GREEN BAY – Eight years after he didn’t think he was ready to be the Green Bay Packers’ quarterbacks coach, Alex Van Pelt is the perfect guy for the job.
In January 2006, then-rookie Packers head coach Mike McCarthy reached out to Van Pelt, who’d been the starting quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh when McCarthy had been a Panthers assistant. Van Pelt was only 35 years old at the time, and while he and McCarthy talked, he never actually interviewed for the job. Rather, McCarthy narrowed his choices to veteran NFL assistant Tom Clements, who would eventually get the job, and Steve Logan, who’d been the head coach at the East Carolina University.
At the time, although he’d spent nine years in the NFL as a player, Van Pelt’s coaching resume was thin. His only professional coaching experience had been in NFL Europe. He’d just taken a job as quarterbacks coach at the University of Buffalo.
“I know there was interest. I was never officially interviewed,” Van Pelt recalled in an interview after he’d taken a job coaching the Packers’ running backs in February 2012. “Mike reached out, and it was more me not thinking I was ready at that point. I didn’t want to come here and do a bad job. I was just getting into coaching at that time, and I just decided that I was probably not the right guy for him at that time.”
And so, Van Pelt and the man he calls his football “big brother” went their separate ways. McCarthy hired Clements, who coached quarterbacks from 2006 through 2011 before being promoted to offensive coordinator after Joe Philbin left to become the Miami Dolphins’ head coach. When Clements moved up, tight ends coach Ben McAdoo moved from tight ends to quarterbacks, Jerry Fontenot moved from running backs to tight ends, and McCarthy hired Van Pelt to coach the running backs.
On Thursday, though, Van Pelt was ready. An NFL source confirmed that Van Pelt is shifting into the quarterback coaching role after reportedly generating some interest from new Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine as a candidate to be his offensive coordinator.
The move was not officially announced by the Packers, and neither McCarthy nor Van Pelt was available for comment Thursday evening.
After the 2013 season ended, Van Pelt had said he’d work on the team’s janitorial staff if McCarthy asked him to. With McAdoo having departed to become the offensive coordinator of the New York Giants, cleaning the locker room won’t be necessary.
“I’ve really enjoyed the experience the last two years of coaching running backs. But I work for Coach Mike and whatever Coach Mike asks me to do I’m going to do with everything I got,” Van Pelt said on Jan. 7. “Not to speculate, but if he wants me to clean the bathrooms, I’ll do that.”
Given the timing of Pettine’s hiring and Van Pelt’s new responsibilities, it seems unlikely that the Browns ever actually asked the Packers for permission to interview Van Pelt, who had a year remaining on his contract and thus could have been blocked from interviewing by McCarthy.
Regardless, Van Pelt now seems tailor-made for his new job after not thinking he was ready the first time around.
Although he has never been an NFL superstar quarterback, never thrown three touchdown passes in the Super Bowl, never won the NFL MVP, he has taken over for a starter who broke his collarbone. He has been thrust into games cold off the bench. And he has been the young, longshot developmental quarterback – a 1993 eighth-round draft pick (No. 216 overall) – hoping for his shot.
So he’s been Scott Tolzien. He’s been Matt Flynn. And while he’s never been Aaron Rodgers, Van Pelt does have the Packers superstar quarterback’s support as his new position coach.
“I think I’m getting to the point of my career where I need someone who can continue to give me the things I need during the week as far as preparation. Make sure they stay on me as far as fundamentals,” Rodgers said on the Jan. 7 edition of The Aaron Rodgers Show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “I think it’s more of a tandem cooperation between the quarterbacks coach and myself helping out the young guys. That’s kind of my legacy as a teammate is helping out the young players.
“I know Tom was instrumental in my development. Ben helped me out a lot, as well, and wanted to help the young players out. He did a great job with Scott this year. As a quarterback coach, I think you really want to develop young talent and if you have a talented guy like myself now being my 10th season next year, I think it’s more about getting that guy ready to play and getting him all the necessary looks and preparation and conversation that I need before game day.”
Because Van Pelt has been a quarterbacks coach before – he wound up joining Dick Jauron’s staff in Buffalo in 2006 as assistant quarterbacks coach, then serving as QBs coach from 2007 through 2009, and also serving as the Bills’ offensive coordinator in 2009 – he certainly knows how to get Rodgers ready. (He was also the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach in 2010 and 2011.)
But his playing experience makes him more than qualified to understand what Rodgers’ prospective backups face. He knew what Seneca Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn faced when they had to come off the bench to replace the starter, and how difficult it is to be successful in that role.
“There’s a definite curve. You’d like to think you’re going to go in and maintain the level of play the starter had, but that usually doesn’t happen when you come off the bench,” Van Pelt said after Rodgers fractured his left collarbone on Nov. 4. “You do your best, but with a week of preparation going into the next week you feel more confident in calling plays, getting in and out of the huddle, all of the adjustments, all the routes you’ve thrown that week. You just feel a lot more comfortable.”
In 2001, after starting only three games in his first six years with the Bills, Van Pelt was thrust into the starting lineup when starter Rob Johnson suffered a fractured collarbone and missed the rest of the season. So when Flynn became the Packers’ go-to QB and kept the team afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale, he could talk with Van Pelt about what he was facing
“They just lost their leader. So when you step in that huddle, if you waver, there’s going to be some doubt in those eyes,” Van Pelt said. “And that’s the worst thing that can happen.
“It’s critical. You may not play at the level of the other guy, but you better lead at that level.”
Now, it’s Van Pelt’s job to lead the group. Flynn is an unrestricted free agent but has expressed an interest in returning. Tolzien is under contract for 2014, as is Rodgers, the league’s highest-paid player.
That will mean focusing again on the passing game when in the film room, something Van Pelt admitted he’d gotten away from doing.
“Obviously I’ve learned so much about the run game the past two years,” Van Pelt said. “It’s been a huge experience for me. It really has. I really threw myself into it. I enjoyed it. I love it. I’m sad to say when 7-on-7 comes on the screen (in the film room), the skeleton drill, I kind of buzz through that quickly now, which is sad. I’m more excited to get to the inside run drill, so it’s been a good experience.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.