By: Hunter Wright
Greg Briner has been engulfed in the world of football for nearly all his life. While playing as a quarterback at Gardena High School, Briner earned League player of the year, Los Angeles City player of the year, Southern California player of the year, California player of the year, and Parade Magazine All-American honors. Briner earned a roster spot on the University of Southern California, but unfortunately never got to play, as he explains that he was “hurt all the time”. Briner was at USC from 1968-71 and was a freshman when O.J. Simpson was a senior. Briner had a good relationship with the future Heisman trophy winner. Briner las saw Simpson on a plane. “I was walking down the aisle and this hand reaches out and grabbed me. I looked down and there’s O.J. smiling” recalls Briner, Simpson would go on to have a historic professional career, that would be overshadowed by a more historic controversy.
Briner majored in biology at USC, as he wanted to be a veterinarian. Briner, unfortunately, couldn’t get into vet school. “It wasn’t like I grew up with aspirations of coaching,” says Briner. So how did you get into the business? “I had a friend at Oregon, he called me and asked if I could help with his players. I coached receivers and quarterbacks at Oregon, Oregon State, and Portland State.” Briner would rise through the ranks as he left college football to take a job as a research and quality control assistant for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in 1986. In 1989 Briner served as the Colts quarterbacks coach before leaving to take the offensive coordinator position at Marshall. The Marshall Thundering Herd had been a NCAA division I team from 1962-81, but in 1982 the Southern Conference dropped to I-AA status. In 1997 Marshall would move back up to division I by joining the Mid-American Conference. In 1992, with the trio of head coach Jim Donnan, offensive coordinator Greg Briner, and defensive coordinator Mickey Matthews all entering their third year with the school, the Marshall Thundering Herd beat the Youngstown State Penguins 31-28 to become the I-AA National Champions.
In 1993 Navy’s George Chaump, for the first time in his then 11-year coaching career, hired an offensive coordinator. Chaump chose Briner for that honor, and promote defensive line coach Denny Murphy to defensive coordinator. The new coaching regime helped the Midshipmen improve from 1-10 to 4-7, but failed to boast a winning record under Chaump. “I loved the Naval Academy” Briner reminisces. The rivalry between Army and Navy is legendary, and Briner recalls one matchup on a rainy day in ’93. In the closing seconds, on 3rd and goal from the two yard line, trailing by two points, Briner’s offense was looking for the game winning touchdown. With two exceptional running backs Brad Stramanak and Billy James, Briner had a tough decision to make; Brad, the fullback was strong, but Billy, the tailback was quick. Briner expected Army’s defense to stack the box, so he gave his marching orders; “I put in on a 3rd down call, on the two, I put in our fullback, a power guy thinking he could power in and (I) took our tailback out. They (Army’s defense) came off the edge. Our tailback would’ve danced in, our fullback got stopped.”
After his stint at the Naval Academy, Briner reunited with his former Marshall head coach when Jim Donnan signed him on as his offensive coordinator at Georgia. In 1997 with senior quarterback Mike Bobo (who is currently the head coach at Colorado State), Briner’s Bulldogs became the only University of Georgia team to beat the Florida Gators under famed head coach Steve Spurrier. “The Old Ball Coach” Spurrier, who won the Heisman trophy in 1966 as a Gator quarterback, was 11-1 against the Georgia Bulldogs from 1990-2001. Briner would serve as an offensive coordinator for Southern Methodist University after moving on from Georgia.
Preparing for football games isn’t easy, it requires rigorous training, and long hours of film study. According to Briner, some coaches have it harder than others; “Offensive coaches run the same offense every week. Defensive coaches have to prepare for a new offense every week.” Of course, preparation differs from the collegiate and professional levels. “NFL teams add new plays each week, which is bad. A quarterback is only going to be good at plays he runs every week”.
Who does most of the play calling? “It’s circumstantial,” says Briner. “Steve Spurrier, he called his own plays. Bill Walsh when he was a head coach called his own plays. Joe Gibbs, when he coached the Redskins called his own plays.” Coaches will consult with their coordinators, and line coaches. In-game adjustments, per Briner, are sometimes more important than game planning. While everyone’s input is taken into consideration, Briner claims that the duties are “ninety-five percent coordinators.”
What kind of offense do you run? “I would say more of a traditional drop back pass offense” Briner responds, likening his preferred offense to a traditional pro-style attack. “It’s never been predicated on a running quarterback, and there’s a difference between a running quarterback and a mobile quarterback. Russell Wilson’s a good example, I would classify him as a mobile quarterback. He doesn’t run read option and that sort of thing, he’s very mobile in the pocket but he can drop back and pass. My offense when I was coordinator, it might be perceived as more of a NFL type because the quarterback was going to drop back and he wasn’t a real factor in the running game.” Briner liked a fundamentally sound pocket passer, but was not “pass happy”, claiming he never wanted to throw the ball more than sixty percent of the time. Briner compared his offensive style to that of the New England Patriots in the sense of emphasizing ball-control. “I was influenced by the west coast offense”, says Briner as he went on to explain what the west coast offense is; “It has a certain idea that you were going to control the ball with short passes, throw the ball down field when it was appropriate, but control the ball.” “I was influenced greatly by the old San Diego Chargers, the ‘Air Coryell’ type thing.” Don Coryell was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers from 1978-86. Coryell’s offense, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, became known as Air Coryell. “Dan Fouts was a friend, and I would study the Chargers to a great extent.” “I even used a three-digit passing tree system that was based on that Chargers stuff”. Briner was also inspired by the offensive innovator Sid Gillman (coached the LA\San Diego Chargers from 1960-71) and Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs (Washington Redskins 1981-2007, 3-time Super Bowl champion).
What are the different responsibilities between coordinators and head coaches? “The responsibilities are enormous. The coach responsibilities are a lot of off the field stuff. I didn’t want to be a head coach and get the phone call at midnight from the chief of police. I didn’t want to go to booster clubs.” As far as the coordinators go, they just have\get to focus on the game.
How is coaching in the NFL different than in college? “It’s night and day, apples and oranges. The NFL is obviously a business, you’re dealing with guys making more money than you, you have to earn their respect. In college, you have more power and impact on the game.” NFL coaches are interchangeable, but coaches are deemed more valuable in college. There is a hierarchy in the NFL, as coaches report to general managers, who report to owners. The system works well for some, such as Joe Gibbs and his GM Bobby Beathard, or Jerry Jones, who serves as owner and GM for the Dallas Cowboys. “When I was in Indy, our general manager was Jim Irsay, and he drafted Art Schlichter, a terrible quarterback from Ohio State”, says Briner. The coaches didn’t want Schilchter but had to work with him anyway. Schilchter would start only six games in his career before bad play and off the field issues forced him out of the league. “The most notable thing about those days with the Colts was we made a disastrous trade for Eric Dickerson.” Eric Dickerson, a Hall of Fame running back, rushed for over 7,200 yards in 65 games for the Los Angeles Rams, but was 27-years old when he was traded in 1987 to the Colts, who had gone 38-98-1 from 1978-86. The trade was the lovechild of Jim Irsay’s desperation and power, it was complex to say the least and even included a third party:
The Colts traded the rights to unsigned rookie linebacker Cornelius Bennett to the Buffalo Bills for running back Greg Bell, the Bills first round draft picks in ’88 and ’89, as well as the Bills second round draft pick in ’89. The Colts then sent everything they got from the Bills, as well as their own first round picks in ’88 and second round pick in ’88 and ’89, along with running back Owen Gill to the Rams, for Eric Dickerson. “We overpaid for him,” says Briner.
Dickerson was good for a league leading 1,659 rushing yards in 1988, but then his production steeply declined. In his thirties Dickerson was no longer capable of carrying a team on his shoulders. “When we traded for Eric, I thought it was a horrendous trade, running backs are overvalued in the NFL” claims Briner. “It made us look bad as coaches”
Irsay would not learn from his mistake. In 1997 Jim Irsay would inherit ownership of the Colts from his father Bob Irsay. In 2013 Irsay made a regrettable trade for Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson. Richardson had a solid rookie season in Cleveland, and went viral when he ran into Philadelphia safety Kurt Coleman, the impact was so great that Coleman’s helmet flew off his head. Richardson was not productive in Indianapolis. Irsay has most recently been under fire for not supplying his franchise quarterback Andrew Luck with a good enough offensive line. Unfortunately for the Colts, nobody can fire the owner.
At this point in the interview Briner and I went on to talk about recent events in the NFL. In the past two years Josh McCown has started eleven games for the Cleveland Browns, sporting a record of 1-10. “I coached Josh McCown at SMU, he’d make a good coach. The Browns are a historically bad operation.” McCown is no longer with the Browns, who kept only Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan from their 2016 quarterback crop. The Houston Texans recently made a deal with the Browns. The Texans signed Brock Osweiler to a 4-year $72 million contract in 2016 After one season, where Osweiler threw a pitiful 15 touchdowns versus a whopping 16 interceptions, and with the 26-year old Osweiler set to make $16 million in 2017, the Texans shipped him, along with second and sixth round draft picks to Cleveland, where careers go to die. What do the Texans get in return? Firstly, a fourth-round draft pick, but more importantly, they don’t have to pay $16 million to a turnover machine. “The Browns are taking on a salary to get a draft pick” explains Briner.
A big topic of conversation for football fans is the Super Bowl, and the past three will be talked about years to come. In Super Bowl XLIX on second and goal, from the one yard line, with a timeout to spare and 26 seconds on the clock, the Seattle Seahawks made history in the worst way. Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called a pass play, resulting in an interception, sealing victory for the New England Patriots. In Super Bowl LI the Atlanta Falcons blew a 25-point lead and lost to the Patriots. In Briner’s opinion, Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan blew it worse than Bevell. Shannahan changed his pay-calling late in the game, dooming his team.
Final question, who is the best quarterback you’ve worked with? “The most physically talented quarterback was Josh McCown. He could’ve played college basketball.” “The best quarterback as far as doing what I wanted was Mike Bobo. He was the smartest, that’s why he coaches now at Colorado State. Me and him had mental telepathy.” “The best pure passer was a guy you’ve never heard of, Kellen Lueker at SMU was the best passer I’ve ever seen.”
Today Briner is a private quarterback coach. “I never intended to go into private quarterback coaching,” says Briner, much like his situation after USC, he received a call from a friend. Briner was contacted to help coach a quarterback at SMU, who is now a starter at Princeton. Families began calling after that. “I try to get the quarterback to throw the open man,” says Briner. Whether he’s looking or not, work seems to find Briner, but he says, “I feel like I never worked a day in my life.”