What goes through the mind of a quarterback on the field? To be great, it’s more than instincts — it’s detailed mastery of the offense and knowing how to react to the opponent’s defense.
Imagine you’ve just been thrown to the ground by a 300-pound man. But you have no time to wallow in the pain.
You must get up, and fast, because the clock is ticking. In the next 40 seconds you will assess the situation, receive the next play, communicate it to your team, make sure you are properly protected and everyone is aligned correctly ….
And then maybe change it all up, depending on what you see from the defense.
But don’t make a mistake. Ten other guys are counting on you, and there is a stadium full of people expecting nothing less than perfection.
Welcome to the life of a quarterback.
The job is so much more than throwing the football. Everyone sees what happens in the six or so seconds of each play, but it’s what happens in the up to 40 seconds between plays that makes the job so mentally challenging, and it’s when the really great ones shine.
Good luck trying to find a position in any other sport that is more demanding. Quarterbacks must know what every other player on their team is doing, and they must know the other team, too. It requires an off-the-charts ability to multitask.
So what’s it really like being a quarterback? Let former Huskies Warren Moon, Hugh Millen and Damon Huard tell you. Collectively, they spent 40 seasons in the NFL.
“Like (former Miami Dolphins quarterback) Dan Marino said, there are a lot of dudes who can knock down a three-pointer, get a birdie, hit a fastball, but there’s only a few guys who can line up and take a snap,” Huard said.
To play quarterback at the highest level in the NFL requires undeniable physical talent, but there have been numerous physically gifted quarterbacks who have failed because they were unable to master the mental aspect of the game.
“Most quarterbacks are physically talented, and that’s why they get asked to play there, but you’ve got to have the mental part of it, to be able to dissect things very quickly and make on-the-spot adjustments as quickly as you possibly can,” said Moon, who’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is a radio analyst for the Seahawks. “The faster you can make those adjustments and get all that communicated to your players, and executed, those are the guys who are usually the top quarterbacks.
“If you look at the demeanor of (the New England Patriots’) Tom Brady or (the Green Bay Packers’) Aaron Rodgers, there’s always a calm about them no matter what’s going on and the chaos that’s going on around them. Those are guys that you know are in control of what they’re doing.”
Damon Huard file
High school: Puyallup (1991)
College: Started three seasons for the Huskies and finished with a then school-record 5,692 passing yards. Was the quarterback for the Huskies in the “Whammy in Miami” in 1994 when UW ended the Miami Hurricanes’ 58-game home winning streak.
NFL: Played 12 seasons in the NFL (1997-2008) for Miami, New England and Kansas City. He was the backup for Dan Marino in Miami and for Tom Brady in New England. Started 18 games for the Chiefs during the 2006-07 seasons. In 2006, he had 11 touchdown passes and just one interception.
Did you know: He was the holder for future NFL kicker Ryan Longwell while playing at Aylen Junior High in Puyallup.
Tick … tick … tick
Imagine again that you’re the quarterback. The previous play was a long completion, but you didn’t see it, having been leveled a millisecond after letting the pass go.
Warren Moon file
High school: Alex Hamilton (1974)
College: Played for West Los Angeles College for a season before playing his final three seasons at Washington. As a senior in 1977, he led UW to its first Rose Bowl win in 17 years, earning MVP honors in a 27-20 upset of Michigan.
NFL: After playing six seasons in the Canadian Football League, and leading the Edmonton Eskimos to five Grey Cups, he spent 17 seasons in the NFL, including the first 10 with Houston. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Moon was third in career passing yards when he retired after the 2000 season and is still No. 8 on the all-time list.
Did you know: Set a Seahawks record with 3,678 passing yards in 1997 (that has since been broken) in the first of his two seasons with Seattle.
“Depending on the hit, sometimes you’re catching your breath and shaking your head a little bit,” said Huard, a radio analyst for Washington football.
For Moon, Huard and Millen, the 40-second time limit between plays was seldom a worry. The regrouping process became natural to them, and 40 seconds was almost always more than enough time. They had a mental clock in their head, and always a big, real one right in their sight.
Hugh Millen file
High school: Roosevelt in Seattle (1981)
College: Played two seasons for Washington in 1984 and 1985 after transferring from Santa Rosa Junior College. He replaced starting quarterback Paul Sicuro in the fourth quarter of UW’s 1985 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma, leading a 74-yard scoring drive that put the Huskies ahead to stay.
NFL: Drafted in the third round, he played for the Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos (1987-95). Started 13 games for New England in 1991 and threw for 3,073 yards.
Did you know: Was born on Nov. 22. 1963, the day president John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“It’s not a problem unless it’s been a big play that goes the length of the field, a 50- or 60-yard gain,” Huard said of getting the next play off in time. “You got knocked to the ground, you’ve got to pick yourself up and get all the way down the field and get back in the huddle. All of a sudden you look up and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, there’s only five seconds left on the play clock, and it’s, ‘Let’s go, let’s go!’ ”
Step 1 after each play: assess the situation, figuring out the down and distance.
“And once you know the down and distance, you’re probably anticipating in your mind what the next call is going to be because you’ve gone through these situations over and over throughout the week with your offensive coordinator and quarterback coach,” Moon said. “And I’m looking at the personnel coming onto the field. That kind of gives me an indication of the play call.”
In the NFL, the quarterback receives the play call from a coach through a communication device in his helmet. Then, if the team is not in hurry-up mode, it will huddle up to get the play. The quarterback also can give quick instructions to one player or everybody at that point.
“You try and spend no more than maybe five or six seconds in that huddle on that play and any other special instructions you might want to give somebody,” Moon said. “I might say to everybody, ‘OK, I’m going on a hard count now, so make sure you don’t jump (offside). Or, on a particular play, I might say, ‘Haywood (Jeffires, a receiver and teammate of Moon with the Houston Oilers), I’m going to look at you early.’ ”
Moon said he would try to be out of the huddle with around 15 to 17 seconds left on the play clock, because there’s still a lot to do.
It’s in those final seconds where all the hours of practice and study can pay off. A quarterback must survey his team and the defense. If it’s a pass play, he must assess whether the protection scheme is sufficient to give him time to throw.
He must also determine whether the play is likely to work against the defensive look he is seeing. If not, he must change the play — it could be as simple as just changing which side the play will be run, or the play might have to be scrapped — and he must communicate the change to his team, and he’d better do it fast.
“Most of the other guys just have a single responsibility,” Huard said. “As a quarterback, you’ve got to know what the offensive line is doing as far as your protection. You need to know the running back, is he in protection, and which way is he going? On a handoff, you have to know your travel plan and which way you’re going to go. You got to know the receivers, and are there any hots (reads), based on a blitz. And you have to know what particular coverage the defense is in, because the routes might change based on this particular coverage.”
No wonder quarterbacks make the big bucks.
It happened one play
Millen speaks fluent Football, and does not dummy down his language for the casual fan. Listening to him dissect a football play is akin to listening to a surgeon describe a surgery. You might not understand a lot of the words, but you get the picture, and you leave fully confident that the person knows his craft.
“If I started speaking Italian, you probably wouldn’t understand it,” said Millen, who analyzes football for KJR-AM. “But if you keep listening to it and get exposed to it, you can learn it.”
Professor Millen was tasked with dissecting one play from the Seahawks’ game against Tennessee on Sept. 24. Millen is clearly in his element, a remote control in one hand as he switches back and forth between a tape from the broadcast and a special coach’s view tape. He is ready to teach.
Here is the scenario: The Seahawks are trailing Tennessee 30-14 with less than a minute gone in the fourth quarter. Russell Wilson has just completed a long-developing pass to Paul Richardson for 22 yards to the Tennessee 27-yard line.
What happens next? Millen puts himself in Wilson’s head, speaking in the first person.
“I’m down 16, and it’s a two-score game. There is 14:10 left, so a field goal could still be important. But obviously you want a touchdown, so I am in a relatively aggressive mode,” he said. “I’ve got a 46-yard field goal, so I don’t want to take a sack and knock ourselves out of field-goal range.”
What happened on the previous play also affects the thinking on the next play.
“I just had a four-man rush and I had great protection, so I’m thinking our line has a pretty good handle on it,” he said. “I just hit a deep-angle cross, which is one of the longest-developing routes in the playbook, so you have to have very good protection.”
The Seahawks are in a no-huddle offense. Millen said that, because of this, the play would have been called to Wilson almost immediately after the proceeding one.
The Seahawks have receivers Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin to the left, and tight end Luke Willson and Richardson to the right, and the four will be running vertical routes toward the end zone.
(Football language: “I’ve got zebra personnel and a four-vertical look. I want to say four verticals but technically Doug Baldwin is running a curl. But I’ve got a four-vertical concept. If you can please use this language, because I don’t want to be quoted using the wrong language. I’ve got a four-vertical concept, and I think I am getting cover-3.”)
But one thing catches Millen’s attention right away.
“The ball is on the right hash, but the free safety is on the left hash, so that is conspicuous,” Millen said. “So I am thinking they’re shading to Doug Baldwin. So based on the route that I want to throw to Luke Willson (who runs vertically toward the end zone from outside the right hash), I like the position of the free safety.”
With the Titans employing just one safety, Millen has eliminated certain defensive coverages they might be using, but, “I am leaning toward a cover-3 zone (three defenders playing deep and four underneath), and this play is designed for a cover-3 defense.”
The reason Millen does not believe it is a man-to-man defense is based in part on the postures of the defensive backs.
(Football language: “The overhang defender over the tight end, Luke Willson, is in a zone posture, he’s on his outside shoulder, and that’s a zone look, and the DB over Doug Baldwin is head-up to the outside, that’s a zone look, and the cornerbacks are looking in, and that’s a zone look.”)
Millen said he can’t eliminate a potential zone blitz, but he thinks that is doubtful. Still, he must assess all possibilities and make sure he has proper protection.
“I am in a two-jet protection, which means unless I change the protection, I can handle three rushers to either side,” he said. “I can have my center go to the left and the back to the right. So any three rushers to the right side, my running back has (in addition to the right guard and right tackle) and any three to the left the center has (along with the left guard and left tackle). With their alignment initially, they could be blitzing off the left side. If they bring four to the left side of the center, I have a problem, and I have to get rid of the ball.”
But Millen said he thinks this is unlikely, because if the Titans bring four rushers to the left side, “How will they cover the back? They would have to peel off the defensive end.” The ability to do this near-instant analysis is just part of being a quarterback.
“You have to do it,” Millen said. “You have to know every potential thing. You don’t want to chase ghosts.”
And after analyzing what he sees from the Titans, Millen comes to this conclusion:
“Darrell Bevell got it right,” he said, referring to the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator. “At this point, I am liking Darrell Bevell. Nice call, Coach, particularly because the ball is on the right hash and the free safety is on the left hash.”
Indeed, Willson got behind the underneath zone defenders and into an empty space near the goal line. The free safety, because he was lined up on the opposite hash from Willson, arrived too late. Willson scored a touchdown.
Sixteen seconds elapsed between plays, and it took another six seconds for Wilson to complete the touchdown to Willson.
Millen spent an hour dissecting and discussing it.
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A lot to learn
Millen and Huard now are helping their sons learn the trade: Cale Millen is an outstanding junior quarterback at Mount Si of Snoqualmie, and Sam Huard is excelling as a freshman quarterback at Burien’s Kennedy Catholic.
They will always be learning.
“I think your knowledge base is brick by brick,” Millen said. “And I think you’re always getting more experienced and better at it. So I don’t think it’s binary. I don’t think you ever say, ‘OK, now I’ve learned it.’ ”
Moon said it takes at least a couple of years to master a team’s offense. Huard, when he went to the Kansas City Chiefs, had to memorize 350 plays and 27 protection schemes.
“If I’d had to play my first two years there (when he was a backup), I would have failed miserably, because it was just too much,” Huard said. “In New England, we’d go into a game plan with maybe 60, 70 plays at the most. There’s no right, and there’s no wrong, but I think sometimes they overthink it. Sometimes your best offenses can be the simplest ones.”
Moon said he would spend a minimum of eight hours a week studying opponents on film, and more if it was an unfamiliar opponent.
Moon did not have the luxury that Brady and Rodgers have had of playing in the same offense for more than a decade. Still, he thrived, in part from long hours of study and because of his versatility.
“I was in Houston for 10 years, but I was in three different offenses,” he said. “It takes about two or three years before you really feel ingrained in that offense. I would have loved to be able to be in the same offense for five, six, seven years.”
Moon said one of the biggest issues with changing offenses was learning the new terminology. There are many different dialects in the football language, and quarterbacks are forced into being fast learners.
Once they have the offense mastered, an even higher level of learning can take place.
“You heard (Seahawks coach) Pete Carroll say (in early 2016) that Russell has a really good understanding of the offense, so now I’m going to start teaching him more of the defensive side of the ball, so he can understand more about what (the defense) is trying to get accomplished,” Moon said. “You have the offense down, you know where everybody’s going to be, there’s no thinking about it. So now as you come out of the huddle, you’re looking at little keys on the defense to see exactly what they might be doing, and that’s when you get to the point when you know the defense can’t be right because you know exactly where to go with the football.”
Only a select few get to that point. But the rest keep trying.
“Being able to read the defense, and knowing everyone’s assignment … you can’t play fast until it just comes naturally,” Huard said. “If you’re out there thinking, ‘Oh … right,’ it just doesn’t work.”