The NFL’s Quarterback Whisperer Has One Last Pupil
Tom Clements built a reputation as one of the premier QB coaches, with students like Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Can he help Jordan Love become one of the greats?
By: Les Heintz - @LesHeintz57 Courtesy InsideHook
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Tom Clements may not be a household name, but if you’ve followed the NFL at any point over the last 30 years you have seen his work.
Consider these names. Elvis Grbac, Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray.
Each one of these NFL quarterbacks had their best (or one of their best) seasons when working with Clements. His latest student is Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Jordan Love… a young man thrust into the spotlight thanks to Aaron Rodgers’ move to New York.
Clements is the current quarterbacks coach for the Packers. The role he’s played in Love’s recent development cannot be understated.
"Tom's a great coach," Love said at a recent news conference. "He's been doing it for a long time, and he knows what he's talking about.”
Tom Clements is a man of few words. The people who know him and have worked with him, use phrases like straight-forward, unassuming, matter-of-fact, or super-cool to describe the 70-year old coach.
A spokesperson for the Packers said he just doesn’t like to talk about himself, which is why Clements declined to do an interview for this feature.
That comes as no surprise to people who have worked closely with him.
"When he's coaching, you are the most important person in the conversation, not him,” says retired NFL Quarterback Elvis Grbac.
In 2000, Grbac was the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs when Clements was hired to be his position coach. It would turn out to be one of Grbac’s last few years in the league and Clements was a breath of fresh air.
"He just kind of put me at a different level,” says Grbac. “He’s a great coach.”
That season Grbac put up the biggest numbers of his career. He threw for over 4,000 yards and was named to the NFL Pro Bowl.
“Jordan is going to have a guy that's in his corner 24/7 and a calming voice and character that's going to take him through a lot of difficult moments,” says Grbac. “I just think Tom loves to coach. This will be kind of like a fun ride.”
True to his character, Clements never really talks about his football journey which began in western Pennsylvania.
“I’ve seen Tom close up and from a distance and he’s the same both ways,” says Bob “Jake” Jacoby, one of Clements high school football coaches at Bishop Canevin in Pittsburgh “It was never about him. It was always about the team and his teammates.”
Clements was a 3-sport athlete in high school. By his senior year, he had a stack of college scholarship offers. His final choice came down to two legendary coaches in two different sports. Clements could have gone to North Carolina to play basketball for Dean Smith, but decided to attend Notre Dame to play quarterback for Ara Parseghian.
“Tom Clements is the most underrated quarterback to ever play at Notre Dame,” says Fighting Irish teammate Robin Weber. “I cannot stress enough that he had one hell of an arm.”
Clements was named starting quarterback at Norte Dame as a sophomore. A year later, he led the Fighting Irish to an undefeated season and a national championship thanks to a 1-point victory in the 1973 Sugar Bowl over undefeated Alabama. It’s considered one of the greatest bowl games in college football history.
During his last year at Notre Dame, Clements was a Heisman trophy finalist and featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, considered the bible of sports journalism at the time.
“Tom led by example. He wasn't a rah-rah guy, said Weber. “He never said much in the huddle. Through his actions he showed everybody how good he was. That gave all of us confidence and was a big part of the team’s success.”
Despite his success at Notre Dame, Clements went undrafted by the NFL and headed to Canada instead. He finished his 12 seasons in the CFL with over 39,000 passing yards, 252 passing touchdowns, and a 60.35 completion percentage. He won 2 Grey Cups, an MVP, and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
“Tommy Clements was a huge piece to my success,” says former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart. “There could not be a better coach to be in Love’s back pocket.”
In 2001, Clements was moving to his fourth team as a quarterback coach, but this time he was going home to Pittsburgh to work for the Steelers. It was also Kordell Stewart’s first year as a full-time quarterback.
Like Grbac, Stewart had his best year as a pro quarterback under Clements. He was elected to the Pro Bowl and was named the Steelers MVP.
“Tom was always steady, especially when things seemed out of control,” says Stewart. “It didn't matter if Coach Cowher was spitting, or the offensive line coach didn't like what was going on, or the guys were yelling in the huddle. It was like Tom was so cool to where you had no choice but to be cool too.”
In 2006 Clements was hired as quarterbacks coach of the Packers by Green Bay’s new head coach Mike McCarthy where he began working with his most famous pupils… the veteran Brett Favre and a young Aaron Rodgers who was entering his 2nd year.
Favre, who was coming off a down season, bought into Clements’ focus on fundamentals and footwork. In 2007, Favre had one the best seasons of his career and led the Packers to the NFC title game.
A year later, Favre was playing for the New York Jets and Clements was trying to help a young Rodgers fill the void left by a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Sound familiar?
“Tom doesn’t realize when I was a young player, I wanted nothing more than to make Tom Clements happy,” Rodgers told reporters in ’22. “Tom held me accountable in more ways than just the stat sheet. It was all about the fundamentals, the decision-making, the footwork, and stuff that really-actually has molded me into the quarterback I am today.”
Rodgers’ success with Clements in his corner is well documented. The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 and Rodgers is the game MVP. In 2011 and ’14, Rodgers is named league MVP and establishes himself as one of all-time greats.
Fast forward to February of last year. Clements is talked out of retirement by Rodgers, who was about to sign a record contract with the Packers. Clements agrees to be Green Bay’s new Quarterbacks Coach and finds a dynamic similar to the one he faced in 2006. Instead of working with Favre and Rodgers, this time Rodgers is the veteran with a raw Jordan Love as his backup.
But while Clements returned to Green Bay to coach Rodgers, he ends up working extensively with Love as Rodgers skipped most of the Packers off-season practices. Then during the season, Rodgers rarely practiced after a week 5 injury to his right thumb. As a result, Clements worked closely with Love who took all the 1st team practice snaps with Rodgers out.
Just like Favre, Rodgers and all the other quarterbacks coached by Clements over the years, Jordan Love’s play moved to another level.
"Just watching him last year. I think Jordan's made some huge strides," Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur told reporters this Spring. “I think a lot of it is a credit to Tom. He knows how to train these guys. He knows how to drill them and he's very, very consistent. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. He just is matter of fact."
When Rodgers was traded to the Jets, most expected Clements to go back into retirement. Instead, the 70-year old assistant coach told Packers head coach Matt LaFleur that he wanted to stay to finish his work with Love.
"I came back and enjoyed it, enjoyed working with Jordan and the other quarterbacks," Clements told reporters this Spring. "Any time you can coach a guy and you think you can help him, and it looks like you've helped him a little bit, that's gratifying."
The mountain Jordan Love is trying to climb is daunting. After all, the standard in Green Bay is very high. Between Favre and Rodgers, the Packers have had 30 years of Hall of Fame caliber play at quarterback. Love doesn’t have to be great, but anything less than good will be viewed as a failure.
In that sense, Tom Clements may be the wildcard for both Love and the Packers. His fingerprints are all over the team’s success at quarterback during the last 3 decades. Favre, Rodgers and now Love… all three coached by the same quarterback whisperer who has a history turning good quarterbacks into great ones!