PITTSFORD – The resume doesn't exactly scream that Josh Allen, one of the most important draft picks in Buffalo Bills history, has an ideal tutor guiding him through these critical first steps as an NFL quarterback.
It shows that David Culley, while in his 25th season of coaching in the league, is beginning only his second year as a quarterbacks coach. It also shows that, before joining the Bills in 2017, wide receiver was the only position he had coached in the NFL.
The resume, however, doesn't tell the whole story.
Let Brian Mitchell fill in some of the blanks.
Long before he established himself as one of the greatest return specialists in NFL history with the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, Mitchell was a standout quarterback at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as Louisiana-Lafayette). Culley was the school's quarterbacks coach, a role he filled for four seasons there after one year of doing so at Middle Tennessee and one year at Western Kentucky.
"I think (Allen) has the right guy, because David is going to be a guy who will be a calming influence and still be able to educate and teach him how to do it," Mitchell said by phone. "As a college quarterback, I went from a guy who was just an athlete and ran around and threw the ball once somebody got wide open to a guy who ran the option, which is very disciplined. And I became a very good passer under his tutelage.
"He taught me how to run the option and he taught me how to pass the football and become a better passer. And on top of it, he's left-handed and he taught me, as a right-hander, how to do it. If he was able to get me to the point he got me, I'm sure Josh Allen is in great hands."
This is the point Culley helped Mitchell reach: first player in NCAA history to throw for more than 5,000 yards (5,447) and run for more than 3,000 (3,335). Mitchell also once held the NCAA record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 47. In his senior season, he ran for 1,311 yards and passed for 1,966 yards while accounting for 25 TDs as a runner and passer.
Granted, Mitchell's professional mark came in an entirely different capacity, but when he arrived at Southwestern Louisiana from Plaquemine (La.) High School, he was the rawest of projects. He knew nothing about the mechanics of throwing a football. He thought playing quarterback meant running around in the pocket until he found an open receiver, sandlot style, and trusting his ability to rifle the ball to him. Mitchell was in desperate need of some molding.
Since before last April's NFL Draft, the conversation about Allen has been dominated by how far behind he is in his development as a passer compared with most of the other top quarterback prospects. As soon as the Bills made Allen the seventh overall choice, the highest they've ever invested in a QB, there has been plenty of discussion about the enormous challenge facing offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Culley to get the rookie ready to show why he was worth the pick and the draft capital the Bills spent to move up to get him.
At the top of list: fixing the footwork problems that led to Allen's accuracy issues at Wyoming.
Daboll has been an offensive coordinator for three other NFL teams and at the University of Alabama. He has extensive experience as a position coach with the New England Patriots, helping him build a collection of Super Bowl rings to go along with the hardware he received earlier this year as part of the Crimson Tide's national championship team. For now, Daboll will get at least some benefit of the doubt from anxious Bills fans.
Culley, who turns 63 next month, understands his situation is different. Yet, in his typically jovial style, he makes it clear in a recent conversation with The Buffalo News it doesn't faze him one bit.
"Coaching is coaching, regardless of position," Culley said, flashing a big smile under his white bucket hat. "As a receiver coach, basically I've always had to know exactly what everybody does from a quarterback standpoint in the passing game. It's the same thing in the running game. You had to know what everybody does in the running game, because the guys you coach have to be involved."
He's well aware of the intense scrutiny of all things pertaining to Allen. However, he's convinced that the challenge of working under such pressure-packed circumstances is at least somewhat mitigated by Allen's makeup.
"When we drafted him, we knew, after all the evaluation process, he had the right stuff to be successful in this league," Culley said. "And we knew it's a process. But you know when you bring in guys and you know that he has the stuff that it takes to be able to do that. Now, it's just a matter, during that process, of getting him to do that. And we feel good about going through that process right now with this guy and we know that he's going to be successful when that time comes."
Culley had always wanted to coach quarterbacks in the NFL, but the first opportunity that presented itself for him to work in the league was as a receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1994 to 1995. He would work in similar capacities with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1996-98), Eagles (1999-2012) and Kansas City Chiefs (2013-16).
It was with the Eagles that Culley first met Bills coach Sean McDermott, who started off in Philadelphia's player-personnel department in '99 and worked his way up to defensive coordinator. Culley had shared his quarterback-coaching dream with McDermott, who saw a chance to help him realize it when McDermott arrived in Buffalo in 2017.
"He saw exactly what I'd been trying to do and waiting to do for a number of years," Culley said. "He called and we talked about certain things, we talked about the position, the things that he believed in, the things that I believed in. We were on the same page and a few days later, when he came back and offered me the job, I said, 'Yes.'
"To this point in my career, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Culley believes his life's journey – which includes playing quarterback in junior high, high school and at Vanderbilt University – has given him as well-rounded a football education as any coach could have.
At the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where Culley coached wide receivers in 1983, the head coach, Bill Oliver, told him that "teaching is coaching" and the key to a successful coaching career is getting players to do what he wants them to do. "And I always felt like I had a knack for being able to communicate with kids and being able to connect," Culley said.
As a freshman quarterback at Vanderbilt in the mid-1970s, he spent half the season filling in as a returner and defensive back after a couple of players had been kicked off the team. That allowed him to work with Vanderbilt's defensive coordinator at the time: Bill Parcells.
"I didn't know he was going to be a Hall of Fame coach, but I knew there was something special," Culley said. "You knew that, because of the way he went about his business, just all the little things involved in football. I'm talking about every aspect – what happens on offense, what happens on defense. You got the whole, total package from him."
During his stint in Philadelphia, Culley made a strong impression on then-Eagles coach Andy Reid, who would hire him a second time in Kansas City as assistant head coach/wide receivers coach.
"David is smart, loyal and dedicated to football and his family," Reid said. "He is real with his players. The players respect and love him. Having been a college QB himself, he has a full understanding of the intricacies of the position and sport. As good of an assistant coach as David is, he would be even a better head coach."
Culley's primary message to Allen and the Bills' other quarterbacks, AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, is consistency.
They hear that from Culley in each meeting, beginning with the one, usually early in the morning, before practice. They hear it on the field during pre-practice warm-ups. They hear it in every drill. They hear it during post-practice work.
"If you get that guy to be the most consistent guy on the field, then you're going to have a chance to win every time you play," Culley said. "I tell them, 'You have to be the same guy every day in directing this football team. You're the leader of this football team, so when things aren't right, they're looking at you. When you're not doing things right, they're looking at me. You have to know everything, you have to be on top of everything. When guys don't know what to do, you've got to be able to tell them what to do. When guys aren't sure about what to do, you have to be sure about what to do.' "
Generally, he follows a three-step approach with his instruction. The first focuses on fundamentals, such as footwork. Culley and Daboll are relentless when it comes to this part of quarterbacking mechanics. How relentless? Before every practice snap, Allen, thanks to constant reminders from both coaches, makes a point of telling himself, "Shorten my stride! Shorten my stride!"
Step two is knowing the right progression of routes the receivers are running. Step three is knowing what the 10 other players on offense are supposed to do on each play.
"And in time, through repetition and through practice, you see them put that together and that's where the consistency comes," Culley said.
It was that sort of meticulous guidance that Mitchell credits for allowing him to be as dynamic as he was as a college quarterback. "I think he's a great communicator," Mitchell said. "Quarterback coaches need to be that type of person."
Culley first managed to find a way to work with what Mitchell describes as a personality that makes him "as volatile as they come. If I'm (ticked) off, I'm going to lose it, I don't care who it is. But he was this calming influence on me." After that, Culley had Mitchell's trust and full attention most of the time. His biggest accomplishment was breaking Mitchell of his habit of running haphazardly around the pocket by convincing him he could make more plays by dropping back and scanning the secondary for an open target rather than always throwing on the run.
"David showed me, 'One, two, three, hitch-step, let it go. One, two, three, four, five, hitch-step, let it go,' " Mitchell recalled. "And he taught me how to put an arc on the football. He would make me have drills where I would have to throw it right over the goal post. Then, he wanted me to touch the goal post (with the ball), so you could put the proper arc. He showed me how to throw balls into the end zone by putting a trash can in the corner of the end zone, where I could drop the balls into it. When I first started doing that, I tried to put everything on a straight line. But then I started to see that when I'd throw the ball over the top, it made it easier for me to throw fade routes and all those types of things.
"As my career went on, I noticed all of that stuff working in the game. So when I was throwing a pass for a guy running, let's say, an 18-yard in route, I could get it over the linebacker instead of trying to throw it on a line and the linebacker picked it off. If you look at the good coaches in the NFL, they always go back to fundamentals and make it just like riding the bike for the guy. And if they go back to that, the guy becomes sharper and sharper and sharper and even better.
"I still respect David to this day."