After a game like that and a season like that, how does it set the tone for you in the offseason? What difference does it make to end the season like this?
"It's better than ending with a loss, but I don't know. I think the second the game is over, you're glad you won and didn't play bad, but it's like, 'Man, we were so close to the playoffs.' It's a weird, bittersweet feeling where you won, and it was good to go out strong. Every team is going to be different every year, and that's part of the business side of it. But man, we were so close to the playoffs, and it just sucks that we are going home. It's mixed feelings."
What was the prep like as you all got ready for this week, and why did you want to come out and make sure you finished on a good note?
"I think for me, in my situation, starts don't grow on trees. So, every single one is important. I think our locker room — it starts with the type of guys you bring in the locker room, then the culture that (head coach) Zac (Taylor) has established. I don't even think there was really a thought that we were going to come out and not play hard, for a couple reasons. One, football is pretty physical, and the second you come out not prepared, that's when injuries happen. I think (No. 2), at least for me personally, no one really said anything about it, but I think one of the cooler stats -- there are all these stats that pop up on TV, and one of the cooler ones that I always saw ... I mean, I hate the Steelers as much as everybody else, but the fact that (Steelers head coach) Mike Tomlin has had that many winning seasons ... Hopefully however many years from now, Zac has that same thing. There will be a little bit of that, 'OK, in 2024 now, good thing we got that win.' So, the streak's at three. It's not even close to Mike Tomlin, but it's still alive and I think that's a pretty cool stat for a coach to have. Zac gave me my opportunity and has treated me really, really well and is the reason I'm still allowed to put on pads on a Sunday. So, I kind of wanted that for him. I think it's a cool stat to have as a coach."
Was there any conversation among the players about Zac Taylor's winning seasons streak or that sort of thing?
"No, just something I thought about. There are a lot of reasons to go play hard. You're in the NFL, and just because you're not in the playoffs, you always kind of remember how'd you play, prepare and what was your intensity like in games that don't matter. So, I wanted to go out strong."
As you said, starts don't grow on trees. How do you think you did over your seven starts?
"The goal was to make it into the playoffs, so that part — not well. I think as we get further away from the season, I'll remember the good hopefully, but I think I'm kind of wired to remember some losses where I could've played better. I think that I've established that I'm capable of being a starter in the NFL. So, obviously a weird situation where I feel like I'm one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the world, and I just so happen to be on a roster with a guy who's proven that he's a top five quarterback in the world. So, what that looks like going forward, I have no idea, nor do I have any control. So, I'm not going to think about it a ton. I think when I go watch all my film to try to figure out what I'm going to work on this offseason, I'll be proud of what I put on tape. But, the goal is to go to the playoffs, and we didn't, so that's pretty motivating going into the offseason too."
Besides the obvious of making the playoffs, when you look back at your first starting opportunity in the NFL, is there anything over these last few weeks that you wish you did differently?
"Find a way to win one of the last two games. All three of the losses, just find a way to get one of those. I don't think there was really any overarching theme to them, it's just you have to find a way to go win at Arrowhead (Stadium), you have to find a way to go win at the Steelers, or at home against the Steelers. So really, just really figure out how to play better against the Steelers would be kind of the main takeaway. I don't have any overarching theme. I think that I don't want to have opinions until I watch all my film together, and I think you start to get a feel for what the things you need to improve on are."
Why was it important for you to reach out to Tyler Boyd in the middle of his press gathering in the locker room after the game and show him some love?
"T.B. (Tyler Boyd) has been my locker mate throughout this whole year. I think Ja'Marr (Chase) and Tee (Higgins) get a lot of publicity — and rightfully so, they're unbelievable players — but I think T.B., at least in my experience over the past couple years here and watching this place — I wasn't here when it was bad — but watching it climb to the next level, I think T.B. is an unsung hero, or a guy that pulls a lot of weight in the locker room. Those two guys came here, and he was kind of the guy, and those two guys came and it's a zero-sum game. You can't throw the ball to three people every play. So, there were a lot of touches that went other people's ways, but he kind of set the tone that, 'This is not going to be a prima donna room.' It's just really about winning and going as hard as you can. I'll always have a lot of respect for T.B. and just how he carried himself. I threw three picks against Pittsburgh, his hometown, in front of his whole family basically. Coming into the locker room, he was like, 'Hey man, shake that off. Everybody has one of those games.' So, I'll always remember that. Like I said earlier, you remember what people were like when something bad just happened. So, I'll always think very highly of Tyler."
How much do those people contribute to building a winning culture in the locker room?
"I can only speak to my experience, but I mean, our franchise quarterback goes down and he breaks his wrist — I can't remember exactly what it is ... he gets hurt, and the first play I come out, we call a naked. It's not like we were, 'Hey, let's roll out to your left and be aggressive.' So, that kind of set the tone. Then, you fast forward a couple days, and Joe (Burrow) is out, he sits up here and has to tell everybody, 'Hey, I'm out.' There are obviously a lot of emotions involved in that. But, he immediately said, 'Jake's going to play great, and I have a lot of confidence in him.' That was just echoed by him, (head coach) Zac (Taylor), teammates. So, it's an objectively difficult position to just step into, but it becomes much easier when you have the franchise guy saying, 'I think you're going to tear it up,' and 'Great job,' and sending me texts after games and being very supportive. I felt like there was a lot of confidence in me, whether people were faking that or not, it was appreciated and I think it was a big reason why we were able to string some wins together. Obviously, it was not enough, but I think it's been a special year for me, and I'll always kind of remember different interactions this year, maybe more so than years going forward or years in the past just because this was my first time getting some action."
Did Joe Burrow say anything to you after today's game?
"I'll keep those conversations private, but yes, Joe (Burrow) has been great, which is probably the least surprising thing of this whole year."
There are teams around the league where their starting quarterback gets hurt, and the wheels fall off for their season. From a culture perspective here, what led to some stability down the stretch even though you guys did come up short?
"All the things that I just said were big, but I think a big part of that too was I had been preparing for that for a long time. I had a lot of support after the Ravens game, after the Steelers game. There were flashes there that earned that support too. Then, we kind of got hot there for a little while for three games. There's a lot that goes into it, and I'll give credit to the culture and stuff like that, but there's a big part of too where I was prepared and I was playing well. So, maybe if there were some people who didn't think it was going to go well, they didn't have a choice but to kind of believe after that."
What advice would you give to people who are in the position that you were in before getting your opportunity, whether it be them on the practice squad and wondering what their future is going to be? What advice do you have for them for making the most of their opportunity?
"I think for guys on practice squad, there are three buckets that you can fall into and you don't want to fall into any of them. You don't want to be the guy that gets cut a few times and loses his confidence. The second you do that, you're screwed, but those guys work really hard because they're trying to build themselves up. The second one is the guys who think that they're getting screwed. There's usually a half-truth there, but those guys never lose their confidence, but they probably don't work as hard as they need to. Then, there are the guys who are just, 'I'm just happy to be here.' You want to have that in the right situations, like on Sunday when you're in a hoodie, or Wednesday when Joe (Burrow) is going through whatever. You still have to remember that you're in the NFL, but you also don't want to be the guy who isn't working hard enough to (take advantage) when your opportunity does come, if it comes. There are plenty of people where it does not ever come. You want to be prepared. So, I think navigating those three buckets you can kind of fall into. Take the good with the bad of each one of those buckets. Avoiding the bad and taking the good is kind of the way to navigate it."
For a practice squad guy or a backup guy, how do you keep that confidence in yourself that you are one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the NFL?
"It's a little bit easier now, but I think before it was pretty difficult. Like I said, I've always been confident in myself. It's not just some delusional confidence. I've done very well in practices, I can throw very well, I've always been really accurate and I've always been more athletic than people think. The hardest part was keeping it for the four years where you're being told you're not good enough to be on the 53, but we'll still keep you around. So, I think for me now, I felt like 2022 preseason, I got to play and I got to watch myself play and I gained a lot of value out of that, and I had a great offseason because of that. So now, with more tape, I think navigating the balance of, 'I played really well, but there is always something you can get better at.' So, that's kind of going to be my focus in the offseason."
Now that the season is over, you can focus on college football. You have your Washington jacket on. Do you have a plan formulated to dunk on the Michigan guys if Washington wins?
"To dunk on them, no. I don't know. Like I said before, I refuse to be some negative alum, so whatever happens Monday, I'm proud to be a Husky alum. It's been awesome watching them. I love watching Michael Penix. I feel like it doesn't seem like the moment is ever too bright. Some quarterbacks you see, you get into some of these big games and you shell up not to lose the game. He does not have that, so it's awesome to watch. I think he's one of the best quarterbacks in college football. You can say what you want about the draft or potential. He's unbelievable, and it's been fun to watch."
No friendly bet with Dax Hill or DJ Turner II or anything?
"No, I don't want to take their money."
Did you have the milestones for Joe Mixon and Ja'Marr Chase in the back of your mind, or were you just playing?
"I was just playing, but I knew. I told Mixon if I threw him two touchdowns, I better get a good present. (I threw him) only one, so no present. I think any time you're in a game like that where you know you're not going to the playoffs, it's good to give them a little extra cash."
What are your plans to watch Washington in the national championship?
"I'll be there."
You got to watch them, and then you had Tyler Boyd, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins at your disposal. What type of impact did those three together on the field at the same time have on the entire league?
"I think it's much easier to take away one than it is to take away two or three. So, if all of your pass game goes through one person, then it can be pretty easy — especially on third down is where it shows up the most. So, just having three guys like that. Then another name I'd throw in there is Tanner Hudson. He's kind of been in a similar situation as me where he's up and down off practice squads, and he's kind of been at the bottom of rosters. He's a huge part of what we were able to do. Third down, even first and second down, the red zone— he's really good. I don't know if he's as big as (Kansas City TE Travis) Kelce, and I'm probably going to get a bunch of crap for the comparison, but his ability to be able to feel where he's open and adjust routes to make himself open, you can't really coach that. He's a really good player. I don't even know his contract situation — I don't know my own, I don't know his — but hopefully he's still here. I think he's an unbelievable player."
Have you ever had a 99-yard touchdown drive?
"Probably at some point, but I don't know."
Was there a little spat between you and Zac Taylor during that drive?
"No. I lost my cool for a second, and luckily Zac is a very forgiving person and not a jerk. If I were him, I would have screamed at me in the helmet."
Do you care to share what exactly it was about?
"No. It's not bad, I just lost my cool in the moment and he was great as always. He's always here (hand held low) and he just stayed right there as I was through the roof pissed off (hand held high). I can't be doing that to the guy who gave me a shot, and it was bad."
Is that part of what makes guys really like playing for Zac Taylor?
"Yes, I think that one of the things that is most impressive about being in this building is that Zac encourages you to be who you are. I've never felt the pressure to get in front of the team and be the rah-rah guy because I'm the quarterback for these last couple games. He's, 'Hey, be yourself,' whether that's how you act, how you conduct yourself in interviews or how you are outside of the facility. He says, 'Be yourself. Protect the team, but be yourself.' That's not the case everywhere. There is a ton of effort and thought to intentionally create a culture where people can be themselves."
Did you think you had Tyler Boyd open for six on the play where Cleveland jumped?
"Yeah. It's one of those where they jump, so I knew what the coverage was. The guy that's supposed to take (the route) away is the corner overlapping because it's 22-double invert. So, you can lead him hoping to get the 70-yarder, or you can drive it on him because I didn't know where the corner was, just trying to make sure he gets the ball. So, then it got caught in the mind. I probably should have led him and he probably would have scored, but should have, could have, would have."
Zac Taylor is always harping on culture. Was today a culture day?
"I'm not going to make it out to be more than it was. Everybody showed up, worked hard, did what they were supposed to do. They obviously were not playing all their guys, so I'm not going to sit up here and harp too much on the win. It felt good to win, but I think the culture is much more than that."