Michael Penix Jr. isn’t the only University of Washington quarterback who gets to have a turn in the spotlight this week.
Just a few days before Penix was due to stand on the stage in New York as one of four finalists for the Heisman Trophy, former Husky signal-caller Jake Browning won a prestigious award of his own — AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Browning, who began the season as the backup to Cincinnati star Joe Burrow, earned the honors after a big performance for the Bengals on Monday night, with 32 completions on 37 attempts for 354 yards, with one passing and one rushing touchdown in a 34-31 overtime win against Jacksonville.
Now in his fifth pro season, the Folsom, Calif., product is finally getting a chance to shine following his record-setting career on Montlake, much to the delight of former UW head coach Chris Petersen.
For Petersen, watching Browning get his long-awaited opportunity is something worth celebrating. It’s not easy to improve your game without getting regular snaps in practice or games, but Petersen knew that if anyone could do it, it was Browning.
“That guy, I know for a fact, prepares like he’s the starter, no matter what his role is on that team,” Petersen said. “I learned that when he was a freshman … the work ethic is second to none and he will go above and beyond in a really consistent way, day after day.”
Petersen, who works as an analyst for Fox Sports, described himself as “perplexed” that Browning went undrafted after graduating in 2019 as the Pac-12’s all-time winningest quarterback, as well as the Huskies’ all-time passing leader and the fourth-leading passer in conference history with 12,296 career yards.
The narrative around Browning always centered around his perceived lack of arm strength, a slight that Petersen has seen Browning work hard to counter in his time in the NFL.
“He’s been working on that for awhile,” Petersen said. “To have more pace on the ball, but not lose any accuracy. And I think even a year after he left us and I saw him throw one time, I thought his arm strength had really improved. So, you know, I think it’s all those things. It’s just, it’s subtle, how he operates in the pocket, the timing of his passes. The anticipation, the accuracy, the arm strength. It’s all those things that I know he’s gotten better at.”
Petersen is even more impressed by the fact that Browning has managed to improve so much without getting much of a chance to play in the NFL. Browning spent his first four full professional seasons without playing a game, with time spent on the Minnesota and Cincinnati practice squads before securing a spot on the Bengals’ active roster this year by beating out Trevor Semien for the backup quarterback job.
He took his first career regular-season snap in Week 1, but didn’t get his first extended look until Week 11 when Burrow left with a wrist injury. Over his four games of action, Browning has completed 75.6% of his passes while throwing for 649 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
All that from a quarterback who hadn’t started a competitive game since Jan. 1, 2019, when the Huskies lost to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
“You always think you can do it, but you don’t know until you know,” Browning said in his Thursday press conference. “I finally have a good performance, but I would like to reiterate that it was one good game. So let’s, you know, stack some of those back-to-back and not just be the guy that had one good Monday night game and then just kind of fell off.”
Petersen doesn’t seem worried about Browning being a flash in the pan. While he’s been out of the spotlight for a while, his old coach knows that Browning has been working hard while waiting for his chance.
“It’s one thing to be the starting quarterback for the last four years and get a ton of reps and it’s always about you,” Petersen said. “But his path has been kind of ‘wait your turn, wait your turn.’ But the one thing, like I said, that you know about Jake, is he’s going to be ready. He will prepare, if he’s on the practice squad, he’s going to prepare like he’s the starter. He did that at Minnesota, and I know he’s doing that now.”
Browning is slated to get the start again Sunday against Indianapolis, a game that will serve as a 2018 Apple Cup rematch with former WSU QB Gardner Minshew starting for the Colts.
While Petersen points out that Minshew and Browning will be facing off against the opposing defense rather than each other, it’s still a fun full-circle moment to watch the pair play in the same game for the first time in over five years. In their last game against each other, Browning’s Huskies beat Minshew’s Cougars, 28-15.
“I do think that those guys are very impressive,” Petersen said. “The things that they’ve been through, I think people have kind of counted them out at times, and they just keep hanging in there and competing and battling and getting better. And it’s really fun to watch these guys play at this level.”
All these years later, Petersen still sees the same talented, hard-working quarterback who rewrote the UW record book and took the Huskies to their first College Football Playoff berth back in 2016.
“He looks like the same Jake to me,” Petersen said. “Now, the game is a lot faster, it’s a lot quicker, so his decisions have to be faster and much more on point and there’s, you know, the accuracy of his throws, everything has to be a little tighter when you play in the NFL compared to college. Obviously, game one out of the gate there, or game two, whatever it was, he was on point.”