PHOENIX — The background varies.
There was the time Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Gardner Minshew basically missed an off-platform shot. He needed to brace his core more firmly than he did, quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson explained.
There was also the time third-string quarterback Ian Book needed to prepare for a possible game-day activation after just two weeks in the building. Johnson called Book into his office, determined which 10 or 15 shows she felt more comfortable with than he did, and then distilled their nuances.
“If he’s two tall [safeties]let’s read this dot here,” Book says, Johnson reported, “and if it’s one high, let’s read this dot here.”
A series of computational decisions that would otherwise have slowed its processing in the field suddenly dissipated.
And then there are times when starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, in his breakout season, is reviewing the decision he awaits on a run-pass option. Johnson is intentional not only with What information it provides but also As delivers it.
“If you’re reading a player, say, in a zone read, and I say, ‘If he can’t tackle you, shoot him,’ that would elicit a different response than if I said, ‘If he can’t tackle the back, give it.’ Johnson told Yahoo Sports. ‘I think how you frame things in their minds is really, really important to eliciting the response you want.’
The response Johnson’s coach has elicited in the Eagles’ Super Bowl season is clear: Hurts is playing faster, processing defenses more effectively, and increasing his offensive efficiency in part thanks to the quarterbacks coach driving the its basic development.
Because as Johnson’s coaching applications change, his No. 1 no: simplify the game.
The Eagles see the results.
“What you always want for coaches is to make this game complex, simple, because they make split-second decisions,” said coach Nick Sirianni. “And it’s hard to play this game in your super complex mind. You have to make it simple so that you play quickly. And Brian does a great job of that, putting himself in a quarterback’s shoes because he’s been there, and then simplifying the reads for them, simplifying the checks for them, simplifying the defense and putting the information together.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the same players for whom Johnson has simplified football are the players who simply see their 35-year-old manager’s future. His path to NFL coaching is not a matter of Selfthey say, but When.
“He’s going to be a star,” Hurts said from Phoenix this week. “He will become a great coach, I have no doubts in my mind.”
“You can’t… stay the same”
Before Johnson coached Hurts, the familiar roles were reversed. Jalen Hurts’ father, Averion Hurts, was the coach at Johnson’s high school in the Texas town of Baytown, about 26 miles from Houston.
An understanding of Johnson’s eventual NFL tutelage began to form. Jalen’s behavior is sometimes so eerily reminiscent of his father’s that Johnson clipped young Hurts’ speeches and sent them to Averion.
“If that doesn’t sound just like you did,” he wrote to Averion recently, “I don’t know what does.”
But Johnson’s credentials for his first NFL opportunity go beyond the personal connection.
As Utah’s quarterback from 2004 to 2008, Johnson won a school record 26 career games. He threw for 7,853 yards and 57 touchdowns on 27 interceptions, rushing for another 848 yards and 12 touchdowns. Johnson’s coaches appreciated the mental grip that fueled his on-field performance so much that they hired him as quarterbacks coach within a year.
In 2012, when he was 24, Johnson was promoted to offensive coordinator, the youngest FBS offensive coordinator at the time. Working alongside his coaches, he had not yet mastered the teaching and communication styles he now employs.
“Night and day,” Johnson said. “At that point, you just don’t know what you don’t know. I learned many lessons [like] keep finding ways to evolve. The game is evolving, the game is always evolving.
“One thing you can’t do, as a manager, is stay the same or stay stagnant. Just as we ask players to keep improving, we are no different – we need to find ways to continually improve ourselves as a manager.”
The Eagles would eventually hire Johnson as quarterbacks coach after stints at Mississippi State, Houston, and Florida led quarterbacks including Dallas Cowboys starter Dak Prescott and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Kyle Trask.
Johnson aims to continually recalibrate his teaching methods and coaching emphasis for the players currently under his watch, knowing that his job as position coach is to simultaneously coach the group and train each of their strengths and individual learning styles. Now in their second season together with the Eagles, Johnson and Hurts aimed to improve quarterback consistency. One key to achieving this: Treat each play independently rather than deriving assumptions based on a defense’s past response to a given play call.
“Can’t you be the guy who sees the roulette table and thinks, ‘Oh, red 11 in a row? It has to be black,'” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “I think he’s done a great job building his play bank. [which] accelerate your vision.”
Hurts has improved his productivity this year, throwing touchdowns on 4.8% of his passes, up from 3.7% in 2021, while his completion rate has increased from 61.3% to 66.5. In concert, Hurts’ interception percentage dropped from 2.1% to 1.3%, moving from 12th best quarterback in the league to fifth. The Eagles’ offense ranks third in both rushing yards and goals this season after finishing 14th and 12th respectively last year. And now, they’re competing in a Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen credits Johnson, in part, with Hurts’ evolution.
“The way he goes about his business every single day to get Jalen ready to play speaks for itself,” Steichen told Yahoo Sports. “You see the product in the field, what he did with Jalen – it was amazing.”
Brian Johnson on track often producing head coaches
Speaking from a high chair amid the opening night craziness, and a panel discussion two days later at the team’s Phoenix-area hotel, Johnson focused less on long-term goals this week than on the keys to a win of the Super Bowl.
His mantra of “always leave something better than how you found it” requires him to give top priority to the game plan at hand, making sure that Hurts – whose recovery from a shoulder sprain remains a question – is as prepared as possible to face the Chiefs.
Still, Johnson’s performance this season has advanced him toward any potential head coaching goals he compartmentalizes. A 2022 NFL report on diversity and inclusion detailed career mobility trends, noting that over 20 years, 31.1 percent of first-time head coaches were hired immediately following a tenure as offensive coordinator.
The offensive coordinators most frequently matriculated from quarterback coaching roles, including 19 of the 29 coordinators at the time of the report’s release.
Another trend was also clear among those QB coaches turned coordinators: Of 109 such coaches over 20 years, 90.8% were white. Johnson is black.
In the first Super Bowl with two black starting quarterbacks, the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach is also an outlier leading the way. All three of their impacts go beyond the jobs they were hired to do.
“Regardless of what field you’re in or what you aspire to grow up in, seeing people who look like you at the top of that profession is something I think is really inspiring,” Johnson said. “It’s no different than when I was arriving and watching Warren Moon and watching Steve McNair play in Houston before they went to Tennessee. It made me want to play quarterback.
“Seeing it in the next generation is really inspiring.”
Johnson continues to outline his vision for a possible head coaching opportunity, a document on his iPad containing his responses to potential scenarios he faces. Johnson credits Sirianni for supporting him as he shapes that vision. Hurts revels in the time he learns from a player-turned-manager he’s long respected.
“Hopefully we can keep him here as long as possible, but I’m still proud of him,” said Hurts. “It’s just the beginning for both of us.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein