Ravens coach John Harbaugh stood in front of a few dozen reporters and cameras Wednesday, raised his right hand, and entwined his middle and index fingers. With Week 1 kickoff and the late-afternoon sun bearing down on him, he’d been asked about the team’s star quarterback, Lamar Jackson, and his first-year offensive coordinator, Todd Monken. Harbaugh, wanting to show how close their partnership would be, crossed his fingers, almost as if he were making a wish.
“They’ve got to be like that,” Harbaugh said. “They are like that.”
Maybe no relationship in the NFL will be more revealing. The Ravens know what is possible with Jackson, 26, one of the sport’s most talented and highest-paid players, a former unanimous league Most Valuable Player. They know what is possible with Monken, 57, a play-caller for Georgia’s two College Football Playoff championship teams, a coach who has spun gold from quarterbacks with styles as diverse as his own journey.
In their union, Jackson and Monken could preside over another offensive revolution in Baltimore, casting off former coordinator Greg Roman’s “medieval,” run-first system so that a spread-and-shred approach might take flight. There is hope for a more empowered Jackson, a more mature passing attack, a more adaptable play-caller.
“Just can’t wait to see it in a regular game now,” Jackson said Wednesday, grinning, “so we can actually talk about it more in-depth.”
Monken’s journey to the Ravens’ coaching booth inside M&T Bank Stadium, where he’ll call his first regular-season game Sunday against the Houston Texans, might’ve begun as a quarterback at Illinois’ Wheaton North High School and Division III Knox College in the 1980s. When he moved into coaching, he realized “all the silly, stupid stuff that you did as a player — and that you didn’t see it from the other end,” he said in a recent interview.
Monken has spent the past three-plus decades trying to get it right. Here are four quarterbacks who swear he did.
‘An absence of fear’
Entering the 2018 NFL season, Ryan Fitzpatrick was many things. Bearded, of course. A backup quarterback on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his seventh team in 14 years. A few months away from turning 36, almost geriatric for the sport. And, frankly, a little tired of offensive coordinators who didn’t trust him.
“You get long enough in the tooth or you get old enough in your career where you get a sense, when a play call comes in, if the play-caller believes in you or not,” said Fitzpatrick, now an NFL analyst for Amazon Prime Video. “Are we just handing it off on third-and-long? Or throwing a screen? Are we trying to get through this series without making mistakes?”
In 2016, Monken had resigned as Southern Mississippi’s head coach to become Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator. A year later, the team signed Fitzpatrick to back up starter Jameis Winston. In 2018, Monken took over play-calling duties from head coach Dirk Koetter. By year’s end, no one had thrown for more yards than Tampa Bay.
It was an unusual aerial assault, not least because Fitzpatrick and Winston almost seemed to be taking turns with their deep-ball devastation. With Winston suspended until Week 4, Fitzpatrick opened the year by throwing for 1,230 yards and 11 touchdowns over his first three games. When Winston took over as starter again in Week 5, he passed for 395 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Buccaneers had Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson at wide receiver, all in their prime or close enough to it. Neither quarterback hesitated to look deep. Monken’s mix of play-action shot plays and spread offense concepts was all the encouragement they needed. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Winston (10.9 air yards per attempt) and Fitzpatrick (10.2 yards) finished with the second- and third-highest average depth of target in the NFL in 2018, respectively. Only the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen (11 yards) was bolder.
“One of the biggest things with me, and I think this is something that he took from his days in the ‘Air Raid’ offense, was just playing with an absence of fear,” Fitzpatrick said of Monken. “And that’s how he calls games, too, is [with] an absence of fear. He’s going to attack a defense. He’s going to go after them.”
That made Fitzgerald’s life easier, in a way. The more Monken got the ball to his playmakers, the less everyone else had to worry about their egos.
“When you have that many guys that are that talented that all need touches, it’s hard sometimes to figure out a way to spread out the ball, because you only have so many plays in a game,” Fitzpatrick said. He added: “He’s shown throughout the years he’s able to adjust to what and who he has.”
In Tampa Bay, Monken inspired trust and belief. Fitzpatrick said he’d “been to a lot of different places” before the NFL, “so he’s got a lot of stories to tell.” (He joked that Monken’s garrulous nature was partly to blame for his hoarse voice.) But Monken also made time to connect with players, Fitzpatrick said. When he brought his son, Travis, to training camp, players treated him “like he was their little brother, basically.”
“We had a great relationship as player and coach, but he also cares about the human being,” Fitzpatrick said. “And that part, for me, was always really important. He’s a guy that always asked about my family, was always curious to hear what was going on in my life. … There’s just stuff that you can’t fake. He’s a real genuine person. He cares about who you are and what’s going on in your life off the field. That really resonates with guys because it is genuine.”
‘The guy you want in your corner’
When Allan Bridgford transferred to Southern Miss in 2013, he knew he faced challenges ahead. The Golden Eagles had gone 0-12 the season before. They’d hired Monken to his first-ever head coaching job. They’d named Bridgford’s positional coach at California, Marcus Arroyo, as his offensive coordinator. Theirs was a program in transition.
What Bridgford could not have known was just how contagious the turmoil could be. His final season of college football was a Lemony Snicket fever dream, just one unfortunate event after another.
After finishing his studies at Cal, Bridgford arrived on Southern Miss’ campus only a week before fall camp started. In Week 1, he passed for 377 yards against Texas State, but the Golden Eagles scored just one touchdown in a close defeat. In Week 2, he threw two pick-sixes against No. 22 Nebraska — in the first quarter. In between interceptions, he hyperextended his knee and tore his meniscus, calf and hamstring. Bridgford, unable to even practice until two months later, willed himself to start another four games anyway, all but one ending in a double-digit loss.
Southern Miss’ offensive line was young. Its wide receivers were young and error-prone. One of Bridgford’s top targets was banged up. And still he calls Monken, next to Arroyo, “my favorite coach I’ve ever had.”
“He really did a nice job of teaching and communicating,” Bridgford said. “He’s just kind of the guy you want in your corner.”
In Monken, he had not only a coach but also a collaborator. Bridgford remembers mentioning a pass play to Monken during the Golden Eagles’ preseason. It was similar to a play he’d run at Cal, a concept he “really liked.”
“But it was different,” Bridgford said. He told Monken the routes weren’t what he was used to. “And [with] no pride of authorship in his play, nothing, he goes, ‘All right, f--- it. We’ll change that to an option [route]. We’re good. That’s what the play is now. You like it that way? Fine. Let’s do it that way.’ …
“Just from a mental standpoint, when a coach is like, ‘Yeah, we’ll change it to the way you want it,’ now you have pride in your own authorship in the play when you’re running it, right?”
Monken understood the game — “Each position,” Bridgford said, “inside and out” — but just as important, he understood how to teach it. He could deliver an “overload” of information with practicality and precision, building out Southern Miss’ playbook as he built up his quarterbacks’ confidence.
Even amid an 0-6 start, Monken and Bridgford found moments of football bliss. During one game, the Golden Eagles picked up the tempo and found a concept they liked: Y Cross, an Air Raid staple that stresses the secondary by flooding the weak side of the play with receivers. Bridgford said Southern Miss must have called it six times in a row.
“We just kept running it, and I love that,” Bridgford said. “It’s like the biggest eff-you mentality. ‘Oh, this play’s working? I’m going to run it again until you stop it. Keep going.’”
When Monken told Bridgford he needed to make a change at quarterback midway through the season, he understood. Nick Mullens, now in his seventh year in the NFL, had shown promise — and “if I don’t play one of the freshman quarterbacks,” Bridgford remembered Monken saying, “you and I are both going to get booed out of town.”
Bridgford took Mullens under his wing, sharing what wisdom he could. In their season finale, the Golden Eagles rolled UAB, 62-27, ending a 23-game losing streak. Mullens threw for 370 yards and five touchdowns and ran for another score. Two years later, he’d be named the Conference USA Player of the Year, the star of a 9-5 Southern Miss team.
Near the end of the blowout, Monken came over to Bridgford on the sideline, “thanking me for the season and for coming out, and saying he knew how hard it must’ve been, [how] it wasn’t what my expectation was coming in and all that.”
“That’s the type of stuff you just never forget, you know?” Bridgford said. He remembered a coach at Cal had blown off an early-morning meeting Bridgford had set to discuss his future in the program, arriving 45 minutes late. “That’s nothing that Todd Monken would ever do. That’s just the kind of guy that he is. He was a great dad, great husband, got his priorities straight. He’s not out f------ around like other coaches probably are. He’s a great guy.”
‘It was no bullshit’
About two weeks before Oklahoma State’s 2012 season opener, Monken called Clint Chelf into his office. Chelf, a junior, had been the Cowboys’ best quarterback throughout fall camp. The trouble was, that still wasn’t good enough.
With the graduation of Brandon Weeden, a first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, Chelf was the veteran in Oklahoma State’s quarterback room. Near the end of their preseason, that was more curse than blessing. Chelf was battling J.W. Walsh, a redshirt freshman, and Wes Lunt, a true freshman, for the starting job. He can still remember the day Monken told him he’d been the team’s most consistent passer, and that he’d start the season as a third-stringer. Youth had won out.
Chelf can remember another day, too: Nov. 3, 2012. The Cowboys were playing No. 3 Kansas State in Manhattan. Lunt, their season-opening starter, was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. Walsh, his backup, had suffered a season-ending knee injury weeks earlier. In came Chelf. He threw for 233 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a desperate late-game comeback bid.
Kansas State won, 44-30, and improved to 9-0. Afterward, Monken, then in his second year as offensive coordinator, addressed the unit in the locker room. Chelf remembers Monken acknowledging the sting of the defeat, then singling out two players for praise: running back Desmond Roland, who’d returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and his new quarterback. Chelf had waited months for an opportunity. Monken knew it, too.
“Coaches, whenever you lose, I don’t feel like they would ever point out a single person’s performance, right?” Chelf said. “Because you win as a team, you lose as a team. But for him to do that really just felt like recognizing the fact that everybody in the locker room kind of realized that, ‘Hey, this is a guy who thought he was going to start, then he was third, now he hasn’t gotten to play’ — just kind of that of recognition in front of the team, I think, really helped to instill more confidence in me moving forward.”
Monken’s vote of confidence “meant everything to me,” Chelf said. “It was kind of validation for me.” Over the Cowboys’ five final games, he passed for 1,304 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions. In a Heart of Dallas Bowl blowout of Purdue, he went 17-for-22 for 197 yards and three touchdowns and was named Most Valuable Player.
As a senior in 2013, with Monken off to Southern Miss, Chelf passed for 2,169 yards and scored a combined 24 touchdowns (17 passing and seven rushing).
“When a quarterback loses confidence, there’s just something about it,” he said. “It affects everything — your preparation, even your physical mechanics, I feel like. Because I’ve been there. So just him singling me out and giving me that validation really gave me the confidence and really the kind of leadership role in the locker room to move forward. … I felt like, and everybody in the locker room felt like, ‘OK, we’ve got our guy at that position moving forward.’”
By then, Chelf knew there was more to Monken than just the “Succession”-level swear words ESPN had captured during a behind-the-scenes special in 2011. Not that Chelf didn’t appreciate a good profanity.
Whenever Monken installed a new play, he’d rattle off the name like it was a serial number: “95 X Post, Halfback Read,” Chelf said. But sometimes, if it was too complicated, well …
“We could just call it Shit Sandwich if we wanted to,” Chelf remembered Monken joking, his raspy voice sending the quarterback room into hysterics. “We could just call this play Shit Sandwich, and you guys would all know what it is.”
Chelf now hosts a Oklahoma State-focused podcast with another former Cowboys football player, Deion Imade, and they found themselves reminiscing about Monken after Georgia’s second straight CFP title last season. Monken had coached him hard for their two years together, but that’s what Chelf wanted. Even their most upsetting conversations had left him with respect for Monken’s message.
“That’s what, quite frankly, I came to admire in him,” he said. “The fact that when he called me in [before the 2012 season], it was no bullshit. He said, ‘You’re going to be third,’ and that was it.”
‘I didn’t want to let him down’
The greatest quarterback in Eastern Michigan history is Charlie Batch. Todd Monken didn’t coach him, though; he was the Eagles’ wide receivers coach in the mid-’90s, when Batch was rewriting the school’s record book. By the time Monken had been named the team’s quarterbacks coach, in 1998, Batch was on his way to the NFL.
When Monken met with Eastern Michigan’s quarterbacks that offseason, he told them the starting job was up for grabs. He knew one of the returning quarterbacks had played as a true freshman in 1996, filling in for Batch after a midseason injury. He didn’t know that that quarterback would go on to become one of the next greatest quarterbacks in Eastern Michigan history. But maybe that explains how Walter Church got there.
“He made it very clear that just because somebody had played prior ... it by no means meant that I was guaranteed the starting position,” Church said. “It was going to be an open competition. It was going to be very competitive. You were going to have to earn your spot. And so I appreciated that honesty right up from Coach Monken. … Me, the competitor, that fired me up. I wanted to prove to my new coach that I could be the guy that would be up there in the huddle for him. And I didn’t want to let him down.”
Monken had started his career as a graduate assistant at Grand Valley State and Notre Dame before moving on to Eastern Michigan, where he took over as a position coach. It wasn’t until that 1998 season, though, nearly a decade into his fledgling career, that he started coaching quarterbacks.
Church was a fascinating test case: more reserved than rah-rah, more game manager than playmaker, rarely overconfident but always engaged. Over two decades later, Church still marvels at how quickly Monken seemed to understand him, even as other details of his football career have faded from memory.
“There were just a lot of one-on-one conversations where he would pull me aside and we’d be in the locker room watching film, just he and I together, where he would just review the film and show me things that I did well and that I could bring to the game,” Church said. “He just has a special way of — maybe that’s just the type of personality that I was. He knew that he would’ve connected more with me on a one-on-one, behind-the-scenes, nobody-else-around type of situation.”
Church went on to start from 1998 to 2000. He learned to see the sport in a different way under Monken, who took on offensive coordinator duties in 1999. He realized he could protect his wide receivers with better ball placement. He started to tell teammates in the huddle to look out for certain coverages. “Just so much insight that he provided that I probably would’ve never thought of just studying on my own as a quarterback,” Church said.
Monken, for the first time in his career, was learning how to build an offense around a quarterback. He came back from one road trip with a new idea for the playbook: a bubble screen. Another time, Monken installed what Church called a “read route”; the wide receiver could run either a vertical pattern or, depending on the coverage, convert it into a 15-yard comeback. They became two of Church’s favorite plays in an offense radically remaking itself, Eastern Michigan’s under-center identity replaced by a shotgun-heavy, proto-spread approach.
“Coach Monken is so smart,” Church said. “He’s all about the players, putting the players in the best position. ... It’s not like, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and you have to fit into it as a player.’ He’s adaptable and great at teaching what he’s trying to accomplish on the field.”
Church is a father of three now, with two boys in youth football. When they started playing, Church told them that it would not be easy, that they’d have to work hard, that they’d have to think about the game differently to succeed.
Church told them all that, he said, because of Coach Monken.