The man behind your favorite QB? A career backup … and Carson Palmer’s little brother
- ESPN Staff Writer
- Previously a college football writer for The Dallas Morning News
- University of North Texas graduate
SHORTLY AFTER HE tucks his sons into bed, Jordan Palmer climbs into his truck and drives across Orange County to keep one of his newest appointments.
It’s Wine Night. On most Wednesdays in February and March, Palmer uncorked wine bottles and watched football with men who have arms worth millions of dollars and are employed by teams worth billions.
Wine Night includes an exclusive group of current and aspiring NFL quarterbacks training with Palmer during the offseason. This year, it’s typically pros like Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Kyle Allen, and even Joe Burrow, the projected No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
They watch tape on anyone from Case Keenum to Aaron Rodgers, break down hypothetical blitz scenarios and evaluate current draft prospects. It’s like book club or Bible study but if John Steinbeck or John the Baptist could squeeze a slant route into zone coverage.
More often than not, the Wednesday night session stretches past the designated 10 p.m. cutoff, sometimes running closer to midnight. Most everyone drinks some variation of red wine. (“These guys don’t know s— about wine,” Palmer says.) Burrow, of legal age but on a draft diet, says he opts for yogurt and berries.
Eventually, the tape is cut off, but the conversation among the quarterbacks — and the wine — keeps flowing.
“Honestly, we are super honest about what we talk about and how we say it to each other,” says Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills’ 23-year-old starting quarterback. “We all feel like we have a good perspective of who everybody is in the room. It’s like we don’t need to hold back.”
At a time when there are dozens of high-end private quarterback coaches, players of this caliber can choose to go anywhere. But this group chose Palmer, who built a sense of community that is arguably just as important as tweaking mechanics during the offseason.
“That is what’s special about what Jordan is doing,” Josh Allen says. “It gets like-minded guys that are going through situations that not many people in the world are going through and puts them in the same room.”
For the bulk of his life, Jordan has mostly been referenced as the younger brother of quarterback Carson Palmer, the first selection in the 2003 NFL draft who enjoyed a 15-year career that netted him more than $174 million in salary. Jordan, 35, was a seven-year veteran with 18 total NFL attempts.
But in the end, Palmer’s familiarity with the entire spectrum of quarterbacks is one of his major selling points. The guy who grew up in the same house with a future No. 1 overall pick was a career backup.
“That’s still a successful career to me,” says Burrow, one of three draft prospects working with Palmer this spring, along with Colorado’s Steven Montez and Hawai’i’s Cole McDonald.
“You could tell he knew what he was talking about from the moment we first talked.”
ON A COOL and cloudy Thursday in early March, Burrow shuffles his feet and fires passes as Palmer records him with an iPad. Palmer looks at the clips, sunglasses hanging off the right side of his neck, before the drills continue.
After a 15-game Heisman-winning season that ended with him and his LSU teammates holding the College Football Playoff trophy, Burrow didn’t throw at the NFL combine. He enjoyed a little time off after his long season before going to Dana Point to prepare for LSU’s pro day, which was ultimately canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, Palmer worked to get Burrow throwing off a sturdier base. By early March, Palmer says, they’d already seen a jump in Burrow’s throwing velocity.
With Burrow and all of his private clients, Palmer works from the ground up — with drills such as stepping through agility ladders, jumping off an 8-inch platform before resetting to throw, disrupting the pocket, and letting receivers pick which ball they want by flashing different things with their hands moments before the ball flies through the air.
These sessions happen a few mornings a week at the field at JSerra Catholic High School, 15 minutes from Palmer’s home in Laguna Niguel. At the beginning of the offseason, Palmer’s quarterbacks throw twice a week, eventually building up to four times at the most to avoid overuse.
But for Palmer, working with quarterbacks isn’t just about crafting throwing mechanics. Sure, Palmer has balls microchipped to measure time of release, tightness of spiral, rotations per minute and velocity. But much of Palmer’s work is about handling the mental aspect of being a quarterback and everything that comes with the position.
For Burrow, that means his time with Palmer also serves as a respite from a wild seven-month stretch that transformed him from a fringe prospect into the projected top overall pick in the draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr.
“I just needed to get away from all of the media stuff, all the craziness, and just get back to a normal routine of offseason training that you don’t really get when you’re in the position I was in for the last couple of months,” Burrow says.
Palmer, through the experiences of his brother, knows the pressure of those expectations as well as anyone — and he also knows how stability off the field affects performance on it.
“There’s a direct correlation between how guys live their lives off the field and how they play,” he says. “I’ve yet to see a guy who is off the field a disaster — parties too much, doesn’t work, doesn’t study, unreliable — and then as a quarterback be organized, detailed, [have] execution, work ethic. I just haven’t seen that.”
Over time, Palmer’s quarterbacks start talking to him about more than football. When Darnold was quarantined last season while he had mononucleosis, Palmer was the first person he called, other than his parents and sister, to talk about it. When Kyle Allen was recently involved in a minor car accident, he called Palmer to see if he should settle out of pocket or go through the insurance company. Josh Allen phoned his QB coach after what would have been the Bills’ first playoff win since 1995 slipped away in January.
That’s partially why this time together in the spring is so valuable, Darnold says: What happens in Dana Point isn’t about always being fixated on the game.
“That’s good sometimes, but there’s moments when you gotta hang out with people,” Darnold says. “That’s the kind of environment that we love to be around. That’s kind of what we’ve all created here.”
And that group isn’t limited to quarterbacks. Wide receivers such as USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., Clemson’s Tee Higgins and Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk are catching balls for Palmer’s quarterbacks. Browns fullback Johnny Stanton, a onetime QB student under Palmer, is also out at JSerra. And former Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, Darnold’s former high school teammate, is working out with the group while he trains to be a firefighter.
“It’s interesting,” says Kyle Allen, who was traded from Carolina to Washington on March 23. “We’re in freaking Dana Point, California, a random Orange County city. And we have 10 to 20 NFL players out here, just creating a little community of like-minded people just trying to getting better, which is cool.”
PALMER POINTS OUT of the driver’s side window of his Ford pickup with his 12-year-old pug, Pita, draped across his lap. At first glance, the soccer fields nestled between hills and the west side of Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano seem to carry little significance. But more than 20 years ago, those fields hosted the first Elite 11 event.
Over the past two decades, Elite 11 has transformed from a small gathering of the country’s top high school quarterbacks to one of the most notable events on college football’s recruiting circuit. And Palmer has been there since the beginning.
In 1999, his dad read an article about Elite 11 in a local newspaper, and, shortly afterward, a 15-year-old Palmer shagged balls and filled water cups at the inaugural event. He hasn’t missed one since. And in many ways, that experience led directly to the work he does less than 3 miles away at JSerra during draft season.
“I love watching football,” Palmer says. “I love the X’s and O’s. But my favorite part is the development because that’s what I’ve been around my entire life.”
Even when Palmer was in the NFL, he served as an instructor at Elite 11’s regional camps. During organized team activities in April, Palmer hopped on a plane on weekends after workouts to attend Elite 11 events around the country.
Palmer’s first interaction with Kyle Allen came at one such regional event in Chicago in 2014, when Palmer was with the Bears. At the time, Allen was on his way to becoming the top-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2014. After Allen didn’t perform as well as he had hoped to at an event in Arizona, he made the trip up north for redemption. Allen was throwing everything as hard as possible before Palmer told him to take off some velocity to give his receivers a chance.
“It blew my mind,” Allen says. “Like, ‘You’ve gotta throw with touch?'”
Darnold met Palmer as a sophomore in high school during a workout with another private coach, Bob Bosanko. At the time, Darnold was just a redheaded kid with a big arm who reminded Palmer of his older brother. Then the two bonded at the 2014 Elite 11 national competition.
A couple of days into it, Darnold told Palmer he wanted to commit to USC — despite the fact that one of the nation’s top-ranked QBs, Ricky Town, was already in the Trojans’ signing class that year.
“I was like, ‘This guy’s for real,’ because he’s taking on the big-time recruit that SC is excited about,” Palmer says. “That’s when I was like, ‘OK, this really nice, quiet kid — there’s a dog in there.'”
After that exchange, Palmer says, he made it a point to be involved in Darnold’s life. After the QB’s first year at USC, Palmer worked with Darnold on shortening his throwing motion. They tightened Darnold’s big, looping windup and discovered that the velocity didn’t change much and the power for his throws came from the legs.
The way Palmer delivers the message makes it easier for guys such as Darnold to make big changes.
“He’s never going to step over a boundary,” Darnold says. “If I say, ‘Hey, man, like, what you’re saying isn’t clicking with me,’ he’s just going to move past it and he’s going to find a different way to tell me. That’s one thing Jordan’s really good at.”
BEFORE COVID-19 STOPPED nearly everything around the world, this was meant to be the first offseason in which Palmer could devote himself entirely to private quarterback coaching. In September, he left his position at his digital marketing agency, Common Thread Collective. Instead of coaching quarterbacks 30% of the time, he’d be able to do it all the time.
Palmer has always had a strong business acumen. When he was with the Bengals, he used precious screen time on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” to pitch an app called RunPee, which instructed moviegoers about the best time to leave theaters for a restroom break. He was heavily involved with QALO, the company that helped popularize silicone wedding bands.
And when the global pandemic struck, Palmer found a way to pivot. He’s working on launching a subscription-based website that can provide everything he does virtually — Zoom panels to give parents advice on handling recruitment, hangouts between high school QBs and those in college and the pros, workshops on the recruiting process, etc.
It’s an extension of a lucrative business model Palmer has constructed. Agents pay Palmer for his pre-draft services. The NFL vets with preexisting relationships pay Palmer a much smaller amount. Those, combined with QB Summit camps that attract quarterback hopefuls ranging from preteens to high school seniors, help him earn more than the salary he used to make in the NFL.
Palmer is the rare football coach who doesn’t have to worry about wins and losses, is done with work around noon and has time to ride along the beach with his high school sweetheart, Dottie, and their two young sons, Ford and Rees. That’s enough of an incentive to avoid taking a job with an NFL team that might bring more money or prestige — but also more stress.
“It’s a total lifestyle decision,” Palmer says. “Now the challenge is: How do you build a business that’s offensive coordinator money, here doing this? And so that’s the path that I’m on — building something that’s the same return but way more [free] time — and not getting fired.”
The space for skill-specific trainers and coaches continues to expand in football. And for now, head coaches don’t have an issue with Palmer’s work. In January 2019, Bills coach Sean McDermott said he respected and trusted Palmer, who was preparing to work with Josh Allen after his rookie year.
That trust comes in part from the reputation Palmer has built over the years. When Auburn’s Bo Nix approached coach Gus Malzahn about working with Palmer last summer, Malzahn called his former quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who had worked with Palmer before being drafted by the Patriots. After Stidham sang Palmer’s praises, Malzahn gave Nix his blessing.
Nix broke several records for an Auburn freshman QB, and Palmer believes he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft because of aspects beyond his physical traits.
“There are the two things I look at — confidence and maturity — before arm talent, before size, before any of that,” Palmer says. Nix is “more confident and mature than most of the guys I’ve ever been around.”
But not all of Palmer’s clients are potential No. 1 picks — he also works with plenty of guys still trying to find their place at the next level. Two of his clients this spring, McDonald of Hawai’i and Montez of Colorado, will likely be available toward the end of this year’s draft and are trying to land spots on 53-man rosters.
That mentality extends to high schoolers. Cole Lourd, a three-star recruit in the 2021 class, according to 247Sports.com, is hoping to turn enough heads this summer to secure a scholarship offer before December’s early signing period.
In March, Lourd took the 90-minute trip from West L.A. to Dana Point to train with Palmer, Burrow and McDonald. Lourd, the son of a Beverly Hills financier with ties to LSU, split reps with the draft hopefuls. Palmer had the quarterbacks shuffling in and out of cones and throwing off a platform to a slew of receivers. Some were teenagers from a program called the Togethership, which is geared toward elite athletes preparing to enter high school.
Lourd had seen Palmer train draft prospects in previous years and was eager to travel south to work with him for a day.
“I’m just working my ass off and trying to work hard so that I’ll get noticed,” Lourd says.
WHEN COVID-19 closed JSerra and all other similar fields in the area, Palmer was forced to adapt.
Drills have moved to a beach in Dana Point. Palmer uses the same three receivers regularly during the crisis, all wearing gloves. Each quarterback uses his own ball. While one could ask whether they should be out there in the first place, Palmer is trying to make everything as sanitary as possible.
Not everyone from the JSerra crew is involved in these more limited practices, but Darnold, who lives in Orange County with his girlfriend, is a local. And Kyle Allen and Josh Allen, who found themselves quarantined together in March, did eventually make it out for a brief stint at home. They just returned to Orange County this week.
Eventually, they will all leave the ecosystem Palmer has built and return to their respective NFL teams. Burrow is already back home in southeastern Ohio as he prepares to be someone’s franchise quarterback. Many believe it will be the Cincinnati Bengals, a franchise that had two Palmers on the depth chart at one point. If the world regains normalcy this fall, Palmer doesn’t want to be part of the stadium crowds watching games. He wants to be surrounded by screens, watching his pupils take the field around the country, sometimes even against each other.
When he watches Darnold or one of the Allens on TV, he has an intimate understanding of how they became starters in the NFL. If things continue to go well, more of Palmer’s pupils will join those ranks. And he wants to soak in as much of it as possible.
“I don’t want to miss a snap,” Palmer says.
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