Long before he challenged Peyton Manning to tweak his mechanics to compensate for his loss of arm strength, Denver Broncos quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp challenged another passer.
The one in the mirror.
A generation ago, Knapp longed to lead a college football team, to march it downfield on a game-winning drive. He was a late bloomer, gangly, slow afoot, emerging as a starter only in his senior season at Huntington Beach High School in 1980. The Oilers, leaking everywhere, stumbled home at 1-9.
Knapp gave up football to study business at UC Santa Barbara, but he grew bored. He couldn’t avoid the itch to play again, but where? And on what career path would it lead him?
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Knapp was not recruited out of high school, so he looked for a program that was desperate for talent. Hello, Sacramento State.
While scouring sports sections, Knapp learned that the Hornets had managed five victories over a five-year period from 1976 to 1980. He reached out to late Hornets coach Bob Mattos, who invited Knapp to visit. Sac State was a nonscholarship program then, and Mattos, Knapp once recalled, would “take anyone with two legs and a healthy heart.”
Knapp also offered what Mattos later referred to as a “great football mind” – and a free-spirit approach.
The 6-foot-3 Knapp entered Mattos’ office in the summer of 1981 wearing cut-off blue jeans with flowers, long hair and a cool demeanor. He turned out to be a cool operator, too, going on to set Hornets passing records and keying a breakthrough 8-3 showing in 1985.
Then he entered hyperspace, football style. Knapp coached nine years at Sac State, leading to assistant coaching stints with the 49ers, Falcons, Raiders, Seahawks, Texans, Raiders again, and the past three seasons with the Broncos. Knapp and his fellow Sac State alum, Broncos offensive-line coach Clancy Barone, are in their second Super Bowl with Denver in three seasons.
Before he died in 2010, Mattos said he watched Knapp’s ascension with pride.
“I think about Bob a lot, because he gave me the opportunity to play, to coach, to get into football, and I’m so thankful,” Knapp said. “Bob’s family was my family away from home. Bob, his wife Maureen, their boys, Bruce and Doug ... they mean so much to me.
“It all started at Sac State for me. I learned to play there, learned to coach there, got my degree there, my master’s there, my teaching credential. I loved Sacramento.”
Knapp paused, then continued: “My career’s gone fast. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve survived the ups and downs of this profession, and in each move, I’ve gained more. I still have lessons from Sac State and those great players and coaches, ‘Tree’ Plumbtree, Jerry Haflich, Mike Clemons. They gave me opportunities and experiences I never could have imagined would lead to all of this. Heck of a ride.”
The ride includes working with eventual Hall of Fame passer in Steve Young when Knapp joined the 49ers’ staff in the 1990s and now a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in Manning. Young was younger and mobile. Manning’s physical skills have declined – he is 39, after all, the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history – but the mind is sharp.
“It’s been a great challenge this season, and that’s what makes this so much more satisfying,” Knapp said. “I’ve learned a lot from Peyton, and I hope he’s learned from me.”
He has. Manning said this week: “Greg’s been great for me.”
Knapp challenged Manning to adjust his mechanics and use his legs more to compensate for an arm that has lost strength after a series of neck surgeries. Manning also urges Knapp to coach him up. Don’t cut corners. It was the same theme with Young years earlier.
“What Steve Young taught me from Day One was, ‘You’re not paid to watch me and praise me,’ ” Knapp recalled. “ ‘You’re paid to coach me. If you see something wrong, you tell me.’ I’ll never forget that. I was 31, first year in the league, and here’s a future Hall of Famer telling me how to do it, if I wanted to stay in this business. Peyton’s the same way. I’m going to coach him hard, just like a rookie, and he’s respected the heck out of that. Makes this fun.”