TEMPE, Ariz. -- As Byron Leftwich sat down with each quarterback the Arizona Cardinals interviewed at this week’s NFL scouting combine, he knew, before he met them, whether they could play or not.
The tape told him that.
What the film didn’t tell Leftwich, who’s entering his second season as the Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach, was who those quarterbacks were as people. That’s what Leftwich set out to discover in Indianapolis.
“It’s not just about film,” Leftwich told ESPN. “You’re evaluating the guy, the player, the human being.”
Leftwich, more than most coaches, knew what he was looking for when he met with quarterbacks.
He’s been a top-10 pick. He’s started in the NFL. He’s been a franchise quarterback. He went through the combine wringer in 2003, when he came out of Marshall and was the seventh overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He understood what those prospects were going through this week, what they were thinking, what kind of stress and pressure they were under, trying to make as good of a first impression as humanly possible in their interviews.
He also knows what makes quarterbacks tick.
“I’ve been through this process that they’re all going through,” Leftwich said. “I know what they’re thinking right now. I’ve been a franchise quarterback in this league. I’ve been a guy who’s got cut. I’ve been at the bottom. I’ve been in the blender. I’ve been through it all. I’ve been to the highs of the highs and the lows of the lows in this league.
“And I understand this league. I understand how tough of a position it is. And I understand exactly what they’re going through at all times. It’s going to be hard for them to do something that I haven’t seen or heard of before because I’ve been through that process, so that can help me.”
As he talked with the quarterbacks, he had an additional challenge: He was trying to figure out if they could be the next face of the Cardinals’ franchise, with Carson Palmer having announced his retirement in January.
“You got to think, with this position, you’re picking a guy to lead the franchise,” Leftwich said. “You’re picking the guy to really take over the organization, and it’s such an important job. It’s such an important position that it’s not one specific thing you look at.
“You look at all the guys, all the great ones, all the 32 of the guys that are starting around this league. They’re all different. All different personalities, different ways they throw the ball, different attributes. They all are different, but it’s different ways to get the job done. And we just got to evaluate. It’s not one thing that a guy should have that tells you he’s going to be this or he’s going to be that. I just think it’s the individual and that’s our job to learn the individual and the human being as much as we can also while we evaluate the player.”
If the Cardinals draft a quarterback, especially in the first round, the future of the organization will be placed on his shoulders. The expectations will be lofty, the goals high.
Quarterbacks coming out of college in this era, Leftwich said, are expected to play sooner than in his era. Sometimes as soon as possible. He said the history of the NFL had been an example of teams bringing quarterbacks along slowly, letting them develop in the process. Not anymore.
“Right now, guys are thrown out there, ready or not, and as a coach, all we try to do is get them ready as quick as possible,” Leftwich said. “You just try to get them ready and try to speed up the process, because no matter who you bring in, it’s going to be a learning curve. I don’t care how good he played his rookie year; I don’t care how bad. He’s learning while he’s going through that. And some guys can learn and have success. Some guys can learn and not have success.”
By the time he’s done with his evaluations, Leftwich said there’ll be quarterbacks who he feels won’t be able to handle the job, either on or off the field. But, Leftwich added, as an evaluator, there can’t be one thing that should make him feel that way. There needs to be multiple reasons, he said.
As teams, coaches, scouts and the media get caught up in one facet of a quarterback’s game, or how many times he threw the ball in college, or what kind of offense he ran in school, Leftwich continues to stress the importance of understanding the complexities of being an NFL quarterback.
Which is why scouting the person within the quarterback is just as important as scouting the quarterback.
“You’re talking about the human being,” Leftwich said. “You got to think, ‘That player is a human first. There’s somebody in there that’s not a player. This is what he does. This is his job. This is what he does. But the human being factor of it matters, I believe, in all the aspects going through it.
“We’d be here all day going through every single one. You got to pay attention to the player and the human being the same amount -- I believe in that.”