The aha moment happened quickly, and Mike Kafka’s life has never quite been the same.
It was early in his first coaching stint as a graduate assistant at his alma mater at Northwestern that Kafka found his purpose after a six-year run as a backup quarterback in the NFL.
“As soon as I got finished playing [in the NFL], Coach Fitz had an opportunity to be a GA there,” Kafka said about the offer in 2016 from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “He said, ‘Hey, come out. Try it out. See if you want to get into coaching.’”
The light came on, and it never went off.
Kafka, a fourth-round pick of the Eagles in 2011 who learned under Andy Reid, is now the Giants’ offensive coordinator for first-year coach Brian Daboll. Given Kafka’s aptitude and quick learning of concepts, his metamorphosis from college quarterback to NFL backup to highly respected NFL assistant may one day land him in the driver’s seat as an NFL head coach.
But first things first. Kafka and Daboll have the daunting challenge of trying to coax greatness – or even goodness – out of Daniel Jones after three trying seasons. And Kafka is being given plenty of responsibility in helping that process along, as well as orchestrating the Giants’ offense as a whole. He has spent much of the offseason and training camp calling the plays, and while it remains to be seen whether he or Daboll will call plays once the regular season starts, Kafka will have a leading voice in shaping the offense.
The next step is Thursday, when the Giants open their preseason schedule against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. It is there where Kafka will continue his rapid ascent as a coach, a process that began quietly at his alma mater but quickly blossomed into an avocation he has fully embraced.
The 35-year-old coach will never forget how that early love of coaching launched his post-playing career.
“I was really familiar with the staff and coaches [at Northwestern] and how they want to run the team,” Kafka said. “So, first week, pretty much within the first three days, really, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. Loved every minute of it.”
He got to see the inner workings of what it meant to run a team.
“You kind of see behind the curtain a little bit what the coaches have to go through to get ready for just a practice – scripting and ‘carding’ [putting plays on cards] and putting together the practice plans and practice installs.”
Kafka realized early on that he had an affinity for the process, because his career as a backup in Philadelphia (2010-11), New England and Jacksonville (2013), Tampa Bay (2014) and the Vikings, Titans and Bengals (2015), lent itself to learning how to prepare. Even if he didn’t actually play much. Kafka appeared in just four games in 2011 behind Michael Vick. He never started a game. But the watching and the learning proved invaluable.
“For me as a player, being the second and third quarterback all of my career, that was something that was easy for me,” he said. “Like, I had to do those types of things to be in the back of the room behind the curtain, kind of watching and trying to help out any way that I can to try to stick on the team.”
Coaching was an epiphany.
“When I got into coaching, it was like, ‘This is awesome. This is fun. This is what I love to do.’”
Every work moment since has been aimed at furthering that goal, taking the lessons he learned under Reid and later Fitzgerald – and Reid again when Kafka was an assistant in Kansas City – and now Daboll to become a better and smarter coach.
“Having the opportunity to be with Coach Fitz at my alma mater, and having the opportunity to come back with Reid and be with his staff, that was an awesome experience and one I’m forever grateful for.”
Reid’s coaching tree is filled with outstanding coaches, including Super Bowl winners Doug Pederson, John Harbaugh, as well as Sean McDermott in Buffalo and Ron Rivera in Washington. Kafka hopes to become another success story, and now comes the next big chance to prove himself.
And if he and Daboll can coax more out of Jones and the Giants’ offense, then don't be surprised to eventually see Kafka get the chance to create his own legacy as a head coach.