Monday, April 18, 2005

Cal coach's QBs enter the NFL well-trained

By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
BERKELEY, Calif. — After Aaron Rodgers capped a dazzling workout with a tight, 72-yard spiral to the end zone, Jeff Tedford turned and faced the NFL power brokers standing on the sideline. The body language was confident and energized.
Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers will likely be the latest NFL player groomed by coach Jeff Tedford.
After Aaron Rodgers capped a dazzling workout with a tight, 72-yard spiral to the end zone, Jeff Tedford turned and faced the NFL power brokers standing on the sideline. The body language was confident and energized.
"Anything else?" the University of California football coach asked with a booming voice heard throughout a near-empty Memorial Stadium.
Rodgers, considered by the San Francisco 49ers for the No. 1 slot overall in this weekend's NFL draft, was extremely sharp in the crisp air of a mid-March morning. He routinely threw with a flick of the wrist and little wasted motion — even on the deep throws.
But the session's orchestrator wanted to be sure the VIPs had seen enough. So Tedford briskly walked down the sideline with speak-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace urgency.
He looked toward 49ers coach Mike Nolan, motioned to Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban and even pointed to the man watching from the goal line, Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage. Miami and Cleveland pick second and third.
"Everybody got what they need?" Tedford said, drawing favorable nods.
Fait accompli. Maybe.
Rodgers, 21, will likely become the sixth Tedford-coached quarterback drafted in the first round in 11 years. Yet the group has nary a Troy Aikman, Daunte Culpepper or Peyton Manning.
Sure, Trent Dilfer, the first Tedford quarterback to strike first-round gold, won a Super Bowl with the defense-dominated Baltimore Ravens and made a Pro Bowl appearance with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the Houston Texans are thrilled by the progress of David Carr, who spent his first season at Fresno State under Tedford and was the No. 1 pick overall in the 2002 draft.
But Akili Smith, drafted third overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1999, was a bust. A one-year wonder at Oregon when Tedford was an assistant there, Smith is in NFL Europe as property of the Buccaneers, trying to revive his career.
Joey Harrington? Chosen third overall by the Detroit Lions in 2002, Harrington has made slow progress and ignited boos in the Motor City. The signing of veteran Jeff Garcia in March fuels speculation that Harrington, whose passer rating rose to 77.5 in 2004 from 63.9, could be benched.
Baltimore, which let Dilfer walk in 2001, took California's Kyle Boller with the 19th pick in 2003 and is still hoping he blossoms. Boller, another Tedford quarterback, was the AFC's lowest-rated starter in 2003 (62.4) and second lowest in 2004 (70.9).
The lowest-rated AFC quarterback in 2004? That would be Miami's A.J. Feeley (61.7), an Oregon product also coached by Tedford.
"It kind of baffles me. But I don't look at them as not being successful," Tedford, 43, says. "Most of them are starting. So they're doing something right. Maybe they're not in the Pro Bowl, but there are only so many teams out there and they are competing.
"And they're still young, except for Trent, the grandfather who's going to get another kick at it."
Rodgers scoffs at this pattern of Tedford-coached quarterbacks.
"I'm not any of those guys," he says. "I'm a different guy."
Mental preparation is key
Accuracy is Rodgers' calling card. Rodgers had a 63.8% completion rate at Cal and tied an NCAA single-game record with 23 consecutive completions at Southern California in October. In two years, he threw 43 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions.
Although he lacks prototype size (6-2, 223), Rodgers has a strong arm, good release and presence to put him in a virtual tie with Utah's Alex Smith as the top-rated passer.
Rodgers and Smith are juniors. But some analysts say Rodgers (who spent a year at Butte Junior College) is better equipped to flourish early after playing in Tedford's West Coast-styled scheme that demanded he frequently switch to alternate plays. Smith played in a shotgun offense.
The 49ers, also considering Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards, haven't committed to either quarterback.
"My numbers speak for themselves," Rodgers, a Chico, Calif., native, said during the NFL's scouting combine. "I think I did something that not a lot of people expected. I came from a JC, comprehended his offense in one year and mastered it in two years."
The most recognizable Tedford-stamped trait on Rodgers is the placement of the football as he sets up to pass. It is held high off his chin, ready for a quick release. Rodgers says it is "keeping the ball on the shelf," and Tedford instilled this in drills where the quarterback moved forward and backward with the ball cocked.
"It made my pocket presence better," Rodgers said. "So when I was moving, I was never out of position and my feet were always underneath me."
Boller recalls other creative twists. For two weeks, Tedford had Boller use tape to connect his left (non-throwing) wrist to his biceps in an attempt to keep the arm tucked properly. Boller says this improved his accuracy.
Also, to develop a compact setup, Boller sometimes practiced in tennis shoes rather than cleats.
"If you long-stride in tennis shoes," Boller said, "you're going to do the splits."
Such attention to detail drew Rodgers close to the coach.
"He's a perfectionist," Rodgers said. "That attitude made me a better practice player. I couldn't have an off day in practice; I had to be 95% (efficient). He made me a better mental player."
It started with checkers. In Tedford's checkers, though, there is no board, no squares. He simply dumps the red and black pieces on a table, each marked for a football position.
With Tedford controlling the "defensive pieces," Rodgers had to call the plays, set formations, recognize defensive designs and make adjustments — just like on the field.
That's how a young Tedford learned the offense from coach Randy Drake when he quarterbacked at Warren High in Downey, Calif. The method stuck as a bridge between diagrammed X's and O's on a dry-erase board and live plays on the field.
"It's hands-on fun, but they're learning," Tedford said. "They have to know the play exactly the way I would explain it on the board. If not, then maybe I missed something in the teaching."
When Rodgers began learning Tedford's scheme, they played checkers — with blitzes and hot reads — several times a week.
"It's part of his mystique, and a phenomenal teaching tool," Rodgers said. "It's so hard to translate what you see on paper to what you do on the field, because everybody is moving so fast."
At ease with young talent
Tedford's teaching skills are well respected in the NFL.
Before landing his first head-coaching job in 2002, he was offensive coordinator at Oregon (1998-2001) and Fresno State (1992-97, quarterbacks coach the first year). All his quarterbacks, struggles or not, are said to have entered the league with a solid, if not above average, grasp of the game.
Their production supports that notion. Rodgers had a pass efficiency of 161.2 last season. Boller threw a school-record 64 touchdown passes. Dilfer, now with Cleveland, was the nation's top-rated passer (173.1) in 1993; Smith was second in 1998. And, like Smith, Harrington was a Pac-10 Player of the Year.
Rodgers, Boller and Smith all had less than a year before they were thrust into the starting lineup.
"Jeff really knows how to communicate with his guys," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "You're talking about young talents. It's tough enough in the NFL, taking a guy who is 21, 22, guessing how he's going to project. Take that kid at 17 or 18. He has a great eye for what it takes to play at a major college level."
Rich McKay, who as Tampa Bay general manager drafted Dilfer sixth overall in 1994, twice tried to hire Tedford, first as quarterbacks coach and later as a coordinator for the Bucs. McKay sees Tedford's flexibility to alter his system to the personnel as a strength.
"He has not tried to replicate his athletes," McKay said. "You're not looking at Rodgers being the same athlete as Dilfer, the same as Akili Smith. ... He just finds a way to make it work."
McKay, now the Atlanta Falcons' president, phoned Tedford again last year to gauge his interest in being a candidate for the head coaching job that eventually went to Jim Mora Jr. Again, Tedford told McKay he had no current desire to leap to the pros.
Yet part of him is entrenched in the NFL with his former pupils.
"I've seen them all get hit in the chin and have to get up," Tedford said.
Climbing the NFL ladder
Some see the glass as half full in considering why Tedford's quarterbacks have failed to duplicate their college prowess in the NFL. Certainly, the level of competition is faster and advanced. It's easier completing passes against college zone defenses than NFL man-to-man defenders.
Yet it's also notable that after the 33-year-old Dilfer, the oldest Tedford-tutored quarterback in the league is promising Tennessee Titans backup Billy Volek, 28, arguably a protégé who has over-achieved.
"We put some guys in some tough places," McKay said. "Then we give them about eight games and say, 'Nope. He's out.' That's hard. You go to the right place, sit on the bench for two years and then when that guy ascends, everybody says, 'Man, is he a good player. Wow!' Well, you know what? He went to the right place."
Tedford-schooled or not, the hit-miss rate on first-round passers is about 50-50.
"You can't blame Jeff Tedford if his quarterbacks are not successful in the NFL," Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "He gets them to play to their maximum ability in college. What happens after that is more the NFL's issue. If you take the player too high and he doesn't succeed, it's your fault."
Which speaks to the intrigue surrounding Rodgers, who grew up worshipping the 49ers.
"He's ready," Tedford said. "He's got it all. No question, there will be a transition. But he's mentally tough enough to handle the adversity that they all encounter. There will be days where he throws two or three picks. But what stands out most about Aaron is his maturity. He'll handle it."
Anything else?

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