How best to describe being a quarterback? Depends on which quarterback you’re asking.
Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Jets sees himself as a troubleshooter, trying to envision problems that might come up and then heading them off with an almost maniacal attention to detail.
Eli Manning is a quasi-psychologist, intent on figuring out what his receivers, offensive linemen and running backs are thinking so he can have everything just right for a given play.
For Boomer Esiason, a former NFL MVP, succeeding at quarterback is as much about forging good relationships with teammates as it is about completing passes.
And for Super Bowl MVP quarterback Phil Simms, knowing your enemies in the locker room is essential to building a sense of leadership and credibility.
Quarterback is the most difficult position in any sport, and succeeding at the NFL level requires a unique blend of talent, toughness, understanding and leadership — characteristics not easily found in a league that depends so heavily on its passers. And while pure ability is at the top of the list of requirements, it’s what quarterbacks do and how they behave in the run-up to the actual games that often separates the good ones from the great ones.
As kickoff weekend continues on Sunday, with Manning’s Giants visiting the NFC East rival Cowboys and Fitzpatrick’s Jets hosting the Bengals, quarterback play will be the focus of virtually every game — this weekend, next weekend, and every weekend through the Super Bowl. How those quarterbacks play will go a long way toward determining the outcome of their teams’ seasons and ultimately could determine who wins Super Bowl LI in Houston on Feb. 5.
It is a time-consuming job that requires hours of practice, meticulous tape study and seemingly endless team and positional meetings, all aimed at reaching the optimum performance level on game day. Yet there is another far more personal element for quarterbacks, the behind-the-scenes relationships that can be every bit as important as executing a completion on a deep post or a quick slant.
“I think one of the biggest things is being the same guy every day, just being consistent,” Fitzpatrick said. “For me, that’s showing up early and leaving late, but it’s not just being in here so people see I punch my time card. When I’m here, I’m working and trying to get myself better and everyone else better. That’s the big thing.
“We always talk about communication, and drawing on a lot of the experiences I’ve had, I try to foresee problems or things that might come up in a game and make sure those things get ironed out before they happen.”
“It’s having guys that want to play hard for you, that don’t want to let you down,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s knowing how to push everybody’s buttons for them to play better. I’m not of the opinion that everyone fits into the same box and you do it the same way, especially with guys who are older, veteran guys that have played a lot of football. They’re going to respond to you, to a certain way of coaching, or a different kind of discussion. You have to find it with each individual guy.”
And that means being frank when problems come up, but not being mean-spirited.
“I’m not going to sit and berate [CENTER]Nick Mangold and tell him he’s doing a [POOR]job, and he wouldn’t do that to me,” he said. “But there are conversations, and there are ways that we’ll talk to each other where we’re not just out walking in the flower garden holding hands together.”
For Manning, who has two Super Bowl championships as he enters his 13th NFL season, being a quarterback involves running the offense with precision but also feeling out the people around you and finding out what works best.
“In some instances, you have to be kind of another coach,” he said. “You have to kind of test the receivers, offensive linemen, tight end, it’s communication with them, new guys, veteran guys, you have to keep everybody happy, everybody in the mix, you have to see what they know, make sure they’re having fun. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. Their minds are spinning, and they’re trying to balance a lot of things and do the right thing. So it’s just trying to get them to relax, have their natural ability come out and make sure they’re enjoying their experience. You want to be a good friend to your teammates and you want to be a good teammate.”
Manning also is aware that his high-profile position means it’s important to conduct himself in a way that reflects well on the organization.
“When you’re a quarterback for a franchise, there are other expectations,’ he said. “You do have to set an example in the community. I’m going into my 13th year here. You can start to do a few things, feel a few things out, you feel strongly about certain events or charities. You’re trying to help people and you get more involved and it becomes something that you become passionate about as well. There’s a time for it. You have the offseason, you have stuff going on, you get to do those things, and I enjoy doing them.”
Simms, who played for the Giants from 1979-93 and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXI, was an immensely popular player in the locker room, although he said not everyone liked him. No names, but there were some.
“You have to know who your enemies are in the locker room, the people who don’t like you,” said Simms, now an NFL analyst for CBS. “It’s like running a restaurant. How do you treat your patrons? It’s like being a father. You have to treat every kid differently. That’s like a quarterback. You have to know. You have to have the team look at you in a certain way. You have to make them believe in you. You do that with your play on the field, but you have to do it with other things once you prove you can play. It’s how you treat your teammates.”
It can be a tricky relationship sometimes, though, as Simms found out in practice one day in the middle of his career when coach Bill Parcells berated him.
“We were having a bad practice, and I was getting pushed around [by the defense] and [PARCELLS]blows the whistle and stops practice,” Simms said. “He screams at the offensive line and he’s killing them. I’m standing behind Bill and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, give it to them. They deserve it.’ But when he gets done, he turns around and looks at me and says, ‘Simms, it’s your fault.’ And I’m like, ‘Of course it is. It always is.’
“He goes, ‘These guys, they used to fear you, Simms. They were afraid to death of you. They knew if their guy hit you that you would rip their butt. But no, Simms. Now you’re their buddy. Take them out to dinner. Pat them on the back. Go buy them another gift. Look what it’s doing for you. You’ve lost everything, Simms. You’re not their leader anymore.’
“I was driving home that night and I thought he’s right. I kind of let that wall break down. I worked under Bill for eight years and never once did I ever, ever have my guard down around him, because I always knew who he was. It’s almost kind of like it is with a quarterback. You can have fun with the players, but they still know you’re the quarterback. Players are always judging and looking at the quarterback, whatever the situation is. They might be looking at you out of the corner of their eye, but they’re very cognizant of the position and what it means to their lives.”
Esiason, who led the Bengals to the Super Bowl after the 1988 season, when he was the league’s MVP, was always big on fostering good relations in the locker room. To him, it was as important to develop strong bonds with his teammates as it was to be seen as a reliable performer on game day.
In that respect, he has been particularly critical of Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who was punched last year by linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali and suffered a broken jaw. Smith lost his job as the starter, and Fitzpatrick has been the starter ever since. Enemkpali was angry that Smith, who had a death in his family and couldn’t attend the linebacker’s football camp, did not reimburse Enemkpali for his airline ticket.
“If you can’t make it because there’s a funeral in your life, you call your teammate and you say, ‘I can’t make it. Somebody close to me passed away. I hope you understand. I’ll make restitution for whatever expenses I may have cost you, plus I’ll send you jerseys and helmets and footballs, and next year, we’re bringing 10 other guys and we’ll give you a great weekend.’ That’s how you handle it. You don’t just let the thing linger so the guy gets so [UPSET]that he’s going to come up and hit you in the face.
“That’s part of managing egos,” Esiason said. “You don’t have to love everybody. You just have to have everybody’s respect, and getting punched in the face in the locker room in front of your teammates is not a sign of respect.”
Esiason’s college roommate, former Maryland quarterback Frank Reich, who went on to play for the Bills, Panthers, Jets and Lions, remembers the kind of behavior Esiason became known for inside his locker room. During Esiason’s senior season, he missed a game against Pittsburgh because of an injury, and Reich led the Terrapins to a 13-7 win at home.
“It was a big game and we won and you would have thought Esiason] had just won the MVP of the year in terms of how much he was rooting for me,” said Reich, now the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. “After the game, he took me and my family out and he treated us. He was in college, and he didn’t have the money, but he wanted to make sure I enjoyed that moment. Like this is my best buddy and that was a huge win for us, even though he was sitting on the bench. Most guys in that position would wonder how it’s going to affect them. But not Boomer.”
Esiason remembers it well.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “I had no pressure. My best friend just won a game against his hometown team, and I couldn’t have been happier for that guy than I would have been for myself if I had won the game. That’s why we were great roommates, that’s why we were great friends. You get it. You understand it. There’s no evilness. There’s no backstabbing. I’ve been in bad quarterback rooms in the NFL, and it’s no fun. There’s a lot of tension, a lot of backstabbing, a lot of things that don’t promote winning and teamwork.”
Reich, who now coaches first-round rookie quarterback Carson Wentz for the Eagles, said leadership is “about trust and building trust. You can’t do that without building relationships, and that has several different layers to it. Most critical part of it is the relationship on the field and in the locker room. That’s primary. But you also have to say off the field, too. Most people get that. It’s hard to get to this level without it.”