Todd Downing grew up in Minnesota, played football at Eden Prairie High and attended the University of Minnesota.
He now serves as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, overseeing the development of Derek Carr, a coaching journey that started as an intern in the Vikings public relations department.
I chatted with Downing by phone this week before a Raiders practice in preparation for Sunday’s game against his hometown team.
Q: You played quarterback for Mike Grant at Eden Prairie?
Downing: Yeah, he actually gave me my start in coaching. I coached quarterbacks at Eden Prairie while I was going to the University of Minnesota. After I finished up at Eden Prairie I gave some thought to going to St. John’s or Concordia-St. Paul. But I ended up giving up playing and went to the University of Minnesota and started coaching with Mike at Eden Prairie. He also had me working with the ninth grade football team so I had a whole bunch of youngsters.
Q: How did you get connected with the Vikings?
Downing: In the process of going through Eden Prairie football, this guy name Chad Ostlund [Vikings official] and I got to know each other over the years. I had a long talk with Mike [Tice]. He knew I had a passion for the Xs and Os of the game. He asked if I wanted to get involved with an internship with the Vikings through Chad. So Chad gave me a start really as an operations intern, if you will. I was helping pick up family members of Red McCombs and driving people around when they came into town to visit. Doing special projects, re-labeling all the Beta tapes in the film room.
Q: So bottom floor stuff?
Downing: Yeah, I was doing the dirtiest of the dirty jobs. But I couldn’t wait. It was an absolute blessing to get my foot in the door. I built some relationships. I helped out Bob Hagan as a PR intern for a year, which worked out fantastically. I was going to school at the University of Minnesota, doing night classes. It was a grind, but it was well worth it. I loved it. It was my hometown team. …
There was a transition between Coach [Dennis] Green and Mike [Tice]. When Mike took over, if you remember, that was the start of all the stadium meetings. We were having all the legislative meetings at the Capitol so I would drive Mike to and from those meetings. We would talk ball the whole way. He’d want to get some phone calls and be able to just relax while somebody else drove and I was happy to drive. So in between the phone calls we got to talk a little football. …
He found my passion for the game and offered me an opportunity to come to training camp. I’ll never forget, he told me, ‘You make it through training camp, I’ll give you a coaching contract.’ He told me, ‘I’m going to make it hard on you. You’re going to work late, late hours. Wake up early. You’ve got to finish up school whenever you can.’ I made it through training camp and he gave me my first coaching contract at 21 years old. So I’ve been very blessed and fortunate.
Q: That’s how you became close to Scott Linehan?
Downing: Yeah, Scott was our coordinator at Minnesota. He went down to Miami in 2005. I did not go with him. I stayed with Mike in Minnesota. We were 9-7 the year that staff got fired. I thought we were in pretty good shape. But as the NFL quickly tells you, you never know what’s going to happen. So I wound up in St. Louis with Scott. …
Then Scott got the coordinator job in Detroit and I had an opportunity to go with him there. I wound up as the quarterback coach with Matthew Stafford [for four seasons]. Had a great run and some really nice success there. Wound up in Buffalo last year. It was a fun little run. It was one-year deal. We were kind of all little surprised to be let go the way everything turned out at the end. But it provided a great opportunity to come here [Oakland] and be reunited with Mike [Tice, now the Raiders offensive line coach]. The wonderful thing about being out here is I keep getting to work with these young, talented quarterbacks and get them on the ground floor.
Q: What has it been like to work with Derek Carr?
Downing: He’s a wonderful person beyond football, so he’s easy to be around. He’s a very talented quarterback. So it’s exciting to walk into work every day knowing you have a kid who has the tools and the desire and is a great person who is going to bring the right attitude every day. The running joke around here is I tell people that I think I could tell him to throw the ball left-handed this week and he’d give it a try.
Q: Carr has thrown 19 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Did you envision him making this kind of jump in his second season?
Downing: I knew he was going to take a big step. The second-year quarterbacks either have the big step or the sophomore slump. I knew he wasn’t primed for a sophomore slump because he works too hard.
Q: When you started at the bottom with Vikings, did you ever imagine you’d be at this level of coaching?
Downing: Honestly, my aspirations are to be a head coach someday, but I believe in the process. I don’t look forward. I don’t try and say, ‘Well, I want to be here by this time.’ I live in the moment and try and be the best I can at the role I’m given.
Q: What kind of quarterback were you at Eden Prairie?
Downing: Let’s just go with intelligent because there aren’t any other good adjectives I can give you. [laughing]. We found out quickly that it was going to be limited shelf life for my playing days.
Q: Do you make it back home much?
Downing: I’m back there every summer. My mom and sisters and nieces and nephews all live there. I have a huge place in my heart for Minnesota. Everybody gives me a hard time because I’m a homer. I got my Eden Prairie football mug on my desk. And I got my Gophers flag flying every time I get a chance. I’m very Minnesota proud.