Talk about good timing. Not only did quarterback Brett Ratliff, last year's practice squad receiver, make the New York Jets' roster this summer, but the arrival of Brett Favre gave him a chance to learn from a future Hall of Famer.
It's like being an apprentice guitarist and having Eric Clapton move in next door.
"It's just a great opportunity," says Ratliff, the former University of Utah quarterback. "He's extremely down to earth and a way fun guy to be around. And he's a great mentor."
Ratliff was running a bootleg the other day in which he fakes the handoff, rolls out and throws a pass to a receiver in the flat. Just as he turned to roll out, the defensive end was in his face. Ratliff, never taking his eyes off the flat, had the pass knocked down by the end. Favre explained a little trick he'd learned.
"Don't look to where you're going to throw it in that situation," he said. "Look inside and he (the end) won't know where you're throwing it and then look late."
Said Ratliff, "I never would have thought of that. He (Favre) did the same play and looked inside and the end didn't know what was going on. Then he dinked it to the guy in the flat. The other guys are, 'Wow, did he just do that?"'
Ratliff was one of the revelations of the preseason for the Jets. Dividing
playing time with three other quarterbacks, he completed 29-of-43 passes for 451 yards and three touchdowns and challenged Kellen Clemens, who started eight games last season, for the backup job. In early August against the Browns, Ratliff completed 14-of-20 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns.
Sports Illustrated ran a photo gallery of the top performers during the preseason and included a shot of Ratliff.
In the end, the Jets made an almost unprecedented decision by keeping all four quarterbacks on their active 53-man roster Favre, Clemens, Ratliff and Erik Ainge. All of them played well in the preseason, and the Jets decided to keep them for the day Favre actually does retire. Favre has signed a two-year contract, but who knows if he will return next season.
In a matter of months, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Ratliff has gone from practice squad player to the No. 2 1/2 quarterback. He's splitting practice reps 50-50 with Clemens.
"He's got size, he's got a strong arm, he's a smart guy," said Jets coach Eric Mangini. "That quarterback room sets a pretty high bar for work ethic, and he's right there with them."
Not bad for a guy who was undrafted out of the University of Utah. He's made a habit of making the most out of opportunities.
After transferring from Butte College to Utah, Ratliff was stuck behind Brian Johnson during the 2005 season until an injury sidelined Johnson in the 10th game. In his first start, Ratliff threw four touchdown passes and rushed for 112 yards and another touchdown to lead Utah to a 41-34 overtime win over BYU in Provo. In his second start, he threw four touchdown passes to beat Georgia Tech 38-10 in the Emerald Bowl. That was enough to convince Ute coaches to redshirt Johnson in 2006 and give Ratliff the starting job. Ratliff helped the Utes to an 8-5 season and another bowl victory.
The Jets signed Ratliff to a free-agent contract. They cut him and then re-signed him to the practice squad. He wound up taking only about 120 reps at quarterback during the entire season; mostly, he filled in at receiver.
"They told me to fill in wherever I could at any position where they needed me," he says. "I played receiver and special teams on the scout team, and I was the fourth quarterback. I got very limited reps at quarterback, so I was a receiver pretty much the whole time.
"It was a great experience to learn other positions and see how they do things and how it is on the other end."
Ratliff undertook an intense off-season program to establish himself as a quarterback this season. After taking less than a month off, he began training near the end of January and continued through July without missing a single workout. Even when the team was given a week off, he continued to train.
"I love football," he explains. "This is what I want to do."
His work ethic did not go unnoticed. The Jets gave him an award for his off-season training dedication. On at least one occasion, after a workout Ratliff received a text message from one of the Jets coaches: "Keep up the good work, and you'll get opportunities."
Which is exactly what happened, and the surprise arrival of Favre has been a bonus for Ratliff."I spend all day with him," says Ratliff. "I look up to him and always have. He tells me things when he comes off the field after reps that really help. It's a lot of little things that he's learned over the years. He's big on looking guys off, manipulating the defense with the ball and his eyes. He tells me stuff all the time. It's been a lot of fun."