First-year Potomac football coach Tony Lilly was rifling crisp passes at practice Thursday and mock-bragging to the team about just how pretty his tosses were.
"Yeah," someone piped up, "but you don't throw like John Elway."
Lilly could not argue with that. As his players know, he was a free safety for the Denver Broncos for four years, all during NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Elway's career.
But that brings up another inarguable fact: For a teenager, it's pretty cool to play for a head coach who took part in two Super Bowls, and to occasionally channel-surf right into him on ESPN Classic, knowing that's the guy you practiced four hours for that morning.
"Oh, man, that's my coach!" senior running back Vaughn Walker recalled blurting out when he spotted Lilly on television one day. "No one else [around here] can say that, that they played for an ex-Bronco or ex-somebody."
"When I see him, I call him and say, 'Coach, you're on TV!' " junior defensive back Anthony Staples said. "He says, 'Don't think about the mistakes I [made] in the game. Do the right things.' "
Despite alternating series in one Super Bowl and starting in another, Lilly is not one to name-drop "Broncos" to impress his Panthers. Instead, he is trying to take certain professional concepts, and lessons he learned as a pro, and apply them to the high school level.
"I don't try to carry myself out there with, 'This is what I did,' " said Lilly, a 1980 Woodbridge graduate and an assistant last year at Potomac who was hired as head coach in June. "I normally don't mention the players I played with or [coaches I] played for. I try to really focus on the team aspect of it."
Lilly wants his players to take ownership of the team. He knows that instruction or motivation from a teammate can carry more weight than instruction or motivation from a coach.
When he was a young pro and the Broncos were losing handily to the Giants in Super Bowl XXI, Denver linebacker Tom Jackson approached him on the sideline to offer counsel.
"He came up to me as a 14-year veteran," Lilly said, "and put his arm around me and said, 'Take a look out here and remember this because you're going to get a chance to come back here.' I remember that and what it meant to me at that moment. What he did out there on the field playing can't even compare to what he did right there.
"If you get that kind of a responsibility to one another then, man, there's no coach that can say anything to you that's more important than what a player says to you."
Lilly urges the Panthers to mentally evaluate their performance after each practice and to think about what they did wrong -- and what they did right that they could do even better. After one recent workout, he told the team he had made a couple of coaching mistakes on the field that morning and that he was going to think about how he could handle it better next time.
That might not be all that much different from what other coaches do. But the Panthers know this is the approach their coach used in the NFL, so they might be more inclined to buy into his way of thinking.
After what the players considered to be a relatively flat morning practice Friday, Lilly asked his veterans to stay behind for a chat, during which he mentioned how he had played in two Super Bowls but won neither -- the Broncos lost to the Giants, 39-20, in Super Bowl XXI and to the Redskins, 42-10, in Super Bowl XXII -- and how he does not want the Panthers to feel the nagging pangs of not achieving their goals. But to attain those goals, they will need to put forth greater effort.
"He used his experience in the Super Bowls to motivate us," junior receiver-defensive back Deante Steele said.
"Most of the time if it's the head coach, you'll listen to him [regardless]. But [Lilly] can bring a whole other level to the game and teach you some whole new things."