should just be a sponge this first year and absorb as much as he can about Eli."

Lauletta, a 24-year-old who the Giants drafted in the fourth round in 2018, says Manning has no qualms about taking possible successors "under his wing."

"Eli is very welcoming," Lauletta says. "I feel like some older guys might get annoyed and think, 'Ugh, another question.' He's never like that. I appreciate that."

And if the "be a sponge" cliche suggests that young quarterbacks must silently filter-feed while the two-time Super Bowl MVP radiates knowledge, the Giants quarterback room is much more interactive than that.

"He's so smart," Lauletta adds. "That's what makes him Eli. Any opportunity we get to ask him how he sees a coverage or a look, he always answers with some great insight."

While the Giants depth chart appears chiseled in marble at the ownership level, the quarterback hierarchy a few hours down I-95 isn't nearly so clear.

Case Keenum, speaking to B/R after a steamy early August morning practice in Richmond, Virginia, says he doesn't know whether he is listed as the starter on the Redskins depth chart. "A reporter just asked me that question and I didn't know. For me, it's not the most important thing right now."

Keenum is actually listed with the second string on the training camp depth chart disseminated to the media this day, with Colt McCoy starting and rookie Dwayne Haskins third.

On the field, the depth chart didn't seem to matter, as all three quarterbacks mix and match reps in preparation for the preseason opener against the Browns. But symbolically, that depth chart means everything. Haskins is the future of the franchise. McCoy is a soon-to-be 33-year-old career backup. Keenum, acquired from the Broncos in an offseason trade, leapt from the third string to surprise star in 2017 but appears to be fading back toward the bench.

The starting job is inevitably Haskins' to win someday. But the veterans have no intention of setting a low bar for the rookie to clear. "I told [Haskins] day one: 'We're competing.'" McCoy says. "The coach is going to put the best player out there. Who he thinks is ready to lead this team."

That doesn't mean there's friction or animosity. "We're in this thing together, and I think it's been a good room so far," McCoy says.

Haskins agrees. "All the personalities in the room mesh well together," he says. "Not once did I feel like I was a rookie quarterback who couldn't ask questions, or did I feel like I was getting bullied or anything like that. ... It's a very open meeting room."

They may not know their precise depth chart order, but Keenum and McCoy understand they are journeyman caretakers, even if they don't come right out and say it.

"They're veteran guys, been through it, been in different situations," their coordinator, O'Connell, says. "They can have that 30,000-foot big picture of what the Redskins organization's situation is like right now, but at the same time have that laser focus on what they have to do to get ready for this season."

In short, McCoy and Keenum are "mentors" for Haskins. But many quarterbacks don't like that term because it suggests someone a little too ready to settle into a backup role.

Steve Helber/Associated Press

An aging franchise quarterback like Flacco can sound selfish and desperate when rejecting a mentorship role (especially when his quotes are ripped from their context for sportstalk debate purposes). Folks who have actually been in quarterback rooms, like Fairchild, have a different interpretation: Starting quarterbacks are too busy, driven and focused to multitask as camp counselors.

"I think Flacco was saying, 'Hey, I'm gonna win. And this dude is lucky to be in the room with me,'" Fairchild says.

That gibes with the rest of Flacco's "mentor" quote. "Listen, I have so many things to worry about," he said in mid-May. "... As far as a time constraint and all of that stuff, I'm not worried about developing guys or any of that."

Everyone you ask about this topic will allude to the idea that a veteran-rookie relationship could be torn apart by egos and cutthroat competition. Yet no one ever seems to have encountered such a thing.

Fairchild coached the Rams offense when it was transitioning from the injury-ravaged Kurt Warner to young prospect Marc Bulger. Surely there was some friction there?

"Kurt was unbelievable," Fairchild says. "He would do anything for the other quarterbacks."

Yeah, that does sound like Warner. And we already heard from Lauletta about the highly "welcoming" Eli Manning.

OK, how about this: Tom Brady, coming off the triumph and tragedy of the 2007 season, preparing to melt the league in vengeance for the Super Bowl loss, then tearing his ACL at the start of 2008. That Patriots quarterback room had to be a roller coaster of egos, frustrations and aloof behavior. Right? Right?

"It was awesome," says O'Connell, a Patriots rookie in 2008. "It was very much how you would hope as a young player. It wasn't like, 'Hey rook, do this, do that.' I learned quickly that those guys were going to help me out."

Tom Brady, Kevin O'Connell and Brian Hoyer
Tom Brady, Kevin O'Connell and Brian HoyerJim Rogash/Getty Images

Perhaps no one wants to hang dirty laundry in front of the guy with the recorder in his hand. Or perhaps there's less drama simmering beneath quarterback competition than outsiders and hungry-for-headline reporters might think. After all, intense competition has been part of the typical quarterback's daily life since high school, and being "the same guy every day," with no highs or lows, is a prized virtue among quarterbacks.

Then again, there have been some legendary quarterback-relationship sagas:

• Steve Young and Joe Montana battled back and forth from 1987 to 1992 in the quarterback controversy equivalent of the Hundred Years' War, full of enough reversals, temporary truces and shifting loyalties to fill a book.

• Brett Favre said that "my contract doesn't say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play" when the Packers drafted Rodgers in 2005. The relationship between the notoriously prickly Rodgers and Favre was icy until recently.

• The old yarn about aging vets Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer conspiring to keep cocky young Joe Theismann off the field is a charming Washington football folktale now. If it actually happened in 2019, it would be a national story for weeks.

• Seth Wickersham's 2017 feature about the Patriots' decision to trade Jimmy Garoppolo painted a picture of a complex push-pull between an aging legend and a promising upstart, with an organization trying to navigate a satisfactory course for everyone.

Maybe these are all just historic exceptions. But the Giants want Manning and Jones to become Favre and Rodgers, one champion replacing the other after an extended internship. So coaches strive to get the healthy benefits of stiff competition without negative developments like a simmering feud, a divided locker room or angry calls to agents.

That means coaches must be ready to head off conflicts before they start.

"Some guys, at the slightest sign of 'That guy got one more rep than me, or I got two less than him,' can get sensitive pretty quick," O'Connell warns. "You just have to be honest with them. You just have to communicate. If there's a reason why that's happening, they have to know it."

Not all coaches are honest communicators, just as not all veterans are magnanimous or nurturing. So teams can't just throw any starter and prospect (and any coach) into a room and hope they magically transform into Montana and Young.

"When they put that room together, it's harder to have that guy who started a bunch of games," McCown says. "It's good that he can share his experience, but to what degree does he want to share that experience when he is trying to stay on the field?"

Of course, not all of the questions swirling around the quarterback room are quite that important.

When Nick Foles left Philadelphia for Jacksonville, it created a void in the Eagles locker room. With the Super Bowl MVP and respected veteran gone, who would make the coffee?

"He was our in-house barista," Eagles quarterbacks coach Press Taylor says.

With Foles gone, coffee duties fall to fifth-round pick Clayton Thorson. "We're gonna have to teach him," Taylor says. "We may have to FaceTime Nick in to teach him how to brew it."

Now that's mentorship.

Philly isn't the only place where the brewing is best left to a veteran. "Alex Smith is a big coffee guy," O'Connell says of Washington's barista duties. "There's coffee all over the building: in the meeting room, in the cafeteria, anywhere you can find it."

It sounds like veterans and coaches alike don't trust rookies with a coffee machine, let alone a game plan. Fortunately, there are easier tasks for the youngsters.

At Giants headquarters, Jones inherited the task of stocking the quarterback room with sunflower seeds from Lauletta. "The seeds are important," Lauletta chuckles. "You have to get the right brand and the right flavors."

Snack responsibilities serve as a reminder that the "quarterback room" is neither a metaphor for the relationship between the players nor some mystical realm on the astral plane. It's an actual office, classroom or conference room, a place for long meetings that can make up the bulk of 12- to 14-hour quarterback workdays.

Supplying the coffee and snacks may be an initiation ritual, but it can also help build relationships. O'Connell recalls that Sanchez went the extra mile as a rookie, always providing goodwill gestures like provisions for meetings and food for the offensive linemen during road trips.

"You can't force guys to do it," O'Connell says of snack duties. "But when they come to understand the positive relations that come from doing those things, then they jump at that opportunity. Once those initial icebreakers are broken down, guys start to build a bond and the chemistry takes over."

OK, so a veteran handles the coffee, the rookie brings the snacks, and being a quarterback sounds like being an office drone once you take away the excitement of the games.

But a mentor can teach a rookie much more than how to brew coffee. He can even teach an important-but-unlikely lesson: It's sometimes OK to tune out the coach.

It's the first day of OTAs, and the offensive coordinator has an agenda. He plans to install his system. All of it: every play, every formation formation, every protection and adjustment, all at once on the first day.

The coach madly scribbles diagrams of core plays, fringe plays and plays that the team ran one time three years ago. The dutiful rookie, of course, frantically jots down everything, not knowing (and possibly fearing to ask) if any details might be more or less important than others.

"Some of the overzealous young coaches will try to install every single formation he has ever seen in April," McCown says.

Soon, the rookie is overloaded with information about plays that won't be practiced for weeks, if at all. "Some guys have a beautiful mind," McCown says. "I don't have that. I don't have the brain space to process all of this."

BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 09: Josh McCown #15 of the New York Jets watches from the sideline during NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field on December 9, 2018 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

When coaches get too carried away, it's time for the mentor to step in. "Veterans can say, 'No, no, no. Focus on these 15 formations. They're all we're going to run in spring anyway,'" McCown says.

Paring down the rookie's study load leads to sharper early practices. That builds the youngster's confidence and can accelerate his climb up the depth chart since coaches base their evaluations on practice film.

The mentor can also help a prospect figure out what's important and unimportant within the plays themselves. After all, he has far more practical experience executing those plays than the typical coach.

"Coaches will say to look for this guy or that guy on a certain play," McCown explains. "You're kind of nodding, and then you look over at that young quarterback and you're like, 'I'll talk to you later about it.'"

If the mentor is doing his job right, he won't contradict the coach but will simply add nuance to the classroom instructions. A veteran like McCown, who knows that helping the rookie is part of his job description, might not wait to take the prospect aside. He'll tell the coach during a meeting that, say, a certain route on the whiteboard never really opens up against a certain coverage.

Some coaches know better than to bombard their quarterbacks with playbook minutiae during OTAs. O'Connell, for example, picked up some pedagogy while coaching under Chip Kelly and tailors his approach for the auditory (explain the play), visual (diagrams and film) and kinesthetic (walkthrough) learning styles in the room. Fairchild even gives his quarterbacks take-home quizzes where they fill in the adjustments and assignments on play diagrams. But the mentor's work extends beyond playing devil's advocate to his coaches.

Quarterbacks are expected to watch film independently. One veteran quarterback might watch the opponent's blitz packages Tuesday and their third-down calls Wednesday. Another veteran might prefer a different sequence. There's no one right method, but few rookies leave college with a regimented approach for handling the volume of information they must absorb each week and decisions they face every Sunday.

Veteran starting quarterbacks also sometimes hold their own meetings during the week—with the center to review pass protection, for example, or with the primary receivers to go over coverages and plans. "That's something a rookie has probably never seen before," Fairchild says. The veteran mentor can handle these starter's tasks while the youngster is still in "sponge" mode.

It's all nitty-gritty behind-the-scenes stuff, but it's essential to both a team's success and the preparation of a young quarterback. No wonder coaches prioritize signing a mentor to groom a prospect. In fact, mentoring duties may be more important than anything an aging journeyman can accomplish on the field.

"If you lose your starter, the gig's usually up anyway," Fairchild says. "Rarely do you have a backup you can win with. So that role is substantially how you are going to interact off the field as much as what you're gonna do if you get in the game."

That's why if he were given a general manager's authority and a young prospect to groom, Fairchild would immediately reach out to someone like McCown.

"I would say, 'Hey Josh, do your deal with this guy," he says.

Alex Tanney realized his role had changed when the Titans drafted Marcus Mariota in 2015. Then a 27-year-old with stints in five different organizations who had never attempted a regular-season pass, Tanney transitioned from young backup to mentor.

"When you're young, you're scared to speak up at times because you don't know if you are right," Tanney says. "But I started to get comfortable in that setting."

Tanney began performing for Mariota the tasks that McCown describes, like helping the rookie through OTA practice scripts and teaching him how to organize his weekly preparation.

Now, the 31-year-old Tanney handles some of those chores for the Giants, taking some of the "mentor" burden off of Manning. "I try to help Dan. This is how I prepare. This is my routine and how I study," he says. "I think he's taking some of that with him."

Alex Tanney and Marcus Mariota
Alex Tanney and Marcus MariotaMark Zaleski/Associated Press

Tanney, unlike Jones and Manning, has zero job security. He could be mentoring his way out of a job.

Lauletta could also be looking for work just days from now, but he doesn't let that impact his relationships in the Giants quarterback room. "We don't think about competing against each other," Lauletta says. "It's more like competing against yourself. I feel that if I play well enough, I'll be good enough to make the team. And if not this team, someone else will want me."

That's just how quarterbacks think. They're trained to be the ultimate leaders and the ultimate competitors, even when there's competition to be the leader. "It's part of the business," Keenum says. "We have some pride as a position group together. I think that as we as a group get better, the whole team is better."

Haskins and Lock proved in the preseason that they are not quite ready to start in the NFL. Jones is further along, but even a fading Manning represents a far higher bar to clear than Flacco or the Washington veterans. Fans may be impatient to see the rookies take over, but mentorship has its merits.

"I'm lucky enough to have been a part of some great rooms, and that's what I like to share with these guys here," O'Connell says. "So I'm hoping for the same thing for Dwayne."

And the "mentor" label isn't a dirty word for every quarterback.

"I don't necessarily think about it, but I don't think it's a bad thing," Tanney says. "I love this game. I want to coach when I'm done. So any time I can sit down and talk football with someone, I really enjoy doing it, because it's something I plan on doing for the rest of my life."

McCown may well be a traveling mentor for the rest of his life. Not long after speaking to Bleacher Report, he would sign with the Eagles to quell an injury emergency and back up Carson Wentz.

He'd better hope his barista skills are up to snuff.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.