Playing for Harbaugh: A quarterback’s perspective

Last week, we introduced Todd Mortensen to the blog.

In 2004 at the University of San Diego, Mortensen was Jim Harbaugh’s first quarterback in Harbaugh’s first year as a head coach. The Cliffs Notes version: Mortensen was anonymous in three years as a backup at BYU, awesome in one year with Harbaugh at USD and popped onto the NFL radar.

Mortensen, a summa cum laude graduate of BYU, also had a 4.0 mind on the field. On his first staff at Stanford, Harbaugh wanted Mortensen, the son of a former NFL quarterback, to be a graduate assistant working with quarterbacks.

Based on his experience and intelligence, Mortensen has a unique insight into the pro-style offense Harbaugh ran at USD and Stanford. Mortensen termed the system a “derivative of the West Coast Offense,” and Harbaugh, of course, will run the WCO in San Francisco.

In last week’s blog (click here), I included some of Mortensen’s thoughts on the offense. But he said much more about playing in the system and playing for Harbaugh.

It was good stuff — so good that I’ve included a transcript below featuring the highlights of the 30-minute conversation.

A warning: It’s lengthy. But it’s worth wading through for fans interested in pursuing an advanced degree in all things Harbaugh:

How much did the offense have to do with your success?

Todd Mortensen: The thing I enjoyed most about it was that everything was very clear in terms of my decision-making process. Just the way the scheme was set up. I knew where everyone on the field was going to be. I knew what aspects of a play would be good against a certain defense and what plays would not be good against a certain defense. And if the play lined up well, I knew exactly what I was looking for and we’d execute it and we’d be successful. And if it was a play that was called and I knew the defense wasn’t particularly well suited for the play, a lot of times we’d have the option to change the play at the line of scrimmage. Or there was something built into the play where we could alter it and get ourselves in a position to succeed.

So that’s what I really enjoyed about Jim’s offensive scheme. My decision-making process as a quarterback was very clear. When your decisions are clear as a quarterback you’re able to go through them a lot quicker and it makes it a lot easier to execute the offense. And that’s something that I really appreciated about his system and one the things that really helped me blossom. Because those are the things I could do well: Think quickly, make good decisions and distribute the football to all of our play-makers. That was my role as the quarterback at San Diego … I got the chance to live my dream because I had a chance to play under Jim.

You said it was easy to make decisions in the offense, but isn’t the offense rather complex?

TM: I think there’s a lot of consistency within the offensive system. There are certain core concepts and certain route combinations that are just consistent. And regardless of the formation you’re in or regardless of the personnel package you’re in, if you call a certain route combination, you know the outside receiver’s going to run a certain route, the inside receiver’s going to run a certain route and the concept stays the same regardless of the formation you’re in. So you’re able to change personnel groups radically and force the defense into a situation where their substituting personnel.

Then you have the same concept and all of a sudden you’re able to create mismatches based on your personnel and execute a play that you’ve run either out of a different formation or out of a different personnel group. But it’s the same underlying concept. So as a quarterback I know I’m reading the defense in the same way, but I also know, based our game plan and the scouting that we’ve done, that by putting ourselves in this personnel group, all off a sudden we have a linebacker on the slot receiver or we have a strong safety that’s covering one of our running backs that’s a very good route runner. And we know there’s going to be a good matchup based on the personnel group and the formation that we’ve put in the game.

I really enjoyed watching the Orange Bowl for that reason. Once they got in the second half and they knew the way Virginia Tech’s defense was responding to their formations and their personnel groups, they could create mismatches where they could create very big plays. I think that’s one of the things about the offensive scheme that made it easier for me to execute as quarterback. Now granted, it was still very complicated and very high level and advanced in terms of an offense. But when you have smart players, like he did at Stanford and like he did at San Diego, you come in Monday or Tuesday and you can’t wait to see what the game plan is going to be this week because there’s always something new and there’s a new wrinkle. And you can tell that the coaching staff has really thought through — how can we put our players in a position where they can have a good matchup and take advantage of something that we see on the defense? Or how can we exploit what we feel is our best strength as an offense?

And it makes it fun to come to practice every day. When you see that creativity and you see that enthusiasm you feel like, ‘Hey we’ve got a great game plan. We really feel like we can take it to these guys.’ The energy level at practice is higher, you’re more focused in practice because it’s a new concept and it’s not something you’ve done all season and you’re not just doing it by rote. You really have to concentrate. Learning something new each week really develops smart football players and they’re able to make good decisions on game day. I think that’s something that was really fun about playing in his system.

You joked that you might have a story more like Andrew Luck’s if you had played for Harbaugh a second season. But have you seriously thought about what could have happened if you had more time with him?

TM: Absolutely. I remember our second-to-last game of the (2004) season. We were playing a team (Dayton) that No. 2 in the nation in passing efficiency defense. And I threw for (464) yards, was (37 of 54), we just absolutely had a very phenomenal game. We just executed exactly what we wanted to do and a lot of times the defender was right there covering the receiver, but because of the route or because of the scheme that we had, he was open just enough so that I could hit him and we had a 20-yard gain. And then we’d throw a screen route to the back. We were executing at such a high level at the end of the season, very similar to what Stanford was doing. I would have loved to continue to play in that system …

There was a just a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence in the players that when they stepped on the field, they expected to be successful with what they were doing. And I think that goes a long way, both in college and the pros. I’ve seen teams that have that confidence and they just expect the scheme to work and they expect to be able to beat their opponent. And I’ve been on teams where there’s doubt and you don’t have as much confidence in the game plan. And you kind of go up to the line of scrimmage hoping that it’s going to work. And it makes a huge difference. Especially at the quarterback position when you have that confidence and that expectation — this play’s going to work. We’re going to execute it well and we’re going to get a good result.

How did Harbaugh influence you the most?

TM: A lot of what I did with Jim was more in film study and game planning and thinking like a pro quarterback. And he was really able to refine my thinking and marry it to the system in way in where the decision-making process was a lot faster and a lot cleaner. But the fun thing about playing quarterback for Jim is if there’s something he wants done a certain way, he’s not afraid to go into practice and say ‘Let me run this one.’ And the he’ll walk up behind center without warming up and throw a 40-yard pass right down the sideline and say ‘OK, that’s what I want.’ He’d do that every now and then at San Diego and I’d be like, ‘Holy cow. Did you do that for a living?’ But he’s able to show you exactly what he wants out of his quarterbacks because he’s played the position.

Does Harbaugh demand a lot of his quarterbacks?

TM: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s one of the reasons that Jim and I got along so well is that I really loved football. And I wanted to come in on a Tuesday morning at 8 o’clock when I didn’t have class and watch film with him and study the game plan. And just be a professional in the way that I went about my job as far as being a quarterback. And Jim’s the same way as a coach. He loves football. And he loves what he does as a coach. He can’t wait to come in and put the game plan together and watch film and get on the practice field and coach his players up.

So Jim and I really shared that passion and enthusiasm for the game and we really loved doing it. We loved winning. And we loved being successful and coming up with ways to beat our opponent. And there were times that I wasn’t performing up to the level he wanted me to and he was hard on me. And I knew that I had to get coached up and I had to play better … I think that having that shared enthusiasm and love for what we were doing really helped us get along well and smoothed out some of the inevitable challenges and disagreements and tough parts of the season. Having that shared enthusiasm always made us refocus on, ‘OK what are we trying to do?’

Based on what you’ve seen from watching Stanford, has Harbaugh’s offense changed dramatically?

TM: I see a lot of similar concepts, but I see a lot new things too. It has evolved and grown. And it is more complex and more varied. And he had different personnel at Stanford in terms of the abilities of some of his players that we didn’t necessarily have at USD. He had the ability to go three or four deep at certain positions and put three or four of the same personnel on the field at the same time. And then to run his system out of different formations out of that personnel group. It’s definitely grown and it’s fun. It’s neat to watch his offensive system evolve, but to recognize the similar core concepts.