John McNulty is Josh Freeman’s new quarterbacks coach in 2013. ‘New quarterbacks coach’ – that’s a phrase with which Freeman has become pretty familiar.
Freeman’s position coach upon arrival in Tampa as a first-round pick in 2009 was Greg Olson, though Olson would also be serving as offensive coordinator by the time the former Kansas State quarterback got his first NFL start. In 2010 and 2011, the position was held by former NFL quarterback Alex Van Pelt. With the arrival of new Head Coach Greg Schiano in 2012, the position went to Ron Turner and his more than three decades of coaching experience. Turner moved on to become the head coach at Florida International in 2013, so in comes McNulty, who the Bucs had actually tried to hire away from the Arizona Cardinals a year earlier.
McNulty has plenty of experience, too, including four years in Arizona, a long run with Schiano at Rutgers and previous stops with the Cowboys and Jaguars. He knows all about the proper mechanics for playing quarterback at a high level. And that’s not at all his emphasis when it comes to coaching Josh Freeman.
Noting that Freeman has already had plenty of input from plenty of quarterback coaches, McNulty said his main goal in working with the fifth-year passer is academic. Greater understanding of the system will in turn lead to improved mechanics on a play-to-play basis.
“I think it’s more just the knowledge and being comfortable,” said McNulty. “If he’s certain where he’s going with the ball and he sets his feet where he’s going with the ball, he can throw it as well as anyone in the league.
“A guy that’s played that many years, a lot of times it comes down to footwork, and those things usually have to do with being sure where you’re going with the ball and getting your body, your feet and your eyes to where you’re going with the ball. You can say, ‘Well, the guy’s got this or that with his delivery,’ but a guy that’s been playing that long, in the heat of the battle is he really going to rely on a new [technique] throwing the ball?”
McNulty said he has worked in systems similar to what the Bucs are doing under Schiano and Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan in several of his coaching stops, including Rutgers and Arizona. He’s seen the specific ways in which quarterbacks have had trouble with it (and overcome those troubles), whether it was Mark Brunell and Jonathan Quinn in Jacksonville or Eli Manning in a Giants training camp.
“I’m sure other guys have said, ‘Hey, if you throw it like this, if you throw it like that…’” said McNulty. “What I’m trying to help him with is, I spent five years in this system. I’ve seen what some guys have struggled with and I understand the system well enough to kind of iron him through all the pitfalls and make him feel confident with it. I think it’s more comfort with the system, because he has the physical ability to do it. I mean, I’m not trying to teach the guy how to throw a ball. I try to stay away from altering a guy’s mechanics and just try to get him as comfortable as you can with running the system.”
Freeman isn’t starting from ground zero, obviously. He broke the Bucs’ single-season records for passing yards (4,065) and touchdown passes (27) last year and at certain times in the season was one of the league’s most prolific quarterbacks. Freeman was particularly adept at the long ball in 2012, repeatedly hooking up deep with Vincent Jackson (NFL-high 19.2 yards per catch) and Mike Williams. If he struggled at times, it was usually with throws in the short to intermediate range. Again, McNulty says that all comes down to a deeper knowledge of and quicker reaction within the offensive system. Get that right, and the mechanics will follow…as will ever greater success.
“[We’re] trying to make him a little faster,” said McNulty. “Faster, faster, faster. Just know where you’re going, get your feet to where you’re going. If it’s covered, get to the next guy faster, get to the last guy faster. That’s just being comfortable with play, where you know what to look for, and that takes reps.”