How to stunt a QB’s growth

Here is my Wednesday column on how to stunt a quarterback’s growth.

SANTA CLARA – Here is how you throw a quarterback under the bus:

Last Sunday, the Raiders had an 18-point lead over the Steelers at halftime. In the second half, Raiders’ head coach Dennis Allen went ultra-conservative, letting his quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, pass the ball just six times. As you might expect, the Raiders scored zero points in the second half and almost lost – they ended up winning by only three.

Allen shut down his own offense. He is a former defensive coordinator and when he gets a lead, he really believes his team can win by playing good defense and making the clock run fast enough to expire. That’s a bad strategy, Dennis. Put more points on the board.

Allen should have blamed himself for the Raiders’ brutal offense in the second half, but he blamed his quarterback: “I didn’t want to do anything that was going to give (the Steelers) an opportunity to get back in the game,” Allen said, inching the bus’ front-right tire across Pryor’s chest. “We wanted to be able to run the ball. We wanted to be able to get some quick, short passes out … We didn’t complete the ball when we had opportunities to complete the ball … It’s not complicated: Block ’em. Catch it. Throw it. Pretty easy.”

Wrong answer, Dennis. You just said your young quarterback can’t throw it. Pryor needs confidence and you may have just killed it. If you did kill his confidence, you also killed your team’s playoff chances this season and your future as a head coach. Congratulations.

It’s not complicated, Dennis. You don’t throw your quarterback under the bus. Pretty easy.

You’d think all head coaches understood this but they don’t, especially head coaches with a background in defense.

Take former 49ers defensive coordinator and current UCLA head coach, Jim Mora. Jr. Last Saturday, his team was tied at 14 against Oregon at halftime, and then Oregon outscored UCLA 28 to zip in the second half.

The problem was Mora Jr.’s offensive game plan. He didn’t use his best weapon – the read-option – nearly enough. UCLA called plays that looked like the read-option, but the coaches didn’t seem to trust his quarterback, Brett Hundley, to read anything or make a decision – most of the time he simply had to hand it off.

Too many times, an unblocked defensive end crashed down the line of scrimmage and Hundley gave the ball to a running back who was immediately squashed like a bug. If Mora had let Hundley read the play, Hundley would have kept the ball and run around the end for big yards.

When a coach calls the zone-read play with a pre-determined read, he is flipping coins.

Did Mora Jr. take responsibility for his coin-flip game plan at his postgame press conference? Of course he didn’t. Instead, he demonstrated how you throw a quarterback under the bus and then drive the bus back and forth over his body:

“(Hundley) needs to shine in these types of games before everyone starts talking about the Heisman,” Mora Jr. said, and then he blurted out, “I mean, let’s freaking do something around here first.” And then he got himself together, “I’m not talking about Brett. I’m talking about us.”

Good save, Jim. And good luck getting another five-star, blue-chip quarterback to come to UCLA after that unhinged tirade.

Hundley is your project, Jim. Hundley chose to play for you instead of Stanford or Oregon and if he had gone to either of those schools, he probably would be considered the best quarterback in college football right now.

You’re failing him, Jim. You’re supposed to have all the answers and tools to make Hundley better. When you throw a tantrum to the media about Hundley, what you’re really saying is you can’t make him better because as a coach, you’re not good enough. Hundley will be a first-round pick and some NFL team’s franchise quarterback, but you always will be the head coach who parallel parked a bus over the best quarterback you ever had.

Mora Jr. and Allen should learn from Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh only praises players publicly and that is one of Harbaugh’s best qualities as a head coach. A perfect example is Alex Smith. There were times Harbaugh seemed to lose confidence in Smith when he was the starting quarterback, but Harbaugh never criticized Smith publicly.

Last season when the 49ers played the Seahawks at Candlestick, Smith threw an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter and Harbaugh let him pass just once after that. After the game, Allen or Mora Jr. would have been in full bus-driver-mode. But here’s what Harbaugh said: “(Smith) was fantastic for us all night. Played with a lot of poise. Made some conversions for us. He played extremely well.”

It’s like Harbaugh was talking about a completely different game but it didn’t matter. What mattered to Harbaugh was boosting Smith’s confidence. Boosting Smith’s confidence after the previous 49ers’ head coaches, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, tried to smash Smith’s confidence is one of the most impressive things Harbaugh has accomplished as a head coach.

Harbaugh knows confidence is essential for a quarterback because he played the position. When he played for the Bears, Mike Ditka, a defensive head coach like Allen and Mora Jr., routinely criticized Harbaugh to the media. And Harbaugh stunk in Chicago.

But in 1994, Harbaugh went to the Colts and played well for head coach Ted Marchibroda, a former NFL quarterback and offensive coordinator who was old-school, meaning he did not publicly undress his players. He was anti-bus.

“On a personal level, he was just a great friend and a coach you just loved to play for,” Harbaugh said on Tuesday. “He was very positive. Always so positive. He didn’t yell at you. There was a look that he could give you that was 100 times worse than being screamed at. He kind of just dropped his eyes like this,” and then Harbaugh demonstrated the look, sunk his shoulders and rolled his head. “This look of disappointment,” said Harbaugh, “It just rips your heart out.” And then he laughed. Reminiscing about Marchibroda made him glow.

No quarterbacks will glow like that when they reminisce about Allen or Mora Jr., a couple of bus drivers, a couple of defensive coordinators in way over their heads.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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