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As the quarterback pulls away from the center, he seeks an economy of movement. "Stay connected," says former NFL quarterback and longtime tutor Zeke Bratkowski. "By that I mean, keep everything tight, close to your chest. Not a lot of extra movement." Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is tight. "He's so compact, I love to watch him throw," says Rivers. Brees is tight. Joe Montana was the tightest of all. "Like a ballerina," says Holmgren, who coached Montana with San Francisco. "The way he moved backward was so smooth."
Turner, who was Aikman's offensive coordinator for two Super Bowl seasons in Dallas, says Aikman "would separate from the center quicker than anyone I've ever been around, and still get set and get the ball out of his hands and make the throws."
But not every successful quarterback has that classic setup. One of the NFL's iconic images is that of Joe Namath, drifting back with the ball waist-high in his right hand, then suddenly, ever so briefly, smacking it with his left hand as he brought it upward—almost as a trigger mechanism—before ripping it downfield. "Pulled it up and snapped it off his ear," says Bradshaw. "It was the coolest thing you could ever see."
Most similar to Namath was Dan Marino, who usually carried the ball away from the center with two hands. Just before delivery he'd drop his left hand off the ball and then, much like Namath, pat it again before throwing, as Clarkson describes, "off his right armpit." Don Shula, the Hall of Fame Dolphins coach who brought Marino into the NFL, says, "At one time in the league there was a drill where you would have the quarterbacks get down on one knee, hold the ball over their heads then just throw from that position. That drill was worthless for Dan, because he dropped the ball so low. But he got rid of it so quickly from there."
The quarterback's movement shifts dramatically at the back of his drop, like a car shifting from reverse to drive. His back foot hits and plants, and he strides forward—or hitches—while moving the ball into position; the reads are finalized and the throw is made. "At that point," says Schaub, "everything works from the ground up." Like a golfer or a baseball batter, a quarterback generates torque with his lower body, from the feet up through the hips and only then into the upper body.
"That starts with the way you plant your left foot," says Fassel. "The natural thing is to land on the ball of your foot, but that tends to make your left leg stiff, and that's what we call an antagonistic movement. Instead, you want to land on the heel of your left foot and bend the left knee." Steelers backup Byron Leftwich is a classic stiff-left-leg thrower, which might contribute to his problems with both accuracy and injury.
Clarkson says no quarterback in history used his lower body more decisively in the throwing motion than Hall of Famer John Elway. "John was not only a great athlete, but he was also pigeon-toed, and that helped create a very tight motion that was consistent," says Clarkson. "And where you see a lot of guys carry the ball in the middle of their chest, John carried it in a position where he was ready to throw immediately."
Montana would reach deep into the pocket on the last part of his drop, setting up an almost exaggerated hitch forward, which he used to finish his reads. "Joe's motion from that point forward was almost perfect and very consistent," says Sam Wyche, who coached Montana under Bill Walsh with the 49ers. "And he could reproduce the same mechanics on the run, going left or right."