It was just a throwaway line, barely noticed by his audience, but it revealed more about Chris Petersen than anything else he said at his Monday press briefing. For a brief moment, the Washington football coach considered life without his starting quarterback. He strayed from his overly pragmatic way of looking at things and touched on the whimsical.
“That will be a weird time,” Petersen mused out loud, “when he’s not here.”
He, of course, is Jake Browning. For four seasons, the coach and the player have gone together like Husky Stadium and Lake Washington. Like Seattle and a downpour. Like purple and gold. Yet in three months, Petersen will begin the arduous process of sifting through several candidates and putting his trust in another starting signal-caller.
In his fifth year as Huskies coach, Petersen has had it easy with this position. Browning became his QB-1 practically from the day the young Californian showed up on campus after graduating early from high school. He’s been in the lineup for 44 of 45 games played since he joined the roster, missing only the single outing because of injury. He’s led the Huskies to the College Football Playoff ‘s semifinal round and been named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
Browning currently holds eight Washington passing records with more to come. Off to a slow start this season and hearing a slew of detractors complain, he shut them up with his most accurate outing yet—he completed 23 of 25 passes against BYU, finishing a completion short of sharing an NCAA record.
As his career winds down and he prepares for Saturday’s game against UCLA, it’s time to size up Browning and what he does best, what he could improve on, why some people are impatient with him, where he’s headed and which pro he resembles, all with the help of two former Huskies quarterbacks, Tim Cowan and Sonny Sixkiller.
“When I first saw him in his freshman year, and looked at the footwork, the mechanics and the motion, he reminded me immediately of Joe Montana,” said Cowan, a Huskies QB in 1980-82 who played four seasons in the CFL. “I think he’s really similar to Joe. He’s accurate. He doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, but when he has to let it go, he seems to be able to do it. He’s a tough kid.”
Cowan finds himself most impressed by the fearless part, a trait he says makes Browning universally liked by his teammates. He watched the quarterback throw an interception in 2016 to Arizona State’s Koron Crump and determinedly give chase for 59 yards, putting his body between the Sun Devil defensive back and the end zone while becoming the target of a clipping penalty, all to keep the other guy out of the end zone.
“He ran down there and took a charge like in basketball,” Cowan pointed out.
Sixkiller, a cocky leader who wasn’t afraid to get in someone’s face during his UW days (1970-72), admires Browning’s level-headedness but he would like to see more fire coming from the senior. Sonny enjoyed it when the quarterback pointed a finger at Oregon in 2017 as he crossed the goal line on a 7-yard run, a rare public display for him.
“You don’t have to have Baker Mayfield to feed off of but maybe he could show a little more emotion,” Sixkiller said. “It’s you’ve got a minute to play, 80 yards to go, let’s get it done. Guys like Chris Chandler and Steve Pelleur had a defining moment like that. Even with myself against Purdue, when we needed a score, we scored. When it comes down to it, we know we’ve got it because we’re going to get it done. I’m not sure 100 percent of Husky fans believe that with him.”
Browning, the son of a former Oregon State quarterback, is the only true freshman at his position to start that first season for the Huskies. He’s started more games at quarterback than any other. That longevity is both a blessing and a curse.
On the downside, some fans simply have grown tired of him like they would a song on the radio or a TV commercial that’s been played over and over. It’s a product of today’s fast-food culture, demanding instantaneous gratification. Sixkiller, who started parts of three seasons for the UW, knows about boos. He received them when his injury-riddled senior year didn’t turn out as everyone expected.
“We all hear it,” he said, speaking for every quarterback. “We’ve all heard it at one point in our college career.”
Cowan understands what Browning deals with at times. He was a junior when he tore ligaments in his thumb on his throwing hand and didn’t know it against Kansas State in 1981. He thought the football was flat when he dropped a pair of snaps and flung a pass like a helicopter. The fans got impatient with him.
“I will always remember being booed,” he said. “It was have a little patience with me because I came out and didn’t have a thumb to hold onto the football.”
Cowan was incredulous last season when he encountered an older UW fan in a Browning rant at a social gathering before a game, so much that the former B.C. Lions and Toronto Argonauts quarterback had to get up and move away from him.
"I think there's people out there who are overthinking about what they think about Jake," Cowan said. "That dude is an absolute winner."
Browning doesn’t rate any Heisman Trophy conversation these days, even after finishing sixth in the voting as a sophomore. He doesn’t hear the TV football analysts spend any time talking about his draft prospects either.
The NFL scouts, however, know who he is, though they acknowledge his listed 6-foot-2, 210-pound dimensions might be a little generous. Even last week, they came out to watch him practice. They envision him as a mid-round pick who possesses a lot of football savvy but has average arm strength—some of it caused by having shoulder surgery between his junior and sophomore seasons—who might become a decent backup quarterback at the pro level.
“I think he would be a guy who Bill Walsh would have liked,” said Sixkiller, referring to the late San Francisco 49ers coach. “When Bill looked at Joe Montana, that was a guy he envisioned running his offense. It was all about placement and anticipation rather than rocketing the ball in there.”
Browning could quit right now and be considered one of the greatest Husky quarterbacks ever. He’s demonstrated staying power in the lineup and rung up big numbers. He’s won twice as many games as he lost at the UW. His coach swears by him and his teammates rally around him.
He has seven to nine games remaining in his college career and he could use a poignant win on the national stage after sharing in losses to Alabama, Auburn, Penn State and USC. There’s plenty of time for him to add to his legacy and further boost his pro stock.
“I’d like to see him bring his game to a higher level,” Cowan said. “Sometimes he’s more concerned about playing that perfect game, because of his mindset, instead of going out and battling. You don’t have to play a flawless game. Just go out and orchestrate. Just bring in the violins and then bring in the horns, and orchestrate this thing.”
For Jake Browning, it’s maestro, let the music begin.