As the 2019 college football season raged on and LSU made its way from relevance to prominence to dominance, there were plenty of people to latch onto their excitement in it all.
There was, of course, the quarterback, Joe Burrow, who went on to not only win the Heisman Trophy but have one of the most prolific seasons in the history of college football. There was the head coach, Ed Orgeron, whose voice and look were about as iconic as his motivational words. Around them, there were a handful of players who will shape the next generation in the NFL. All in all, it was a group to remember.
But there was another name not mentioned that certainly got more and more spotlight as the season went on: LSU's pass game coordinator Joe Brady.
At the start of the 2019 season, Brady was 29 years old, which is quite young for the coaching position he held. What made him worthy of the job title he had — and what we would find out to be worthy of a job title even higher — was not his years of experience, but the source of experience. Brady served as an offensive assistant under Saints head coach Sean Payton for two seasons (2017-18); learning the best from one of the best.
Brady took that knowledge to LSU, and his presence was a key part of revolutionizing an offense that was anemic for years, even as one of the best programs in the country.
Brady's success led to his name being at the forefront of NFL hirings at the end of the season. In the end, it was the Panthers who won the competitive Joe Brady sweepstakes and hired him to be the offensive coordinator under new head coach Matt Rhule.
But even with his success in 2019, there were questions as to whether or not this was the right move. We had already mentioned Brady being still youthful in his experience, even with his knowledge of the game; he wasn't even the offensive coordinator at LSU, and generally, he didn't even call the plays.
In large part, play calling in Baton Rouge in 2019 was a duty performed by offensive coordinator Steven Ensminger. But after the season, in an interview with 24/7 Sports’ Shea Dixon, Ensminger opened up about why the job Brady had on game days was just as important as the plays that were called.
"The first thing when he gets off the field, he talks to Joe Brady," Ensminger said. "I love Joe Brady. He's sitting there explaining to him what he saw the last series. I'm sitting there trying to get ready for the next series. But Brady is so smart. What did you see on this play? Coach Brady is telling him, Hey, this is what we got. Joe Burrow is telling him, I saw this, everything else."
Ensminger even went on to say Brady won't be going into his new duty of Panthers’ offensive coordinator completely green. The veteran OC said that when it came to the red zone — an area of the field that is often a career maker or breaker for play-callers — it was Brady who made the calls.
When we get in the red zone, 12 in, that's Joe Brady," Ensminger said. "Unless I want to run a play-action, go fast, we'll go. When we get inside the 12, I tell Joe, It's yours and he calls it."
Playcalling is an art and a mastery of art take rigorous repetition; oftentimes through failure to see what works and what doesn't. Take Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury for example. Last year, Kingsbury was seen as the most innovative hire of the offseason — though some certainly questioned the worthiness of it, given his results at the college level. Even he, and all his experience being on the cutting edge as a play-caller, said that his first year in the NFL was one of learning.
"Everyone handles it different," Kingsbury said at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. "Everyone's situation is different. It’s going to be a work in progress no matter what, whether you have been a head coach in the NFL, or been in the system of the NFL or you haven’t, it’s definitely going to be a work in progress. You have ups and downs, you have to learn from it.
"You don’t know what you don’t know. 16 games is a long time, dealing with professionals each and every day and their needs and wants are different than college players. Just learning on the go is tough, but you do the best you can."
For as bright as the horizon could be for Brady will certainly be a challenging for him to take over play-calling duties full-time for the first time, along with learning what it's like to be in that position at the professional level. Thankfully, for Brady, those two years in New Orleans should also come in handy in that regard.
As for that future outlook, even if this first year doesn't set the world on fire as it did at LSU, Ensminger doesn't seem to have any doubts that, in time, Brady can handle all that is about to be thrown his way.
"Sky's the limit," Ensminger said. "Sky's the limit, no doubt about it. I've told him. He's a hell of a lot smarter than I am, okay? But I told him, Hey, you remind me of me. When I was 30 years old, I was passing game coordinator at Georgia calling the plays. He walked in, he has brought so much to this offense. I'm proud of him because he's a humble guy just like I am."
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