On the afternoon that the Philadelphia Eagles traded with the Cleveland Browns to nab the second pick in the NFL draft, a journeyman quarterback named Ryan Lindley answers his cellphone and heaves a small sigh of relief.
“Things are taking shape now,” he tells me. “But, you know, nothing’s certain. Crazier things have happened.”
It’s possible that you may not even know Lindley’s name, unless you are a meticulous tracker of the quarterback depth charts of various NFL franchises. From 2012-15, he appeared on the rosters of four different teams. He is only 26, and he is still striving to continue his own professional football career, but this offseason – speaking of crazy things happening – he suddenly found himself serving as one of the key players in this year’s NFL draft. It began as kind of a joke, Lindley lightheartedly mentioning to his agent that maybe he should start training quarterbacks, and then, just like that, it wasn’t a joke anymore: A few weeks later, he found himself talking with the two quarterbacks, Cal’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, likely to go 1-2 in tonight’s draft after both the Los Angeles Rams and the Eagles apparently traded up to get them.
“It just all snowballed,” says Lindley, who pitched them both on his experience backing up Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer and Tom Brady, and working with coaches like Bruce Arians and Josh McDaniels. “The day after Thanksgiving, I remember calling Carson, and we ended up being on the phone for about two-and-a-half hours. Then I spoke to Jared just before his season ended, and I met his parents. Our goals just aligned, and everything kind of worked out.”
All of this stemmed from an unusual confluence of events: Wentz and Goff both wound up choosing the same agency, Irvine, California-based Rep 1 Sports (which also represents Lindley). This is not normally the way things go with a pair of high-profile quarterbacks: Most of the time, they would prefer to command the attention of an agency to themselves. Rep 1’s director of marketing, Nima Zarrabi, likened it to an agent representing both John Elway and Dan Marino in the legendary draft Class of 1983.
“There wasn’t any hesitation,” Goff says. “And it worked out. Maybe this will become the model going forward.”
“Initially, I was a little unsure how I felt about it,” Wentz adds in a separate interview. “But it’s irrelevant. I think we both understand that it’s not the agents who get us drafted.”
Once they had both Wentz and Goff in the fold, agents Bruce and Ryan Tollner turned to Lindley to help them prepare for the NFL Combine and their Pro Days and the lead-up to the draft itself. There they were, the top two quarterbacks, training side by side in Southern California for weeks at a time. Most days, they would wind up meeting separately with Lindley, but at least once a week, they were together on the field, trading repetitions, measuring themselves directly against the other.
In a way, it was preparation for the cutthroat nature of an NFL training camp; in a way, both Goff and Wentz tell me, it allowed for each of them to push themselves by engaging directly with the competition. If one had a bad day or even made an errant throw, they’d ask the other for an extra repetition to get it right. At the same time, they could engage each other about the ratcheting pressure and often utter ridiculousness of the process of how NFL teams evaluate quarterbacks: The fleeting pre-Combine notion that Goff’s hands were too small, for instance, or the absurdist notion floated that Wentz – who grew up in North Dakota – might struggle in cold-weather games.
“I knew I could get these guys ready for the football aspect of it,” Lindley says. “Dealing with egos – that was my number one fear. But I think they were both happy on a day-to-day basis.”
There is a natural contrast here which may have helped them to co-exist: Goff, who is likely to go No. 1 to the Rams, is a laid-back Northern California kid, the son of a former professional baseball player, lightly recruited out of high school but steeled heading into this season for the attention he was going to get from scouts and media. And Wentz – who will seemingly go second to the Eagles – is an admittedly Type-A Midwesterner who says he gets anxious when he’s not scheduled himself out days in advance, and emerged from a powerhouse FCS program to eclipse several other FBS prospects and wind up on the cover of national magazines. Goff, who has a preternatural pocket presence, played his college ball in a spread offense, rarely working under center and making pinpoint throws (sometimes, he tells me, he would watch Wentz’s mechanics when taking a snap from center because he’s done so little of it in recent years); Wentz is more of a runner, a little bigger and a little more powerful.
Neither one knew much about the other until they actually met up, and even then, they both say they watched film separately, and wound up focusing largely on themselves. Goff tells me he appreciated that Lindley took a largely naturalistic approach; because this was his first time ever coaching quarterbacks, he wasn’t angling for future clients, and didn’t rely on “the gimmicky stuff that some [quarterback gurus] do for social media, or to promote their brand.
“You know what I’m talking about,” Goff continues. “The stuff that doesn’t really look like it has anything to do with football.”
Instead, Lindley focused on mechanics, on the expectations that would face each of them, on the notion that they were heading into the “organized chaos” of the Combine and the rapid-fire interviews that would determine which team might be willing to pick them. His goal was to make sure they were never surprised by anything, not even the inevitable surprises that would come along. It is an almost deliberately perplexing process, the way NFL teams evaluate quarterbacks; for a class of athletes who tend to be meticulous and over-prepared, it can be incredibly frustrating. One night during the Combine, Goff had 11 meetings in a row with teams. The day they had their physicals took eight long hours.
“Oh, yes,” Goff nearly shouts, when I asked him if the process could be characterized as inefficient. “I think for quarterbacks, it’s so much different than any other position. I would like to make it shorter. I don’t think it needs to be four months long. But the NFL’s got to pay the bills, and extend this as long as they can, I guess.”
“All men are wired to be in control of what’s going on in their life,” Wentz says. “But there are a lot of things you can’t control in this process. I’ve read some things that people said about me, and some of it’s not even close to accurate. Honestly, I don’t even have ESPN in my house. There’s really no point.”
Says Lindley of the quarterback-evaluation process: “It’s an inexact science, to put it bluntly. There are a lot of snap judgments. If we all look in the mirror, we’ve all had a 15- or 30-minute interview or conversation where we’re not our best self. In an ideal world, maybe these guys should be shadowed [by teams] 24/7 for a few days. But they’re also 22- and 23-year-olds, and they’ve got to live their life.”
And yet it appears at least two teams saw enough to believe that Goff and Wentz were worth the risk. The two of them still text each other periodically just to check in, and on Thursday night, they’ll both be in Chicago for the first round, and if they go 1-2 as expected, their fortunes will be inextricably tied together. And this is something they talked about too when they were training together, the notion that they could foster a rivalry that ideally would last for a decade or more. It came up at dinner one night, Lindley says, how great this might all seem in 10 years, that time when they were hanging out in Southern California side-by-side, waiting for their futures to unfold.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb