Broncos fans surely know Case Keenum, Denver's new starting quarterback. But are you familiar with his position coach, Mike Sullivan? The 15-year NFL veteran spends more time with Keenum than any other Broncos coach, and he may be best suited to offer insight about Keenum as a person and player. But there's more to know about Sullivan, who played football at the United States Military Academy, served as an Army Officer and has spent 23 years in coaching. We caught up with Sullivan about Keenum, his previous role as an offensive coordinator and how his military background remains an integral part of his personality.
Aric DiLalla: After spending time with Case throughout the offseason and the first few weeks of the regular season, what's impressed you most about him so far?
Mike Sullivan: "His work ethic, his willingness to do whatever it takes to improve, his competitiveness, his resilience. He's just a joy to be around. The guy is really just working very hard. He's competitive, and he just keeps getting better and better. It's his first year in the system and kind of learning how we operate, being with new teammates and coaches. I'm just really pleased with the effort he's put in and what lies ahead for him."
AD: We've seen what he's like on the field, but what's he like in the meeting room as a leader and a student of the game?
MS: "Well, he's a leader not just in that room, but I think in the offensive meeting room and even with his defensive teammates. Any leader has to lead by example, and he certainly does that in terms of his admissions earlier, his work ethic, his preparedness and his performance on the field. But he also finds unique ways. He knows that not all of his teammates are the same. Some guys do better with positive reinforcement or encouragement, other guys may need to have things explained to them so that they understand so that it can be easier for them to get the job done. He does a very good job of trying to find different ways to motivate and teach and lead his teammates. He's got a great demeanor about him too. He's a hard worker, but he definitely has a sense of humor and will bust chops as much as anybody. He's just great to be around."
AD: Case said he needs to cut down on his turnovers. What gives you confidence that he'll be able to do not just that, but also take a step forward as the season progresses?
MS: "I think the type of player he is and what's in his head and his heart and his spirit. He's someone that learns from mistakes and has had some unfortunate turnovers here early in the season, but I think he's not going to allow that to be something that's going to make him tighten up and not make decisions. It is a process. There's no shortcut. There's no magic potion to have a really good understanding of a system and how things operate and how he will work with his teammates and where everyone needs to be. It is a process, but he has the tools both from a work ethic standpoint and a fighter's type of spirit standpoint. And he's got the skill set. … We have great confidence that he's going to do the things we want him to do to help us win."
AD: You have some experience calling plays as an offensive coordinator in the past. How has that helped you in your current role?
MS: "I think there's always a value when you've been in that chair. I was a coordinator both in Tampa Bay and then last year with the Giants. You have a different perspective in terms of how it all comes together and the importance of each position and each area, whether it's the offensive line, the backs, the receivers, tight ends and so forth. Everything channels through the quarterback position, so it does give an appreciation for the difficulties of the jobs of the other positions and kind of helps me tie up loose ends to the quarterbacks. We certainly want to focus on the details, but there's also a big-picture component that's important. I think if that can help me tie it all together for them, then that's all the better.
AD: You started your coaching career on the defensive side of the football, so what sort of perspective does that give you?
MS: "Well, that was a while ago. It's been many, many years since I moved to the offensive side, but I still [draw] from that experience — my first year in the league in Jacksonville was as a defensive assistant working for Coach [Tom] Coughlin and Perry Fewell on the defensive side of the ball and the secondary. Early on, I got an appreciation for how difficult things are defensively in terms of adjustments, in terms of when offenses motion or shift and trying to stop various run and pass concepts. It's stayed with me. … But really having been, for the last 15 years, immersed in the offensive side, now it's kind of more, 'Hey, how do we attack those guys? How do we find the weak spots?'"
AD: Football pales in comparison to your time at West Point and your service that followed. How did that shape you and your life moving forward?
MS: "The experience of attending and graduating from West Point and serving as an Army Officer is something that made a huge impact on my life. It puts everything in perspective. It's something that taught me a great deal about teamwork, about discipline and really about myself in terms of what the limitations are physically [and] mentally that we all go through and really what true hardship and what true difficulty and true pressure is. Every now and again when things get challenging and they get difficult — which they will in any NFL season — I look back upon those experiences and I'm so grateful that I went through them. I just know that when a group of people come together and work hard and share a bond and share a vision, great things can happen. I'm very proud of that and very grateful for all that continue to serve and those that will serve in the future."