Chicago area QB guru has the NFL’s full attention

The Bears were fans of Jeff Christensen’s work before they knew it. One of his quarterback pupils, Matt Blanchard, had earned their interest and money after only weeks of work.

‘‘Jeremy Bates was the quarterbacks coach at the time,’’ Blanchard said of his experience in 2012. ‘‘I remember him pretty much saying, ‘You’re kind of not there yet’ [at the Bears’ local pro day]. Then, after that day, I had another month and a half to work with Jeff. I go into that rookie minicamp and it was almost like I was a different dude, more polished and everything. They signed me because of it. The rest is history.’’

Former general manager Phil Emery viewed Blanchard as a viable backup. He broke his hand in the 2013 preseason, forcing the Bears in another direction, but he was on the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad last year and signed with the Green Bay Packers last week.

‘‘I needed somebody to mold me a little bit,’’ said Blanchard, a Lake Zurch High School graduate who played at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

And that was Christensen, who spent eight years in the NFL and whose Throw It Deep academy is based in the Chicago suburbs. Like all sports, football is saturated with ‘‘expert’’ camps that promise to turn kids into professionals. But few, if any, in the Midwest have Christenen’s background or his growing list of NFL quarterbacks.

Fixing the feet

Quarterback Jay Cutler’s run with the Bears has included a long list of coaches who have come and gone with his failures. Marc Trestman, with his renowned approach to quarterbacks, lasted only two seasons.

To Christensen, Cutler has two issues — ‘‘Both below the belly button,’’ he said — and they are easy fixes.

‘‘What’s happened with Jay is frustration, and quite frankly, I don’t blame him based on the past,’’ said Christensen, a fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1983 who played at Eastern Illinois.

‘‘Now this guy here, [offensive coordinator] Adam Gase, I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about. He has incredible knowledge, and he knows how to handle people. I look for Jay to have a good year.

‘‘Now, he has these two technique things I’m talking about rocking — it would revolutionize his career. He would make throws that he never made before. And they’re very simple things to do, but there has to be a buy-in. There has to be an understanding.’’

Don’t ask for details — Christensen isn’t going to divulge his secrets.

But Blanchard said Christensen is different than Trestman in personality and approach.

‘‘They’re mastering two different things,’’ Blanchard said. ‘‘Marc can talk about technique and that stuff, but he’s there as an offensive coordinator, as a guy who is supposed to develop plans and all that stuff.’’

The No. 1 reason NFL teams and agents seek out Christensen is he primarily focuses on technique, especially footwork.

‘‘Growing up, you always want to have a big, strong arm, and really, it’s not even about your arm,’’ said Denver Broncos quarterback Zac Dysert, who has worked with Christensen for three years. ‘‘It’s about your feet. Once I learned that, and Jeff kind of taught me that stuff, it all clicked for me.’’

Dysert played for Bears coach John Fox and Gase in Denver and said Gase noticed a difference after his work with Christensen.

‘‘We had some conversations last year, and he told me I was throwing the ball pretty well and things like that,’’ said Dysert, who re-signed with the Broncos. ‘‘He noticed.’’

QBs keep coming

With the Arizona Cardinals’ offseason work fast approaching, quarterback Drew Stanton flew Christensen out to the desert for three days of extra work last week.

‘‘Now is the time of year to really get a better feel for where you can be more efficient,’’ Stanton said.

Christensen believes there’s an overemphasis at all levels on drills that involve rapid movements to avoid pressure, creating a dependence on moves that affect throwing motions and negatively alter footwork.

The goal is to have a good base on all throws — left, right or middle, long or short, with or without pressure. All the best quarterbacks have that consistent footwork, Christensen said, particularly the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers. It improves their delivery, strength, velocity and consistency.

‘‘There’s a confidence that you get from making throws and knowing that you’re on balance and that you’re feet are in position to make a throw and you’re doing it efficiently,” Stanton said. “Throws definitely do become easier when you’re doing that. You feel better about it. It allows you to worry about other stuff.”

In the NFL, there’s a need for such specialization.

‘‘Coaches do not have a lot of time for the minutiae or the details of the positions,’’ said Tim Ruskell, the Bears’ former director of player personnel. ‘‘To find a guy that really that’s what he does, that’s what he studies, people are going to gravitate toward you. It’s really about the mechanics of the throw.

‘‘Most offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches in the NFL say, ‘OK, he already knows how to do all that. I’m just going to teach him how to run our scheme and get him ready for that,’ when most of them probably need as much of the detailed and skill-level technique work as anything.

‘‘The guys that come back to [Christensen] probably feel like they go back in the league with a leg up on the rest of the guys. They should. I’ve seen it in action. It works.’’

From pros down to preps

Christensen’s latest claim to fame is Jimmy Garoppolo, an Eastern Illinois product drafted in the second round last year by the New England Patriots. He started working with Christensen as a junior at Rolling Meadows.

Stanton started working with Christensen last May and went 5-3 as the Cardinals’ starter after three seasons without a regular-season snap. Blanchard and former Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka (Minnesota Vikings) signed free-agent deals this offseason.

Eight general managers at this year’s Senior Bowl sought Christensen’s advice. Four teams have invited him to attend their offseason trainings this year.

One high-ranking AFC executive said he asks all his quarterbacks to see Christensen.

“Regardless of the scheme or system, the quarterback comes back with a much better sense of his footwork, his release, his grip, his arm motion,” said the executive, who requested anonymity. “That applies to any offense. You’re just going to get a better quarterback. That’s why so many teams have gravitated towards Jeff.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s Jeff and nobody else. … In a very quiet way, he’s become a foremost authority about developing quarterbacks.”

Christensen says his true passion lies in helping the everyday high school kid achieve his dream of being his school’s starting quarterback. He praises his staff at Throw It Deep, which coaches more than 500 participants of various ages. His son, Jake, a former quarterback at Iowa and Eastern Illinois, and Preston Earl, a former quarterback at Illinois State and Benedictine, are deeply involved.

Throw It Deep skills coaches Tim Ehlebracht, Jake Marshall and Tom Nelson (a former NFL safety from Hersey) also deserve special mention. Mike Dudek, a record-setting receiver last year as a freshman at Illinois, was one of their students.

‘‘They’re all just a big part of getting you there and translating it to the next level,’’ said Evanston quarterback Matt Little, who has worked at Throw It Deep for five years and is committed to Western Michigan.

It helps to have NFL QBs on the field. Ruskell would know. His son, Jack, participates.

‘‘It’s a big deal for those guys,’’ Ruskell said. ‘‘They’re doing it to keep up their skills and continue to grow. That shows something to the kids that are there. It’s a valuable lesson for all them to see it.’’


Background: A native of downstate Gibson City and an Eastern Illinois graduate, Christensen was a fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1983. He spent eight years in the NFL with the Bengals, Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles. His son, Jake, led Lockport to state title and played at Iowa and Eastern Illinois.

Notable influences: Steve DeBerg, Ron Jaworski, Ken Anderson, Sid Gillman.

Notable players: Jimmy Garoppolo (Patriots), Matt Blanchard (Bears, Panthers, Packers), Zac Dysert (Broncos), Mike Kafka (Eagles, Buccaneers, Vikings), Chandler Harnish (Colts, Cardinals), Drew Stanton (Lions, Jets, Colts, Cardinals), Kirk Cousins (Redskins), Christian Ponder (Vikings, Raiders), Tom Savage (Texans), Brett Basanez (Panthers, Bears), Andrew Hendrix (Notre Dame, Miami of Ohio), Trevor Siemian (Northwestern)

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Twitter: @adamjahns

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