Here’s some crazy butterfly effect for you: Kirk Cousins might not be a Minnesota Viking if not for Jeff Christensen’s wounded pride.
In the late 1980s, Christensen was a backup quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, sitting behind Pro Bowler Bernie Kosar. By age 27, he’d started two NFL games, going 1-1 with 24 completions on 58 attempts during the 1987 season. The following year, the Browns acquired former Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts quarterback Mike Pagel, forcing head coach Marty Shottenheimer to give Christensen some bad news.
If he could do it over again, Christensen might have asked Shottenheimer to help him build a career in football.
“I got very upset and I walked away,” Christensen said via phone. “I should have turned to them and said I want to coach, I want to be in the game. I handled it improperly and immaturely.”
Instead he left football, got a real job and raised his kids.
Christensen, who is now president/CEO of Throw It Deep Academy, never planned to become a “quarterback guru.”
“As my oldest got a little bit older and started throwing footballs…my oldest was probably eight, nine, 10, I started coaching youth football,” Christensen said. “The more I did it, the more it brought back old memories. I got my old Browns playbook and started looked at some things and having fun with the kids. Before you know it, these little kids started becoming much better quarterbacks just using old school stuff that I learned and had been taught by great coaches.”
The more he coached, the more parents asked him to teach their sons to art of throwing a football. The 58-year-old ex-NFL’er has now been passing down his methods full time for 20 years.
“It’s morphed into this almost out of control now, fielding phone calls and can’t be everywhere all the time,” Christensen said.
This offseason, you have probably seen Jeff’s name come up several times. A Chicago-area native, Christensen worked with former Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who signed a five-year, $137 million deal with the San Francisco 49ers in February. He also took on New York Jets QB Christian Hackenberg as a client, which made waves in the New York media, as all things do.
And then there’s Kirk Cousins.
In 2014, the number $84 million would have never seemed like an imaginable contract to Cousins. If you said the number to him then, he would have guessed it was a figure from the White House military budget. At that time, Cousins was battling with Colt McCoy for Washington’s starting job following Robert Griffin III’s struggles.
After winning just one of four starts, Cousins was benched mid-game on October 19, 2014, against the Tennessee Titans in favor of McCoy, who led a 19-17 win.
At that point in Cousins’ career, he’d won two of nine starts, thrown 18 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and posted a 77.5 quarterback rating.
Those numbers scream “career backup.”
Following his benching, Cousins called Christensen, who he met before the ’14 season, and began flying him in to work out on off days. In between ’14 and ’15, the two worked together numerous times in preparation for Cousins’ chance to win the starting job out of camp.
Christensen no longer talks about his clients because of confidentiality agreements, but in October 2017, on the Scanning the Field podcast, he discussed his work with Cousins.
“He’s very quiet because he is concentrating at such a high level, he wants to be great,” Christensen told host Erik Galko. “He hangs on every word that you say. He wants to do it perfectly to the point where he beats himself up sometimes.”
“About the seventh time I was out there I saw a substantial improvement, as did he,” Christensen said on the podcast. “His arm stopped getting sore because he was using his shoulder more efficiently. He’s just gotten more and more accurate.”
— Throw It Deep (@ThrowItDeep) September 7, 2016
In 2015, Cousins took the first step toward becoming a franchise quarterback. He led the NFL in completion percentage at 69.8 percent, threw 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and finished the year with a 101.6 rating. He made the Pro Bowl the following year. When Cousins hit the free agent market, he earned a military-budget contract with the Vikings.
“His approach was very helpful,” Cousins said of Christensen on 106.7 The Fan in 2015. “You always try to find information from different people and pick and choose what you like, and kind of blend it to make your own recipe for success, and there was certainly big pieces of his approach that I’ve used and been able to help me.”
When Cousins got on the field to work with his new coaching staff in Minnesota, one of the first things that stuck out to offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was his throwing mechanics.
“The ball jumps off his hand better than I expected to be quite honest with you,” DeFilippo said. “He can drive the football to the perimeter. You need that to play quarterback in the National Football League. You have to drive the football to the perimeter. I knew he had a strong arm coming in. I didn’t know he was able to drive it as well as he does. He has a very compact release. The ball just jumps off his hand because he has a short stroke back. All of those things you look for in good quarterbacks.”
Christensen is hardly the only quarterback guru out there, but there’s something that separates him from many others: he’s void of hype.
The perception of many quarterback gurus is that they are half trainer and half Flavor Flav. There is no better example than the time QB guru Steve Clarkson told the New York Times that Jimmy Clausen was football’s LeBron James and told Sports Illustrated Clausen had the “skills of Dan Marino” in an article called “The Kid with the Golden Arm.”
Recently you may have caught Jordan Palmer doing interviews about working with first-round pick Josh Allen, who was selected at the top of the draft despite struggling at Wyoming. Palmer wasn’t as over the top as Clarkson, but he compared Allen to “an eighth grader playing with sixth graders” on the Wyoming team and claimed accuracy issues were “overblown” despite a 56 percent completion percentage.
Christensen’s former pupils chuckle at the idea of him as their Don King.
“He is blue collar, salt-of-the-earth Chicago,” former NFL quarterback Brett Basanez said via phone. “He just works. It is not hype, it is not glitz, it is not glamour, it is not the guy in California who has got kids on the beach and the media’s there. This is literally, let’s get out and work.”
“He wants you to be better than you were when you started,” Basanez added. “He doesn’t want you to shout to the heavens that he did it. He doesn’t want NBC/ABC/ESPN at every training session.”
The QB training industry is more or less the Wild West. Type into YouTube or Google “throwing mechanics” and hundreds of coaches and former players have instructional videos and offers to privately train quarterbacks. Some parents pay small fortunes for their child to get special instructions with hopes of one day landing a Division-I scholarship.
Christensen said YouTube videos have been good for his business. People try to use them, struggle, and then come to him to learn the right way.
“There’s no gimmicks involved,” Christensen said. “There’s no quick fix. I’m not trying to put stuff out there on the air or build a big name. I’m just trying to help every kid that comes to me. Whether it’s a Division-III quarterback or an eighth grader, it doesn’t matter. I want to see the kid have a good experience and leave more confident and a better quarterback.”
Basanez set the all-time passing yards record at Northwestern, but at 6-foot-1 and without a Vince Young 40 time or Jay Cutler arm, he wasn’t considered a big-time NFL prospect. In 2006, he was signed by the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent and began working with Christensen at Barrington Field House in Lake Barrington, Illinois.
“I wanted to find somebody who was really good on the nuances of the technique of playing quarterback,” Basanez said. “The philosophy of it all starts with your feet and goes up from there, so to speak. What I found with Jeff… is you can use it to create your own way of playing. I’m not a big fan of some of these videos or coaches where it’s very mechanical. Pull the ball here, do this exactly like this. I believe every person has their own throwing motion, we just try to make it more efficient.”
Basanez stuck with the Panthers for three years, appearing in one game, and then signed with the Bears in 2009. He was placed on injured reserve and then let go in 2010, ending his NFL career. He said Christensen’s approach and ability to adapt his methods to each QB’s natural motion and needs from his particular team is what attracts many players to his workouts.
“I don’t think a lot of [QB gurus] understand the nuances of training and taking a quarterback and making him more efficient,” Basanez said. “Not overhauling everything he does. That’s the problem I’ve seen…I know quarterbacks who played for Ryan Leaf in college and he would put on his own game film and show them his own game film. I don’t want somebody to be what they are not.”
“It’s like playing the piano,” Christensen said. “If somebody’s fingers are made a certain way, somebody’s wrist is made a certain way, somebody’s shoulder is made a certain way, it’s different across the board.”
Former quarterback Matt Blanchard, who spent time on practice squads with five different NFL teams, was working out preparing for his pro day when he met Christensen.
Coming from Division-III Wisconsin-Whitewater, Blanchard was a long shot to make the league, much like Basanez.
“I always joked that I might be the only guy to come into the NFL with student loans,” Blanchard said via phone.
Days before Blanchard’s pro day, Christensen was working out with 2010 sixth-round pick Dan LeFevour and approached him about taking pictures and video of his throws.
“He comes over and takes pictures and says, ‘hey, why don’t you give me a call after your pro day,” Blanchard said.
That is Christensen’s version of marketing.
“He had some interesting feedback for me which opened my eyes and made me curious,” Blanchard said.
The three-time D-III national champion hadn’t ever worked with a quarterback coach on his technique before. In fact, he ran triple-option in high school.
“Jeff was like, ‘your feet aren’t that great, you have really good arm talent but your feet kind of suck,'” Blanchard said laughing. “I thought either he’s blowing smoke or there’s some legitimacy to what he’s talking about.”
To further the point about Christensen not being very Malibu, he and Blanchard met up at a local park with one receiver. They spent four hours together throwing and talking technique.
“At the end of that session, I could feel a shift,” Blanchard said. “I knew immediately that he had the good stuff. That his technique was really, really good. I was like a clay mold that just needed help.”
The Chicago Bears signed Blanchard after he attended rookie mini camp in May 2012.
“Without his coaching, I don’t know if I would have been ready for the NFL,” he said. “I was physically capable, but my technique, my release was a little slow, my feet were a little off. I needed fine tuning. I can honestly say that with his help I was able to have an NFL career.”
Football teams have a complicated relationship with people like Jeff Christensen.
“It’s a double-sided issue,” Basanez said.
Once a team drafts or signs a player, they want that player doing things how they want them done. So for example, Washington head coach Jay Gruden might want Kirk Cousins to practice and play the way his quarterback coach in D.C. asked, not the way some outsider suggested.
“You look at Brady with his trainer basically living at the stadium, but now the trainer is out because the team wants more control, the coaches want more control,” Basanez said. “If you have somebody going to a third party, and you OK that third party, you are essentially vouching for that player to go there. There’s some risk associated with that. You are also losing some control over that player.”
At the same time, everyone wants players to get better. Many NFL’ers have an outside trainer they work with during the offseason. Some have personal chefs. Some have speed coaches or their own marketing team and on and on.
“If you ask your quarterback coach about going to see a guy, the coach might say, ‘why do you need to go see somebody else?’” Basanez said. “There’s some added questions and variables that get thrown into play if you do it through the team. I think the team is like, ‘I don’t want to know. You do what you have to do as long as you play on Sundays the way we want you to play, everything’s good.’”
Cousins was lauded by D.C. media for his extra effort. His move was largely viewed on the outside as going the extra mile. It’s hard to say whether the team’s front office or Gruden and his staff felt the same way.
With the Collective Bargaining Agreement limiting the sheer number of hours that players can have with coaches, Blanchard said players who want more help have to go outside the building.
“Even if the CBA did allow that, I would still want to work with someone like that because he fine-tuned my mechanics,” he said. “It’s like a swing coach in golf. If you’re struggling throwing the ball or have a couple off days, you want to go back to that guy who helped you out and who knows your technique better than anybody.”
In a strange and sometimes murky business, Christensen presents himself as an old school principled football man. He is frustrated by players who aren’t role models and he is a big Mike Zimmer guy – not just because Zimmer is from his town in Lockport, Illinois,
“I know everything about the man because so many people have shared stories about him and his dad,” Christensen said. “Just a great story, a great person, a blue collar guy who did it the right way and now he’s reaping the rewards.”
Instead of finding himself a full-time job coaching quarterbacks – as maybe he might have if he’d been more mature when Shottenheimer cut him in ’88 – Christensen has found he can help more quarterbacks this way. He likes the ripple effect. The way he sees it, if he teaches a kid who one day becomes a coach, then they teach other kids the right way to play and he’s made the football world a slightly better place.
This year when one of his students will take the field under one of his favorite coaches playing on one of the biggest contracts ever signed, Christensen will be able to take pride in his role in Cousins’ success.
“It’s the human relationship from a coaching/mentoring standpoint is far more important to me with how I end my career and my life as a football person than somebody making a lot of money as a player,” he said. “I think I pride myself with being a good person and I want to deal with the good guys. That’s what keeps the game whole at the end of the day.”