When creators of the Netflix docuseries Quarterback selected three NFL playmakers to shadow for the 2022-23 season, they couldn’t possibly be certain that one, Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, would go on to win the Super Bowl; another, the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, would have the season of his life; and the third, the Atlanta Falcons’ Marcus Mariota, would be benched, adding a poignant undertone to balance out the triumphalism.
Netflix’s bet on these three quarterbacks paid off handsomely, both narratively and commercially. With 3.3 million views and 21.4 million hours viewed, per the streamer, the series ranked third among original streaming shows (and fifth among all titles) for its opening week, according to Nielsen — showing Netflix can compete in the sports space even without live rights. The quarterbacks themselves also have expressed satisfaction with the end product.
“We are grateful for all the people who helped make the documentary such a positive experience,” says Cousins, whose 2022-23 season saw him accomplish the greatest comeback in NFL history, against the Indianapolis Colts. “From start to finish, NFL Films was a joy to work with. My trust in Peyton and his team at Omaha Productions made me comfortable with the unique level of access we were granting.”
While Mariota’s season was less glorious, the series nonetheless documented his joy at the birth of his first child, and portrayed his on-field struggles with an empathy that reflected Omaha’s mission to, as Manning says, “uplift and unify.”
As for Mahomes, Manning suggests that “maybe he even had a better year because he knew [it was being filmed for Netflix]. And he’s like, ‘I want to document the coolest of all years.’”
But despite the success of the eight-episode series and support from its stars, the creators — Hall of Famer Peyton Manning’s Omaha Productions in partnership with NFL Films — have struggled to get another group of quarterbacks to sign on for the second iteration before the league kicks off its regular season Sept. 7. Reached by phone in late August, Manning said the deadline for nailing down the principals was “approaching very soon. To use a cheesy analogy, we’re definitely in the two-minute drill here,” he says. “I’d love for someone to call us back and say, ‘I want to do it.’ I had three starting quarterbacks tell me no yesterday, so I’m swallowing my pride.”
Manning’s frustration is palpable: “I think maybe some guys are thinking that it is going to be a distraction, even though I told a couple of them, ‘I guarantee you’ll win the Super Bowl like Mahomes if you do it.’ ”
Quarterback’s first season was just as tough a battle. Netflix, Omaha, and NFL Films proposed to pay tribute to what Manning, with admitted bias, calls “the hardest position in sports,” and to do for the NFL quarterback what Netflix’s long-running hit docuseries Drive to Survive had done for the Formula One driver. The project was more involved than any previous effort to document the pro football life. NFL Films had been casting games in an epic light for six decades, including with HBO’s Hard Knocks, which gives the public a behind-the-scenes peek at one team in training camp each year. But nobody had filmed a team for an entire season, let alone miked up a quarterback for every game, and on their off-days, too.
“The off-the-field stuff — the wives, children, trainers —was really important for us to hit on,” says Gabe Spitzer, vp nonfiction sports at Netflix. “And I think we also try to be a little bit edgy in our sports storytelling, and work alongside Omaha to push on that a little bit more.”
Manning launched Omaha in 2020 and collaborated with NFL Films to produce his whimsical ESPN+ interview series Peyton’s Places, along with several spinoffs, including Abby’s Places, with soccer star Abby Wambach, and McEnroe’s Places with tennis legend John McEnroe. Yet neither his track record in entertainment nor NFL Films’ extensive bona fides were enough to secure QBs at first. “I’ll be perfectly honest: We cast the net out to a lot of quarterbacks,” says Manning. “We tried to do it two years ago and couldn’t get anybody to say yes.”
Manning understood all too well why quarterbacks might be loath to let cameras into the locker room or to overhear top-secret play calls, and admits he would likely have said no to such an offer when he was a player (he retired in 2016). “But,” he says, “if a quarterback that I respected told me, ‘Hey, trust me, we’re going to do right by you, you are not going to regret it, we’re going to cut out anything you don’t want in there, you won’t even know we’re there,’ then I probably would have said, ‘Yeah, I might as well do it.’ ”
Mahomes was “the No. 1 choice, as you would expect,” says Manning. Knowing how crucial it was to sign him for all the other pieces to fall into place, Manning made his pitch in person in July 2022 between takes of filming an episode of Peyton’s Places with the Chiefs star in Kansas City.
“I said, ‘Patrick, I’m just telling you, you’re going to want your kids to know what you used to do. And what greater way to do it?’ ” says Manning. “And I think that kind of struck home.”
Aside from the three quarterbacks, their head coaches and whomever they chose to tell, nobody else knew about the project. That’s a testament to the discretion of the NFL Films crew. “We know how to be a fly on the wall, I like to think, better than pretty much anyone in this industry,” says NFL Films senior executive Ross Ketover. “We developed it starting in 2001 with Hard Knocks and have gotten better and better each year.”
Now the big question among players and football journalists is who’s doing the second season, which Netflix has still not officially greenlit. But don’t expect anyone to publicly cop to it. “Everyone has been knee-jerk, saying, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’ ” says Ketover. “We did this sort of quietly and secret last year, and our hope is to do that again.”
A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.