The lowdown on the 49ers quarterback meetings

Here for your pleasure and enlightenment, and because it’s a Bye Week and nothing’s going on, I wrote a piece about what happens in quarterback meetings, focusing on 49ers quarterback meetings. The article follows.

SANTA CLARA — What happens in an NFL quarterback meeting? And specifically, what happens in a 49ers quarterback meeting?

You’ve probably wondered about all that. A quarterback meeting is something you never can attend, a place you never can go. So, here, for you, a lay person is the lowdown on what goes on between the quarterbacks coach and his pupils.

Former Packers QB coach, former 49ers head coach, and current NFL network analyst Steve Mariucci describes a quarterback meeting like this: “It’s a graduate class, not a romper room.”

Whew! Thank goodness it’s not a romper room, not that there’s anything wrong with a romper room.

Former 49er quarterback and current ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a veteran of quarterback meetings, looks at them this way: “They’re completely unique. They encompass everything that goes on behind the veil of an NFL team. There’s a lot of X’s and O’s and film study, but also life gets done there. There’s conflict. There’s parenting advice. The quarterbacks coach doubles as a psychologist because all quarterbacks are a little crazy.”

What happens in the 2011 49ers quarterback meeting? That’s a little tougher to say, because current quarterback coach Geep Chryst refused to be interviewed for this article. Luckily, quarterbacks Scott Tolzien and Colin Kaepernick helped fill in the details.

The 49er quarterbacks meet for a half an hour twice a day in Chryst’s second-floor office. Here’s how Tolzien described this secret meeting room: “Basically he’s got a projector screen, his computer, and then we have a small, four-person table that we sit at.”

Here’s how Colin Kaepernick described the secret dynamic of the meetings: “It’s more discussion at this point. For the most part, everybody knows the offense, knows what we’re trying to get done. It’s more, ‘How do you feel about certain things? What do you like going into the game? What are you most comfortable with?’ I’d say in college it’s a little bit more of, ‘This is what we want to do. This is what we want to get done.’”

So, they discuss plays and look at images from a projector – call it grown-up Show and Tell.

According to Tolzien, the 49ers quarterback meetings progress throughout the week almost identically to every football program he’s ever been a part of.

Mariucci described this progression: “On Monday, two hours before they get on the field the quarterbacks watch a tape of Sunday’s game that’s already been graded by the coaching staff. Our comments are in front of the quarterback. They look at their assignments. They should be assignment perfect.

“Good quarterbacks come in on Tuesdays for preliminary scouting (of the next opponent). Brett Favre never missed a Tuesday.

“Every week, Wednesday is the start of a new chapter. Players are given a one-inch binder by their coaches. The coaches write a book every week – all brand new scouting reports of the other team. There’s a theme of the week. On Wednesday, West Coast teams usually do base offense, first and second down. On Thursday, they do third down and goal line and maybe blitz. On Friday they do red zone.

“During the season, the quarterbacks sit on their butts and look at grease boards more than any other position. D-line meetings were more simple. I used to joke with Reggie White and the guys in their meetings, ‘Inside shade or outside shade (these are how they line up) and get out of here!’ That’s all they needed.”

That’s a former coach’s perspective on quarterback meetings. Here’s a former player’s perspective – back to Dilfer:

“There are good and bad quarterback meetings. In a great room, the quarterbacks get each other and they help each other out. In bad rooms there is undercutting, lying, deceit and agendas.”

Dilfer experienced both good and bad meetings throughout his NFL career, but he experienced a particularly good group when he was on 49ers in 2007: “It was a great room because it was so hyper-competitive (between Alex Smith, Shaun Hill, and him). We competed over everything, even the littlest things like who sat in their chair first and who pulled their notes out first. There were hilarious moments of one-upping. I used to write on the board all the things I’d beaten them at over the course of the year. In training camp of ’07 we charted complete QB stats of every throw we made – completion percentage, yardage, those things. I wasn’t challenging for a starting job, but I crushed them both and I talked non-stop about it. After a while in the meetings Alex and Shaun and Frank (Cignetti, the QB coach) would have to yell at me to shut up.”

What effect does the coach himself have on the quality of the meetings? “Some quarterback coaches are very much in control,” Dilfer explained. “They’re teachers and mentors. Others get completely exposed in the meeting room because the quarterbacks are smarter than they are.”

Which kind of coach is the elusive Geep Chryst?

“Off-the-charts smart IQ-wise,” said Dilfer. “He has multiple degrees. He’s very analytical. He’s studied the position and he’s coached other positions, too. He likes guys being interactive.”

According to Tolzien, “He’s got a real good feel from a coaching perspective. Sometimes there’s a coach on the sideline but he may not have a great feel for what the quarterback’s seeing, the progression and everything like that. But I think he has an awesome feel for the game situation and what we’re trying to get done as quarterbacks. It’s different being on the sideline, but I think he’s got a great vision for it.”

Although Chryst is the Niners official quarterback coach, he isn’t the only quarterbacks coach in the organization. Tolzien says former quarterback and current head coach Jim Harbaugh pops into the QB meetings every now and then to give input. Typical Harbaugh input sounds like: “On this running play, our first step’s going to be with our right foot. It’s going to be a six-inch step.” In other words, his instructions are minute, detailed and ultra-specific.

Alex Smith craves this type of instruction, according to Dilfer. “Alex likes specific info, no conjecture. He wants the bottom line. What is the raw info here that will make me do my job better?”

Clearly, Smith is getting the raw info he needs from his coaches this season. Are the other quarterbacks getting what they need from Smith? “Yeah, he’s awesome,” said Tolzien. “He’s been great for me and I’m sure Kaep would say the same thing. He’s been around the game a while so he’s always sharing his ideas with the coaches. At the same time if he sees something that can help us out, he’s always voicing that. It’s a good room because I think guys are willing to help each other out.”

Smith wasn’t always that self-assured in the quarterback meetings, according to Dilfer: “Over the years, he’s learned how to relax better. He was a little high strung early on. He acted like it was life-or-death to give the right answer to the coach’s question. Now he understands the process better.”

Perhaps he’s relaxed because Chryst’s taken the pressure out of the room – he doesn’t give written quarterback tests, as many other quarterback coaches do.

“Coach Chryst would say the test is on Sunday, on Game Day,” explained Tolzien. “But at the same time all throughout the week we’re trying to remind each other, and that’s why it’s a team effort. It’s not just Alex, Kaep and myself. We’re collectively trying to help out whoever’s in the game. Giving them reminders and everything like that. That’s kind of our own little test, I guess – the communication process between us all.”

Mariucci has a different idea about exams and quizzes. When told Chryst doesn’t give exams, he replied, “That surprises me. I tested every position Saturday. I made my players turn in their binders at the end of every week so I could check their notes to see what they wrote, what they highlighted, or if they just doodled.”

And then Mariucci gave this insight into his star pupil with the 49ers, Steve Young. “Steve was a doodler,” Mariucci said. “I saved his binders because his doodles were so bizarre. He used to twirl his hair in the meetings. I’d call him out and he’d say things like, ‘This is the eight millionth time I’ve gone over the play 22 Z In.’

“So I’d tell him, ‘Don’t you dare get bored with 22 Z In!’”

Does Alex Smith get bored? Is he a doodler or a hair-twirler? If anyone could ever talk to Geep Chryst, we’d all find out.

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