The Jets may have found a good luck charm with their new quarterbacks coach because Matt Cavanaugh has plenty of experience winning championships.
"A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time," he said, "but being with good people, too, and believing in what they're doing and contributing."
While a player at the University of Pittsburgh, Cavanaugh earned a national championship ring following the 1976 season. Despite Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett's 202-yard effort on the ground, it was Cavanaugh who was named game MVP as he completed 10 of 18 passes for 182 yards against the University of Georgia's "Junkyard Dogs." Cavanaugh scored the game's first TD on a 6-yard keeper and his subsequent celebration was displayed on a Sports Illustrated cover.
"I got more than my due. Tony was the Pitt Panthers back then — he really was that good," Cavanaugh told newyorkjets.com this week. "It was easier playing quarterback with him in the backfield because he was the focus of every defense. When I got there, we were a running team for obvious reasons. And not until my senior year when Tony left did we kind of open it up a little bit and start throwing a little bit more than 15 times a game. We started throwing it 30 times a game, 35 sometimes."
A second-round pick (No. 80 overall) of the Patriots in the 1978 draft, Cavanaugh made 15 starts over four years and then was dealt to the San Francisco 49ers. He started one game in 1984 but appeared in eight in his backup role behind Joe Montana, passing for 449 yards and four touchdowns.
A Super Contributor for the 49ers
"I started feeling that system they were running was more suited to my abilities, so I was probably most comfortable playing quarterback in that system. When Joe got hurt, granted there were some really talented people around me and I don't know if they dummied down the offense for me at all, but we won a couple of games and it was the year we won the Super Bowl [38-16 over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX], so I felt a big part of it."
Cavanaugh started three times for the 49ers in three memorable seasons. No shame considering he was a reserve to perhaps the greatest passer of all time in Montana.
"Joe rarely threw a ball where it wasn't right where it was supposed to be and I admire him for that. And for that reason, every clutch situation he was in he responded to and he did it with a smile on his face," Cavanaugh said. "He rarely got rattled. He enjoyed being in those pressure situations where if we got the ball back and you gave us too much time, if you gave us 1:30 and we had to go 80 yards — it was nothing."
The Eagles, who acquired Cavanaugh in another trade, gave him a chance to be the No. 1. But the 6'2", 212-pounder, a Youngstown, Ohio, native, made his final two NFL starts in 1986 before again being relegated to backup duty.
"I got traded to Philadelphia where they were trading for me to be a starter, and I didn't win the job," he said. "About that time, I was in probably my ninth or 10th year and I came to the realization that I'm probably going to be a backup in this league."
Another Title with the Big Blue Tuna
Then after 12 years and with Cavanaugh figuring his career was over, he got a call from Giants head coach Bill Parcells in 1989 and the veteran was asked to come in and fill a slot behind Phil Simms and Jeff Hostetler. He never threw a pass for the G-Men but took home a ring when they topped the Bills, 20-19, in Super Bowl XXV.
"I was good enough to back up. I guess people kept me around because they knew I was smart and knew the game well enough for them and I'd be dependable if the starter got hurt," he said. "I'm not trying to say I didn't have any ability, but I didn't have starter ability.
"When I got called on to go play as a backup, I felt like I did a good job and I was what they needed. I was a stop-gap guy that if the starter got hurt, 'Matt could go finish a game out and play a couple of weeks. Not sure if he can do it for the whole season, but he's a guy we need to have around.' "
By 35 Cavanaugh had hung up the cleats. But he loved being around the game and couldn't see himself in a suit working a 9-to-5. Coaching was a natural fit and he began his second career back at Pitt as tight ends coach in 1993. Then Cardinals head coach Buddy Ryan, who coached Cavanaugh back in Philly from 1986–89, named him his QBs coach in 1994. It is there where Cavanaugh worked on a Ryan staff that included Buddy's son, Rex.
Cavanaugh and Rex Ryan reunited with the Baltimore Ravens in 1999 and they would celebrate an NFL championship following the 2000 season.
Coaching Leads to Another Ring
"Brian Billick did a masterful job of taking a team that was clearly masterful on defense and adjusting the offense to it," said Cavanaugh, who served as the Ravens offensive coordinator until 2004. "We were everything from praised for running a conservative, smart offense — take time off the clock, don't turn the ball over and play it to the strength of your team, which is your defense — to being criticized for being bland, vanilla and afraid to take chances.
"Whatever it was, it didn't matter because we were winning games."
Cavanaugh, now 52, most recently served as Pitt's offensive coordinator the past four years. He is looking forward to returning to the NFL for a 12th coaching season and mentoring a young trio of Jets passers in Kellen Clemens, Brett Ratliff and Erik Ainge, who have combined to start just eight games.
"I'm excited about it because they're all young and that could be a curse or a blessing," he said. "But I'm convinced from what I've seen of both Clemens and Ratliff on tape — I really haven't seen enough of Erik Ainge yet — that they both seem to have a passion for football and they both seem to have some natural leadership skill," he said.
"It's going to be our job to teach them the game of football so they can go out there and manage the game. That to me is exciting as opposed to a 10-, 12-, 14-year veteran who is kind of entrenched and has his way of doing things and we'll work around him sometimes."
Matt Cavanaugh's not tired of winning titles. In fact, he's got his mind on another one for that green thumb.
"I want another ring. That's why I do this," he said. "It's not so people know me, it's not for money. Although it's my job, I do it to win."