Before he was the quarterback whisperer, Marc Trestman was just a quarterback coach who had no idea how to coach quarterbacks. He was fresh out of law school and his only experience with the position was as a two-year intern with the Miami Hurricanes team and a backup to Tony Dungy at the University of Minnesota in the mid-to-late 1970s. But Howard Schnellenberger, then the Hurricanes’ coach, hired the 27-year-old Trestman.
“Coaching never crossed my mind for a minute,” he told The Gazette‘s Herb Zerkowsky in conversation. “I never had a great relationship with my coaches, to my recollection. I always tell coach Schnellenberger he saw something in me I never saw in myself. To hire me as the quarterback coach … as young as I was. And I really coached them. The quarterback’s the center of the game. I was just winging it. I had no experience, no criteria, no mentorship, no training. Nothing. I’m just grateful he saw that in me.”
Just “winging” it — it being the quarterback position, the most important and delicate one on the football field. Trestman wasn’t entirely sure of what he was doing, but he coached junior Bernie Kosar to more than 2,000 passing yards and ultimately a national championship. Kosar had “the gift,” the quarterback coach noted in an interview with Sports Illustrated, which he described as being able to find the open receiver the majority of the time while remaining collected under duress.
Trestman spent two years at Miami before leaving for a long journey that made stops at several NFL teams, including the Cleveland Browns, where he coached Kosar again, the San Francisco 49ers with Steve Young, and in Oakland with Rich Gannon. All three stops saw scoring offenses and winning records, with the 49ers in particular leaving a deep mark on his career. There he studied under Bill Walsh, who came back to the team in a consulting role in 1996 when Trestman was the offensive coordinator. In a guest article for Sports Illustrated, Trestman would divulge his relationship with Walsh.
“My experience with Bill during the 1996 season was an amazing journey into the mind of a football legend,” Trestman wrote. “He gave me daily notes of what he saw in practice, which was a unique insight into his original vision of the offense and the training of the quarterback. I asked him to coach a QB workout during the offseason. What I got was a first-hand clinic of training that has helped me dramatically over the last decade, reinforcing my knowledge and passion for the game’s most important position. Once again, in 1996 we had one of the better teams and top offenses in the league.”
The offensive and quarterback training is ultimately what would have the greatest impact on Trestman’s philosophy, which, like Walsh’s was, is heavily infused with the West Coast Offense. It’s based off of a rhythmic passing game that emphasizes the middle of the field with crossing routes that are designed through motions and shifts which force defenses into coverages that benefit the offense. The crossing routes have options built in to defeat man and zone coverage, but they are not the only source of yardage for Trestman; screen passes are, too.
Trestman uses several types of screen passes to slow down a killer pass-rush and create high percentage throws, like the aforementioned crossing routes, for his quarterback. In his first season as the head coach of the Chicago Bears, both passing forms have been staples in his offense, which is why quarterbacks Josh McCown and Jay Cutler are completing more than 60 percent of their passes. Neither quarterback had posted dazzling numbers in their careers leading up to their first season with Trestman, but they are now posting career-highs because Trestman has created an offense that minimizes their tendency to make mistakes and adapt it around their talent, something that the coach has long been known to do.
“He’s flexible and creative, there’s no question about that,” Montreal Alouettes GM Jim Popp , who worked with Trestman the previous five years, said to SB Nation. ”I would compare what we’ve done in Montreal the majority of the time with what you see in New Orleans with Drew Brees. Marc’s very adaptable. This past season, we had a lot of injuries on offense and were still one of the highest scoring teams. We went from more of a spread offense to a two or three tight end package with a third-string running back. We never had our starting receiving corps together from game No. 3 on, and he adapted and adjusted. We still averaged over 30 points a game. He is creative and finds ways to get it done with what he has to work with.”
In Chicago, he’s gotten creative by sticking to his offensive philosophy while adapting to the strengths of Cutler and then McCown, who replaced the former once he went out with injury. Trestman’s utilized his various formations to set up surprising screen game tactics, such as fullback screens when they’re least expected.
On 1st-and-10 from the 21-yard line against the St. Louis Rams in Week 12, the Bears’ offense came out in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) and a Twin set of receivers to McCown’s left. At first glance, it appears to be a run heavy formation that could potentially go to the right side, the strong-side where tight end Martellus Bennett is lined up at the end of the trenches, with a lead block from fullback Tony Fiammetta. But a quick motion from receiver Alshon Jeffery across the formation shifted the defense at the last second. Then the ball was snapped.
McCown reversed out to his left and faked a power handoff to running back Matt Forte to the right, where the back-side left guard pulled. That froze the Rams’ linebackers for a half-second before they dropped back into coverage expecting a pass over their head in typical play action fashion. But no! McCown dropped back and stared at the middle of the field before looking to his left, where Fiammetta faked a block and released inside the numbers for a screen pass.
Fiammetta caught the ball and turned upfield, where the Bears had numbers. Four blockers against three defenders. Fiammetta followed the alley created by rookie right guard Kyle Long and veteran center Roberto Garza for 17 yards. A well-designed, but easy, high-percentage play for McCown and the Bears’ offense.
Against the arch-rival Minnesota Vikings a week later, the Bears showed how they can dictate coverage through their formational positioning.
It was the first quarter, and the Bears had the ball on their own 34-yard line on 1st-ad-10. McCown was in a shotgun set and had Doubles formation, meaning two receivers to each side. Based off of the depth of the middle linebacker and the two deep safeties, the Vikings looked to play their well-known Cover 2 concept. But the Bears didn’t like that look, so they changed it with one quick shift by Bennett.
Lined up to the far right, Bennett shifted inside of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and forced the Vikings to walk down their strong safety to match up with Bennett. In a domino effect, the free safety rotated to the middle of the field and forced the cornerbacks to play Cover 3 (four-under, three-deep zone) at the snap.
What the motion was designed to do was clear out room for Jeffery to make a sit-down grab just inside the 45-yard line. When the play began, Bennett cleared out room by running straight downfield outside the right hash while the strong safety ran down to the left flat to defend Forte. Forte ran a flat route while Jeffery ran a curl route that immediately turned back to the quarterback when the strong safety ran by him. The three-man route combination created a surefire opening for McCown, who took a three-step drop with a hitch before gunning the ball to Jeffery for nine yards and set up a manageable second down.
Both plays illustrate what Trestman’s offense in Chicago is: quick-hitting, highly-efficient, and quarterback friendly. They also illustrate the lessons he learned from Walsh on the West Coast Offense, which still uses some of the crossing patterns that are all too familiar to those who have watched it long enough.
Two weeks earlier in Week 11 against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bears had an opportunity to capitalize on the Ravens’ lack of awareness and preparation.
It was the first play of the fourth quarter and the Bears were faced with 3rd-and-six while down 17-13. On a choppy Soldier Field, the Bears lined up with a Trips Right formation with McCown in a shotgun set. Defensively, the Ravens had two deep safeties and rolled up cornerbacks. That would quickly change, however, as the Bears shifted No. 1 receiver Marshall to the butt of the Trips formation to form a Bunch set. The Ravens made slight changes defensively, bringing the boundary cornerback further in but not varying the depths of the other cornerbacks — a criminal lack of action against a Trips set.
At the beginning of the play, Marshall, now the No. 2 receiver, released vertically along with Bennett, effectively setting “rubs” or what defenders call “picks” on the two inner Ravens defenders. Because it was man coverage, the boundary cornerback originally charged with marking Jeffery, the new No. 1, was still assigned to him, but he had to work around the rub. An uncovered Jeffery took one step outside and quickly released inside, running a crossing route and easily catching the football for a gain of 15 yards.
All of Trestman’s concepts are designed to attack defenses in multiple ways while moving the ball in an efficient manner that simultaneously simplifies the game for the quarterback. Although the quarterback may go into a huddle with multiple plays and checks in mind, he has a set of progressions when he’s dropping back that’s directly tied to his footwork. That helps him (whether it’s Cutler or McCown) to go through his reads and release the ball in a timely manner while also cutting down on mistakes — something that both quarterbacks have been known for in past years.
That’s what it comes down to in Trestman’s offense, and it’s a major reason why he’s had success with the position in the past. He has a gift for adapting the offense to his personnel and creating openings in defenses for his quarterbacks to find the open receivers just like Kosar did nearly 30 years ago en route to a national championship.
For the Bears sake, they hope the quarterback whisperer will be taking them to a championship soon too.