Actually, the salty banter between quarterback and mentor spoke to the health of their relationship. Aikman and Turner, who is now coach of the Washington Redskins, fought through their frustration and forged ahead with the game plan. "He and I would yell at each other a lot of times, and that game was maybe the worst of them," Aikman says. "But we wouldn't take it to heart. We had the ability to truly tell one another how we felt, without having to worry about the other getting upset."
The two men escaped from the City of Brotherly Love that day with a 23-10 victory. Three months later the Cowboys won their second straight Super Bowl. Virtually every successful team has a mentor—be it the head coach, offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach—with whom the quarterback has a significant, thriving relationship. The chemistry that existed between Aikman and Turner was a key element in Dallas's winning equation.
"Without question, it's the most important relationship on a team," says quarterback guru Bill Walsh, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl triumphs. "That's because the quarterback is under such tremendous stress. The entire defensive team is after him, and consciously or unconsciously it wants to knock him out of the game. He's being threatened, and if he doesn't get full support around him or doesn't have confidence in the person calling the plays, he's going to crumble."
While standing on the Veterans Stadium turf that dreary day, Aikman knew he was prepared for battle. But without a calming, commanding presence on the sideline or in the coaches' box, even an experienced signal-caller can be undone. "It's like being lost out there," says former Redskin and Philadelphia Eagle Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen. "I had eight head coaches in 18 years; I know what it is to have help or not."
Helping the quarterback survive and thrive may be the toughest coaching job in sports. The mentor must, at times, be a babysitter and a slave driver. From July to January he may spend more time with the quarterback than he does with his wife. The mentor must establish a bond, but without getting so close to his pupil that respect vanishes.
The mentor's first chore is to assess his pupil's mechanics. Then he can either fine-tune or overhaul the quarterback's delivery and footwork. The coach's next job is to establish the quarterback's timing, perhaps the most essential aspect of any passer's repertoire. In 1971 Walsh took the Cincinnati Bengals' Virgil Carter—a quarterback who, by Walsh's admission, "really didn't have the tools"—and turned him into the AFC's most accurate passer. Walsh compensated for Carter's lack of arm strength by developing a timed passing game in which most balls were thrown eight to 10 yards down the field.
Winning the quarterback's trust—and bolstering his confidence—is the mentor's next responsibility. Finally, the mentor must be an innovative producer of game plans that play to the quarterback's strengths. Of equal importance is the mentor's ability to explain the plan to the quarterback in the days leading up to the game, because game day is too late to talk theory.
The best of the mentors—from the Green Bay Packers' legendary coach Curly Lambeau, who guided quarterback Cecil Isbell and end Don Hutson to the Hall of Fame, to the much-traveled Sid Gillman to present-day gurus like Walsh, Turner and Denver Bronco coach Mike Shanahan—are granted cult-hero status by their pupils. John Elway, for example, says that he will be "twice the quarterback" he has been over the previous three seasons now that Shanahan is back in Denver, where he was the offensive coordinator from 1985 to '87. "There have been a lot of quarterbacks stuck in bad coach-player relationships," says 49er quarterback Steve Young, last year's regular-season and Super Bowl MVP. "When quarterbacks sit down together, those are the things we talk about; we recognize that we're not independent contractors. We try to coordinate things on the field, and if you don't have a guy off the field trying to do the same thing, it's a problem.'
While All-Pros like Young, Aikman and Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins have been groomed by some of the game's best teachers, and emerging star Drew Bledsoe appears to be well positioned for success under the tutelage of New England Patriot coach Bill Parcells, many other talented passers have not been as fortunate. One reason for the oft discussed dearth of productive young quarterbacks may be the scarcity of capable mentors on NFL coaching staffs. "It's the worst-coached position in the league," says Jurgensen, now a Redskin radio commentator.
Says Walsh, who also developed Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers and the Niners' Joe Montana, "People are more interested in studying strategies—like how to beat the nickel defense—than in the basics of coaching the quarterback. Teaching quarterbacking is not the strongest point in the NFL, but it's getting better."