He's one of the NFL's hottest head-coaching prospects, but Wally Buono knew 13 years ago while with the Calgary Stampeders that Mike McCoy had the qualities to be a good football coach.
"Oh yeah and here's why," the B.C. Lions vice-president of football operations and GM said Wednesday. "We had Mike for something like four days and then he started for us and won four or five games with no training camp and a lot of it was because he cerebrally was able to pick up things quickly and stay within the structure of the offence.
"He had all the things as a coach you need to have, you have to have a work ethic, you have to have discipline, you have to have toughness. Things didn't faze him. His greatest assets weren't his natural ability and those are usually the guys that make the best coaches .... the guys who have to work at it not only develop their physical skills but also the cerebral part of it as well.''
Buono was Calgary's head coach in '99 when McCoy arrived and quickly found himself under centre with injuries to regulars Dave Dickenson and Henry Burris. McCoy adjusted quickly, completing 117 of 183 passes (63.9 per cent) for 1,669 yards with 10 TDs and just two interceptions.
At season's end, Buono wanted McCoy to return but the then 28-year-old quarterback abruptly retired to become an offensive assistant coach with the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
Completing his fourth season as Denver's offensive co-ordinator, McCoy should be relishing an off-week after the Broncos (13-3) earned a first-round playoff bye. Instead, he'll meet with the Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles about their head-coaching vacancies.
Last year, McCoy spoke with the Miami Dolphins about their head-coaching job which went to former Green Bay Packers offensive co-ordinator Joe Philbin.
"You're always happy to see people you've been around do well at what they felt was their passion and something they wanted to pursue," Buono said. "Mike, at the time, could have been our starting quarterback but went to Carolina almost as a graduate assistant because he felt the vision for his life was to be a coach.''
McCoy, 40, has shown a deft touch when it comes to designing successful offences, having helped Denver reach the playoffs the last two years with vastly different quarterbacks.
In 2011, Denver (8-8) topped the NFL in rushing and beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs with Tim Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy winner who has been criticized for his flawed passing mechanics. This season, the Broncos (13-3) were ranked second overall in scoring with Peyton Manning, a future Hall of Famer and one of the top passers in league history.
But Buono said successful coaches utilize the talents of their best players and offensively that means building around the quarterback.
"Sometimes coaches have a system and don't want to adapt to the players around them, they just believe everyone is going to adapt to their system," Buono said. "The fact is he (McCoy) has developed well to the quarterback, which is what you have to do.
"At the end of the day you build your offence to work around the quarterback and work down, you don't work up.''
Buono, a former linebacker and punter, isn't surprised that some quarterbacks develop into good offensive co-ordinators and ultimately become head coaches.
"Guys like Mike McCoy and Scott Milanovich (rookie head coach of the Grey Cup-champion Toronto Argonauts) were very cerebral kind of players so many times in their growth as a quarterback they grow into more than just their positions," Buono said. "The quarterback in his training, his preparation and his mindset, has to be aware of what's going on around him both from an offensive and defensive point of view.
"When you look at the guys who are best suited because they've dealt with it as players, then the growth into a coach is easier for quarterbacks because they've always seen the big picture.''
McCoy isn't the only former CFL quarterback drawing NFL head-coaching interest. Chicago has received permission from Green Bay to speak to offensive co-ordinator Tom Clements about its vacancy.
Clements played 12 seasons in the CFL with Ottawa, Saskatchewan, Hamilton and Winnipeg. The former Notre Dame star twice won the Grey Cup and in '94 was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Clements began his coaching career at his alma mater tutoring quarterbacks (1992-'95) and has spent 16 seasons as an NFL assistant. The 59-year-old has established a reputation of being a quarterback guru who understands the nuances of an aggressive passing game.
And at least one NFL insider believes the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns — both in the market for a GM — should give longtime Montreal Alouettes general manager Jim Popp a serious look. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports feels Popp would be a good fit with the Jets and Browns.
"If the Jets were smart, they would reach out to Jim Popp, longtime GM of Montreal of the CFL, who has an expert eye for talent, knows how to manipulate the back end of the roster and who nearly got the Colts' job a year ago," La Canfora wrote recently.
La Canfora also recently tweeted that hiring Popp would make sense for the Browns.
The Indianapolis Colts interviewed Popp — who is under contract to Montreal through 2014 — last year for their GM post after firing Bill Polian as vice-chairman and president. Ryan Grigson, then the Philadelphia Eagles' player-personnel director who was a former Toronto Argonauts player and pro scout of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, ultimately got the job.