‘Quarterback’ Shows How the Football Sausage Gets Made

Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota, unlikely TV heroes

With the 2023 football season upon us, beefy dudes in Packers jerseys are psyched. It’s the time of the year where it makes perfect sense to walk around shirtless, painted half green and gold, drunk out of their skull off bottles of Bud Light in below temperature weather. And for the next few months, ESPN and Fox Sports will be a constant highlight reel of dudes spearing other dudes on the 40-yard line, while everyone at home makes the same comment at one point during the season, “I wish they mic’d them up. I’d pay to hear the shit they say to one another.”

So, Netflix did that with Quarterback.

One thing about sports is the access point. Fans always want more, they want to know how the sausage is made, how a team deals with loss, or how winners work behind the scenes. On shows like Hard Knocks, HBO gave fans unprecedented access into what happens with teams in the National Football League. Quarterback,  produced by NFL legend and guy with the biggest forehead in sports Peyton Manning, puts up even fewer barriers into the lives of some of the biggest names in the game, which bear both sweet and acrid results. For fans of the gridiron, the show provides a glimpse of what loss does to a man while another hoists a trophy over his head to the adoration of millions. It’s kind of a lot.

When you’re a fan of any sport, it’s an exhausting exercise to listen to any athlete give post-game analysis; there’s nothing there except, “yeah, we should have played better, blah blah.” As a fan, these press conferences suck. Why is this contrived extension of the game is nothing more than a moment to feed the machine of the populous, wanting more of the people who we glorify for their skills when the ball is in play?

We know Johnny Ballthrower isn’t going to say anything worth a shit, but yet, the hungry maw of the Football meat grinder wants more and more airless quotes on why the Bengals beat the ever-loving-fuck out of the Colts on Prime Time. Masochistic? Probably. I mean, would you want to explain to a bunch of bored sports journalists why Joe Barrow dropped four touchdown passes down Main Street after someone kicked him in the neck? Probably not.

What’s unique about Quarterback is that thanks to Manning’s stature, his Omaha production company went behind the scenes and into the lives of three of the league’s premier hurlers: the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, and the Falcons’ Marcus Mariota.

But the thing about sports is that while they may be the robotic monsters with deadly accuracy, either hitting a bomb over the outfield and into the stands, hitting a jump shot at the buzzer, or lacing a pass through double coverage for a gain of twenty yards, they’re still humans.  While we may want to murder them while the game is in play, we see that wait, maybe these guys don’t like it when linebackers bash their brains in, or that have a preference for chicken fingers like my six-year -old.

And during the nine episodes of Quarterback, we experience three men with three very different lives. It’s clear they intend Mahomes to be star of the show, and rightfully so; in his short few years in the National Football League, he’s won two Super Bowls and has a cadre of awards citing his dominance as the face of the sport. The dude is worth half a billion dollars. But, while it’s fun to look at how the other half lives, Cousins and Mariota steal the series.

Quarterbacking is the most challenging position in all sports. It requires the player to know his position and everyone else and predict what happens once the ball breaks the huddle. There are plays with long, complicated names, and it also requires the ability to change a play at the drop of a dime while throwing the ball while a horde of massive dudes actively tries to rip their heads off and shit down their necks. To say it requires a “certain mind” would be putting it lightly.

And here’s where it all breaks apart for each player: Cousins seems like this dorky dad but is an obsessive playcaller who drills down into the details of himself, his body performance, and the team’s abilities. Mahomes does that as well but mainly relies on his freakish athletic skills.  Mariota is a journeyman quarterback who never quite lived up to his potential once breaking into the league after winning the Heisman Trophy.

Mariota carries a story of struggle, with extreme highs and lows. He’s a charitable, likable person who hasn’t flourished on the football field as one would hope. And now, entering the 2023 season, he’ll be on his fourth team. Looking into the mind of Mariota, like Cousins, it’s not hard to want to see these guys win, to see them as people, not millionaires paid well to play a game. While Mahomes eventually won the Super Bowl last year, it’s easy to digest his story, and frankly, if it had just been on him, the show would be lame. Mahomes is a kid from Texas whose alma mater retires his number. He’s got the beautiful wife, the kids, and now, the legacy. It’s all bright and shiny with no bumps or bruises.

Cousins’ calm, dorky demeanor propels the storylines, while Mariota makes you hurt for someone who’s just doing their best. Throughout the season, Mariotta seems sad with the way his life has turned out, like he knows he was supposed to be this great player, but here we are, he’s living on a hope and prayer he doesn’t keep throwing interceptions and losing yet another starting gig.

After Mariota’s team benched him, he left for an elective surgery and focused on his new daughter, which became the scandal of the season because talking head outrage, which for the first time Mariota confronted publicly.

But Cousins shines the most throughout the series. It shows how hard he worked to emerge from Robert Griffin III’s shadow in Washington,  becoming an elite passer who works hard to maintain his body and his mind with Neurotherapy. (That shit is WILD. It looks straight out of Johnny Mnemonic.) Cousins might not be the flashiest person in a league teeming with big personalities, but you grow to like him for his work ethic and his humility. It’s hard to cheer against Kirk Cousins–even as a Chicago Bears fan like me.

The access into the world of professional football makes Quarterback stand out stronger than Hard Knocks, which is a good show but doesn’t have the emotional heft that Quarterback brings. As the players take massive hits that batter their bodies and sometimes shatter their minds, having a front-row seat into how they pick themselves up and do their best is television we can expect from the league that, sometimes, we love to hate. The big dude in the cheesehead hat is stoked and ready to go.

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Robert Dean

Robert Dean is a journalist, raconteur, and enlightened dumbass. His work has been featured in places like Mic, Eater, Fatherly, Yahoo, Austin American-Statesman, Consequence of Sound, Ozy, The Austin Chronicle, USA Today, to name a few. He's appeared on CNN and NPR. He also serves as features writer for Hussy Magazine, Culture Clash, and Pepper Magazine. He's Editor in Chief at Big Laugh Comedy, Texas' premier comedy production company. He lives in Austin and loves ice cream and koalas. His new essay collection, Existential Thirst Trap drops in May.

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