Greg Knapp has coached numerous quarterbacks over his 21-year coaching career, from Hall of Famer Steve Young to Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning.
His current mission is to develop Trevor Siemian and first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch to be the franchise quarterback of the post-Manning era for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
Manning left the Broncos with his second Super Bowl title and the club’s in March. So did Brock Osweiler, who many thought would be Manning’s successor, leaving for Houston via free agency a few days later.
Knapp, in his fourth year with the Broncos, has had the mixed results so far this season. The second-year and lone leftover Siemian guided the Broncos to a 4-0 start before he suffered a shoulder injury and was forced to sit out the game against the Falcons, which Denver lost with Lynch at quarterback. Siemian returned the next week, but failed to save the Broncos from a second straight loss.
“Even last year, we had to go through seven games without Peyton (due to injuries),” Knapp told The Japan Times in July, when he visited Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and Tokyo to hold football clinics. “We started a quarterback who had never started in the NFL, Brock. Teams have to respond with the different quarterback as a starter.”
“Because of our defense and special teams, along with the improvement made in our offense, we’ve already got the main keys for a good football team,” Knapp continued. “Now we have to find the right quarterback to get going and help the offense out.”
Denver’s dominant defense is its main weapon again this year and it has helped make the Broncos one of the top contenders in the AFC. Knapp, however, has also played a major role by developing the most important position in football.
Right before training camp started this summer, Knapp was invited to Japan by Tsuyoshi Kawata, a Stanford assistant who arranged the clinics in corporation with the Yokota Base and Nihon University football team.
Knapp, with his Super Bowl ring on his finger, coached American kids in Yokota and Japanese players and coaches at Nihon University during a two-day session. In the latter session, Knapp gave a two-hour lecture on developing quarterbacks before having an on-field practice session that took another two hours.
For Knapp, it was a reunion with Japan, where he made his debut as an NFL coach. He was a rookie assistant coach for the 49ers when San Francisco came to Tokyo to play the Broncos in a preseason American Bowl in 1995.
“It was John Elway vs. Steve Young,” Knapp said of the two starting quarterbacks in that game, both now Hall of Famers. “I did come back with the Falcons later on (in 2005). My first-ever professional game was right here in Tokyo, so it is kind of neat to come back.”
“I am so impressed with (Japanese) dedication,” Knapp said after the clinic at Nihon University. “They don’t get much time and resources to prepare as we do in the NFL. These guys are subsidizing even themselves and trying to pay their own way to get through and play football.”
In Japan, where American football is not so popular, only a few teams get enough financial support from schools or sponsors. Many schools do not have full-time coaches and in many cases their alumni come to coach on weekends. And there were a lot of participants from those clubs at the clinic.
“You can always improve your game yourself by listening or learning from whomever, and hopefully there is some information that might make them better players or better coaches that I passed on to them today,” Knapp said. “No matter who I worked for or I worked with, I always feel this. You can learn from everyone. As long as we all keep our minds open and help each other, they expand the broadness and enthusiasm for the game.”
After playing quarterback at Sacramento State University, Knapp entered the NFL undrafted in 1986. While participating in training camps with the Chiefs, Raiders and 49ers but never making the roster, Knapp launched his coaching career at his alma mater in 1986-94. He then joined the 49ers in 1995 as quality control coach.
Since then, Knapp has worked as position coach or offensive coordinator at seven NFL teams. He has also helped develop five different 4,000-yard passers in Young, Jeff Garcia, Schaub, Palmer and Manning.
“I learned a bit from everyone,” Knapp said. “In some ways I learned quarterback mechanics quite a bit from Steve Mariucchi and Bill Walsh. I learned the organization of skills from George Siefert to Jim Mora (Jr.), to obviously (his current boss) Gary Kubiak.
“I’ve been able to really get exposed to a lot of the coaches with a lot of success in the NFL. I got exposed early in my career, so it helped build the strong foundation for me to sustain my career.
“As a teacher, I take pride in the fact that I helped develop a way for a quarterback to learn maybe a new offense and still have success. I give each one credit for being open minded and trying something new and in return getting some success for them,” Knapp continued.
Knapp remembers Young, who he coached for four years with the 49ers, giving him a lesson in return. The then 36-year-old Young was the first quarterback Knapp coached, when Knapp was 31.
“The lesson Young taught me was, ‘don’t stand back, watch and praise me, but coach me because I can’t watch myself play. You need to be a critic. Be critical if I’m doing something wrong. You won’t offend me. I trust your opinion, I value your input,’ ” Knapp said. “I learned early that the great ones want to be coached and want to be coached hard. I was able to carry the lesson through my career. I coach quarterbacks hard and the great ones enjoy and appreciate it.”
When Kubiak replaced John Fox as the Broncos’ head coach in January last year, there was speculation that the pass-happy Manning would not fit Kubiak’s run-first offense. Manning struggled early last season when he played more under center than his favorite shotgun formation.
Manning eventually missed seven regular-season games due to injuries and the mobile Osweiler took over until the playoffs started.
“It was a challenge for not only Peyton but for the coaches because when you get the opportunity to coach someone like Peyton, you don’t change your playbook,” Knapp said. “You include part of his plays in the (new) playbook because he does them so well. The fusion of (Fox’s) offense with Peyton and Kubiak’s offense with Peyton was probably pretty healthy for both sides.
“Defenses had to compete against Peyton and new schemes that they never saw Peyton do before. So in some ways it helped Peyton even increase his game to a higher level.”
Manning returned in the playoffs. He was not the Manning of old, but the team’s dominant defense was good enough to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Mile-High City. Now the Broncos are the defending world champion.
“Your mind set changes. Everyone is shooting for you. All the teams will be coming after us,” Knapp said. “The teams, they will make the game against us their Super Bowl each week this season. You have to play your best every week. You can’t get by with sub-par performances. In order for us to succeed again, we have to maintain our level of performance at a high level each week.”
With an NFL championship under his belt, Knapp’s next goal is become an NFL head coach.
“Yes I am interested in that,” he said. “If the right opportunity provides itself. I’m in a job I really love. We’ve got great ownership in Pat Bowlen and Joe Ellis, we have a great GM in Elway, and I have a head coach (Kubiak). I’m in a really good place. It is going to have to take a really good situation for me to want to leave right now because I love the location I’m in now.”
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