OXNARD, Calif.—It’s the beginning of practice, a time when the Dolphins do individual position drills to help players get warmed up, and DeVante Parker’s hands already sting.
Parker and his fellow receivers are running out routes on a cool, clear California afternoon, and one after another they return to the back of the line grumbling about the fastballs being fired at them. Kenny Stills smirks. Jarvis Landry laughs as he catches another one. Same thing every day. Parker’s particularly annoyed because he has to reach down to his knees for one.
The man launching passes at the center of this exercise is not Jay Cutler. It’s not a practice squad quarterback or a 20-something arm the Dolphins hired to replicate a pro’s throws. These sidearm rockets are coming from 61-year-old grandpa Clyde Christensen, who also happens to be the offensive coordinator, and this might very well be his favorite part of the job.
It’s also the least favorite part of Parker’s.
“I think he eased up a little bit today, but yesterday he was throwing 100 miles per hour,” Parker complained. “If you were two yards away and he’s throwing it 200 miles per hour, you’d be hurting too.”
The legend of Clyde the Cannon grows. Next it’ll be 300.
It’s the least surprising thing in the world to Christensen that Parker would say that, too.
“Oh yeah,” Christensen said, predicting it hours before Parker spoke. “DeVante loves to whine. And I remind him that I’m 75 years old. I hardly think I’m throwing it too hard for him. But he does love to whine that you’re too close and you’re throwing it too hard.”
That’s the fulcrum of this ongoing argument between Christensen and his receivers. It’s not that they can’t handle his velocity, it’s that he unleashes it from such close proximity that his fingertips might graze their facemask on the follow-through.
Landry contended that anyone can hit that speed at five yards out (it’s probably a seven-yard throw, to be fair). Dolphins coach Adam Gase said he’s got a stronger arm than Ryan Tannehill or Matt Moore at that distance.
“He drills them from probably two yards away,” Jakeem Grant said, rolling his eyes. “I’m pretty sure we’ll never be two yards from the quarterback. I guess we know if we ever run a drag or a really shallow route, we’ll be ready for it because Clyde drills the ball from two yards away.”
Besides Christensen’s go-to defense that he’s old, he claims this is a necessary technique. And he’s so respected as a guru after 39 years in coaching—he’s got a Super Bowl ring and he was Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator, among other credits—that the receivers have at least a hint of trepidation when questioning him.
Some of the alleged bad balls he throws at them are ones they’ll see in a game, where pass plays don’t always go perfectly. If Parker saves one just before it hits the grass against the Chargers on Sunday, Christensen will surely point out the merit of preparing for that instance.
That said, he dismisses the many gripes about his accuracy. When asked how much they ride him for his throws being off, Christensen replied flatly, “I’m not off.” Oh? “I make it business,” he said. “I don’t have time to be off.”
Stills actually backed him up on that.
“He’s still got it,” he said. “He has his days, but he’s on the majority of the time. If I think back through training camp, he probably had one or two off days.”
Reports on Christensen’s consistency depend on who you ask.
The first word out of Grant’s mouth to describe his passes was “unpredictable.” When he is imprecise, the receivers immediately harp on him for committing a “critical error,” which is them redirecting his favorite term for their mistakes.
The receivers have a board in their meeting room to chart critical errors from each day’s practice and they’ve tried repeatedly to put Christensen’s name up there.
“Those guys tease me because they say my specialty is the low ball, but we try to move the ball around,” he said. “Maybe my specialty is the low ball, but that’s by necessity because I’m close to the ground and the release point’s dropped down low.
“But I do think one of the really important things for receivers is getting them good balls—not left-handed or lollypops or end-over-end. So all kidding aside, I do think there’s value in it. It’s really, really important that you have somebody who can give them a ball that’s game-like.”
No one disputes that. What they dispute is whether Christensen is the right guy to do it.
He looks the part of a prototypical sitcom dad more so than a quarterback. He’s short and round, wears a visor every day and he’s always smiling. Ask him a quick question and he’ll invariably answer with a funny story—a good one, too. On appearance alone, Christensen is qualified to coach a t-ball team or man the grill at a church picnic.
He’s a quarterback at heart, though. He was an all-American passer at Fresno City Junior College in 1975 before transferring to play his final two years at North Carolina. Some of the receivers wouldn’t minding getting their hands on footage of those days—especially Grant, who said he’s seen high school quarterbacks with better form.
The Dolphins could find someone else to throw during drills and they have other ex-QBs on staff. Christensen knows that, but he’d never allow it. He assumed this responsibility in part because he got bored during that part of practice last season, his first with Miami after 14 with the Colts. He’d normally be with the quarterbacks, but got the sense last year he was redundant over there.
Furthermore, his arm still feels good. He usually throws upward of 80 passes in a practice and rarely ices his shoulder or feels sore in the morning.
“We’ve got about four quarterback whisperers here, so I just moved over to the receivers,” he said, taking a playful jab at Gase. “I was miserable not having anything to do during individuals and I’ve really enjoyed the skills part of this thing, whether it be quarterbacks or receivers.
“It’s fun. They’ve let me throw and get included in the thing, and I do think it’s a way to keep the tempo up. And I can put the ball where I want to put it to give them the look we want to give them. I think those guys have responded and worked. I do think it’s been good.”
Good for everyone. As much as the receivers chide him, it’s rooted in affection. When the Dolphins talk about their team being a family, Christensen is one of the first people that comes to mind.
He’s constantly upbeat, spending this past week exhorting the team to view its choppy start to the season as a positive in the long run. It’s rare to find a coach as warm and endearing as him, and the banter during drills reinforces the bond he has with the players. If they were honest, they’d admit they want Christensen throwing to them just as much as he does.
“One hundred percent,” Stills said. “He’s always itching to be involved and be part of what we’re doing. He’s not just your typical coordinator that’s standing in the back calling plays. I admire him for that. He’s young at heart. And he helps us out a lot. His football knowledge and the people he’s been around in this game and what he brings to the table for us on and off the field—you can’t help but love the guy.”
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