This is my December feature.
Provo, Utah. Fall of 1980. BYU offensive coordinator Doug Scovil calls 18-year-old Steve Young into his office and breaks the bad news.
“You’re not going to play quarterback here,” Scovil explains to the future Hall of Fame quarterback. “I don’t coach lefties. It ain’t happening.”
Scovil suggests Young play safety instead. Scovil believes Eric Krzmarzick, a right-hander, is BYU’s quarterback of the future. Scovil becomes San Diego State’s head coach a few months later and, in the winter of 1981, BYU replaces him with Ted Tollner.
Call it divine intervention.
Cut to spring of ’81. A glum, 19-year-old Steve Young walks into Tollner’s office.
“Look, Steve, Jim McMahon is the starting quarterback and we’re slow at safety. Our defensive coordinator, Fred Whittingham, wants you to play safety so you can start instead of backing up Jim. But I don’t want you to play safety. I want you to be a quarterback. Do you want me to represent you in this battle? Do you want me to bargain for you?”
“Do you really think I can play quarterback?” Young asks, surprised.
“I really do,” says Tollner. “There are some things you’ve got to learn, but I think you can be a heck of a starter. You’ve got the instincts, the accuracy and the quick release.”
Young perks up. “Well, then I’d like to be a quarterback.”
You know the rest — he becomes the greatest left-handed quarterback who ever lived. But he wouldn’t have become a quarterback at all if not for Tollner. Scovil almost robbed the world of Steve Young.
Scovil had his reasons and they made total sense. Football is a right-handed game. The best receiver usually lines up on the right side of the formation, the tight end typically lines up on the right side of the offensive line and the quarterback generally rolls out to his right. Quarterbacks are almost always right-handed and offensive coordinators think right-handed.
Offenses have to flip everything to accommodate a left-handed quarterback, have to play football in a mirror. Or, the left-handed quarterback has to learn to play right-handed, so to speak, to accommodate everyone else. Kenny Stabler, one of the greatest left-handed quarterbacks ever, played right-handed. John Madden did not flip formations for him. Sorry, Snake.
Left-handed quarterbacks almost are an extinct species. Only two currently receive checks from NFL teams — Michael Vick and Kellen Moore. Both are backups. Lefty quarterbacks are not treasured like lefty pitchers. Lefty quarterbacks are problems. They complicate things. Some coaches, like Scovil, avoid the problem altogether. Some college coaches won’t even recruit lefty quarterbacks, and some NFL teams won’t draft them.
“You see that kind of bias everywhere,” 53-year-old Steve Young said over the phone. “Luckily, Bill Walsh loved lefties, I think because he was a lefty. But there are a lot of lefties that coaches just discourage from playing. (Brief pause) Which is nuts. (Voice rising) How freaking bizarre is that? (Shouting now) That’s kookiness!
“If a guy can throw it, you can teach the same things. In fact, I learned how to throw and how to drop back and how to play quarterback from watching Jim McMahon. It’s a mirror image. It’s really easy. It’s like Phil Mickelson learning golf from his dad — mirror image. It’s like Simple Simon. Just follow that guy.”
To Young’s everlasting good fortune, Walsh wasn’t biased. Neither was Sam Wyche, who coached Boomer Esiason, another great lefty quarterback. Wyche also coached for the Niners under Walsh. Walsh once called Wyche the most creative assistant coach he ever worked with.
“Most coaches are right-handed,” Wyche explained over the phone. “That’s why you see right-handed offenses. When they draw the diagrams for the game plan, most of the time it’s in a right formation. They have a right-handed mindset. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything else that I know of.”
In other words, the bias is coach-created. Coaches impose their own right-handedness on their offenses. It’s arbitrary. Offenses just as easily could be left-handed or ambidextrous.
But certain plays are right-handed in nature. Here’s an example. This is a famous West Coast Offense goal-line play in which the quarterback sprints out of the pocket to the right and throws on the run. You know it as “Sprint Right Option.” You also know it as “The Catch.” It’s really called, “Red left switch tight closed Z right sprint right G U corner halfback flat.” That’s a lot of syllables. It sounds like something Albert Einstein would have written, something he got the Nobel Prize for.
If Joe Montana got hurt during a game, Walsh couldn’t call that particular right-handed play for Young. Walsh had to flip the play in his mind, flip the formation, the protection scheme and the direction of the rollout so Young could run to his left. After all that flipping, the name of the play changed. It became, “Red RIGHT switch tight closed Z LEFT sprint LEFT G U corner halfback flat.” Those types of adjustments can confuse even a genius like Walsh.
Jon Gruden hated flipping plays. In 2004, the Buccaneers drafted Chris Simms to back up Brian Griese and Brad Johnson. Simms no longer plays — he’s a football analyst. Gruden bluntly told Simms, “You’re a lefty; you’re a pain in the ass. I have to call the formation the other way for you so you can roll to your left.”
Wyche wasn’t fazed by lefties. “You’re going to roll the lefty out more to the left,” he said, “but you’re going to roll him out to the right sometimes, too. You’re just going to feature one way over the other.
“After that, honestly, I never found a difference. I had Joe Montana in San Francisco who was a right-hander and a good player. I had Boomer Esiason in Cincinnati who was a left-hander and a good player. The thing they had in common was they were good players.”
Coaching a lefty really is pretty easy if a coach applies himself. Let’s visualize the life of a left-handed quarterback step by step.
The center-quarterback exchange
Young took snaps right-handed for years. Yes, there actually is a right-handed way and a left-handed way to take snaps.
Young signed with the L.A. Express of the USFL in 1984. Sid Gilman, the godfather of modern football, was the head coach. Gilman didn’t like coaching the center-quarterback exchange differently for righties and lefties. To keep things simple, Gilman taught all of his quarterbacks, including Young, to take snaps like righties — right hand on top, left hand on bottom.
Centers snap the ball so that the laces hit the quarterback’s throwing hand, usually the top hand. But Gilman taught Young and other lefties to put their throwing hand on the bottom. For Young, the center had to turn the laces into the ground when he snapped the ball to make sure the laces hit the fingers of Young’s left hand.
That was all well and good as long as the grass wasn’t wet. In a rain game, the laces would be soaked by the time Steve got the ball.
Did Young remember that?
“Yeah!” he said as he laughed. “That’s so interesting … ” and he paused to recall an enemy he battled and conquered 20 years ago.
“So every center is right-handed. They snap it righty because they’re right-handed. The angle at which it comes from with your left hand on top, you get the short end of the ball. That was also hard.”
Let’s pause to explain what Young is talking about by “short end of the ball.” Try to picture the exchange. The center snaps the ball and turns it parallel to the line of scrimmage on the way up to the quarterback’s hands. If the center is a righty, the long end of the ball including laces is on the right side of his hand and the short end of the ball is on the left side. Joe Montana, a righty, got the long end and was ready to grip the ball. Young got the short end and needed to adjust. You might say he got the short end of the stick.
Got it? Back to Young.
“For years, I’d get the muddy part of the ball, the wet part of the ball if it was bad weather. Later in my career, I finally switched and put my left hand on top and my right hand on bottom. I got Jesse Sapolu to turn the laces up. It wasn’t as easy for him — he couldn’t grab the laces with his fingers that way. But he could grab them with his thumb. And then I got the laces on my fingers. And the laces were dry. So that was nice.”
Young ran into Esiason once in a while when they were pros. Young liked playing catch with him, another lefty, a freak like him.
“We’d have a catch,” said Young, “and I would think, ‘Man, that guy throws funny.’ ”
Visualize Esiason’s pass flying at your face. It’s spinning counter-clockwise. A righty’s pass spins clockwise. Esiason’s rotation is the opposite of normal. It looks different and, according to Brent Jones, it feels different, too. Jones caught passes from Montana and Young, so he should know.
“Maybe it’s because I grew up always catching a right-handed quarterback,” Jones said. “All of a sudden, to add a left-handed quarterback into the mix is like, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”
Receivers have the best hands in the world and they’re the best athletes on the team, but the spin still feels funky at first. So, receivers spend extra time at practice catching passes from the lefty quarterback to grow accustomed to the feel of his throws.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was throwing with a new receiver,” said Simms, “and either I would make the joke or one of the equipment guys would make the joke, ‘Oh, I forgot to bring out the left-handed footballs.’ And you’d be shocked at how many receivers would bite on that. ‘Oh, really? There are left-handed footballs?’ ”
When the quarterback throws the ball, the spin hits the air and the ball tails one way or the other. For a right-hander, it tails to the right. For a left-hander, it tails to the left. The tail is subtle on shorter passes and dramatic on deeper ones.
Think about it from the perspective of Fred Biletnikoff, the Raiders’ Hall of Fame flanker in the ’60s and ’70s. No team threw deep more often than the Raiders.
Biletnikoff lined up on the right — always. When Daryle Lamonica, a righty, threw deep to Biletnikoff, Lamonica’s pass would tail toward the sideline. If Biletnikoff ran a comeback route, Lamonica’s pass would tail away from him.
When Stabler threw deep down the right side, Biletnikoff knew the ball never would sail out of bounds — it would tail back into the field. And if he ran a comeback route, Stabler’s pass would tail toward him, not away from him.
“I thought it was more of an advantage, for me anyway, to have the flight of the ball coming in that direction,” Biletnikoff said of Stabler’s passes.
Biletnikoff could be biased. He grew up playing catch with a lefty — his little brother, Bobby Biletnikoff. Bobby was a minor-league baseball player for the Yankees in the ’60s, and he was Fred’s quarterback in high school.
Catching Stabler’s passes must have felt like going home.
The temptation to be a pitcher
The top-three left-handed pitchers of all-time:
1. Lefty Grove.
2. Warren Spahn.
3. Randy Johnson.
You also could make arguments for Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Whitey Ford — any number of lefties. The list goes on and on.
Who are the top-three left-handed quarterbacks of all time?
1. Steve Young.
2. Boomer Esiason.
3. Frankie Albert? Jim Zorn? Mark Brunell? It’s murky.
Not a lot to choose from. There simply haven’t been many left-handed quarterbacks, let alone great ones.
You could argue Kenny Stabler is one of the top-three lefty quarterbacks ever — he went to four Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl.
Sam Wyche didn’t pick Stabler. Wyche picked a wild card — Bobby Douglass.
“Do you remember Douglass?” Wyche asked over the phone. “He was a runner, kind of like Tim Tebow. Big guy. Played for the Chicago Bears in the ’70s. Really had up-and-down years, a lot of criticism. They were down on him because the Bears weren’t winning and he missed a few wide open guys, but he was better than people gave him credit for. He was darn good. You should call him.”
I called. The next day, he called back.
“It’s Bobby Douglass,” he said.
Talk about a standup guy. If you try to contact Stabler, forget it. You’re out of luck. The Snake must have burrowed himself deep down a hole somewhere in Alabama.
Whom does Douglass consider the greatest left-handed quarterbacks?
He laughed. “Who are we picking from? Kenny? The guy in San Francisco?”
He meant Steve Young.
“Yeah, I would say Kenny and Young. How many are we talking about? Jim Zorn? Jim was a great quarterback. But I thought I was as good as any of them. I actually went to training camp with Kenny in 1978 and I thought I threw the ball as well him. And I had another asset — I could run. But I never really had a team to play with. Quarterbacks need good teams around them. I’m not saying that because I didn’t have a Hall-of-Fame career. That’s just the way it is.
“You have to get into an offense, get comfortable with it. You have to mature. You’re not one-on-one in football. It’s a team thing. I loved pitching because it was one-on-one. I’m throwing against a batter — if I’m good, I can prove it.”
Did Douglass consider pursuing a career in baseball instead of football?
Douglass didn’t pause to think like Young paused to think about the center-quarterback exchange.
“I’ve thought about that many times,” Douglass admitted. “I probably should have played baseball. My dad was a football coach at a junior college in a small town named El Dorado (Kansas). I was obviously the best athlete growing up in Kansas — I could probably do just about what I wanted. Some of my high school baseball coaches said, ‘You need to sign a baseball contract, you can play in the majors tomorrow.’ I was left-handed and I threw the ball 100 miles an hour. I probably could have pitched a long time. But my dad wanted me to go to college. And I had a passion to play football. That’s what I wanted to do.
“When my football career ended, I signed with the White Sox. Tony La Russa was my manager. I really didn’t play very long — I was pretty successful in the real estate business at the time and I had five kids. I didn’t know if I wanted to hang around in the minors. I should have. I wish I would have. Baseball would have been a more natural career for me.”
Question: why would any lefty choose football over baseball? Look at Barry Zito, a pitcher with a winning percentage of only .536 and a fastball that travels about 85 miles an hour. Because he’s a lefty, he earned more than a hundred million dollars and, at age 36, he’s contemplating a comeback after sitting out last season. Life for lefty pitchers never ends.
Even Phil Simms wanted his son Chris to be a pitcher, not a quarterback.
“There’s no doubt about that,” Chris said. “I could throw 90 as a freshman in high school. I was one of the best pitchers in the Northeast area (of the country growing up. People would make a big deal of it: ‘Oh, you’re a lefty and you can throw it that hard, you should be a pitcher!’ I had parents and coaches saying that to me from fifth grade through freshman year of high school.”
Chris went against Phil’s wishes and chose football. Chris ruptured his spleen during a game in 2006, started just 16 games in his professional career and retired in 2010.
“Every now and then,” said Simms, “there are mornings when I wake up and think, ‘Man, if I had just picked baseball I’d probably still be pitching instead of sitting here working at Bleacher Report.’ ”
The identity crisis, or how genetics rules football
“You know, I have had moments when I wished I was a righty,” he said. Suddenly, the interview became a confession like he was talking to a priest sitting behind a lattice. “I was very aware of being left-handed as a young kid. Of course, my dad was playing in the NFL when I was growing up and he was right-handed. I knew there weren’t really any left-handed quarterbacks except Boomer Esiason. As I got a little older, Steve Young came onto the scene, but my idols were my dad, Troy Aikman and John Elway. So, I did wish I was right-handed.”
How can you blame him? Left-handed quarterbacks face obstacles, battle prejudice because of a genetic quirk shared by merely 15 percent of the population.
Handedness is genetic — that’s the predominant theory. Everyone gets a “D” gene, or a “C” gene. If you get the “D” gene — most people get the “D” gene — you’re right-handed.
Simms got the “C” gene. But he wasn’t sentenced yet to a lifetime of smudging ink with his hand. He still had a 50-percent chance to be a righty like his dad. Half of the people who get the “C” gene become right-handed, and half become left-handed. Simms is in the second half.
Lefties are right-brain dominant. Don’t ask why. Creativity happens in the right hemisphere. Meaning lefties tend to be more creative than righties. Or is it nuts? Think Bill Walsh, a notorious southpaw, who did everything against the grain and was considered a mad genius.
Are left-handed quarterbacks more creative than right-handed quarterbacks? Could that be one advantage a left-handed quarterback has over a right-handed quarterback?
“Ooh, that’s a great question,” Brent Jones said. “I think so. Steve (Young) did have a more creative mindset, maybe more of a wild streak, or outside the box. I’m not sure how to completely explain it.
“I think it probably showed itself in some of his runs and scrambles and big completions down the field after ducking a few guys and scrambling for 40 or 50 yards behind the line of scrimmage and then making a play. I think the creative side of the brain, for whatever reason, goes hand-in-hand with being left-handed.”
Jones paused, seemed to relive one of Young’s insanely great plays. “I could sense it. I could feel it,” Jones said, his voice rising.
Will the NFL feel it too?
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.