- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Here's a prediction for the 2012 NFL season: Three weeks in, a superstar quarterback blows out his knee. He's lost for the year. Crushed fans write off their team because the backup, a 2009 seventh-rounder out of Missouri named Chase, has hardly played. And in fact, he starts out looking pretty shaky. But then he completes a few passes. And a few more. Soon he's winning regular-season games…then a divisional playoff game…then a conference championship…then…yes…the Super Bowl! Suddenly, Chase is worldwide. There he is chuckling with Conan. That's him with Regis and Kelly. Now he's inking a multiyear deal. Reporters scramble to Columbia, Mo., looking for clues to his unlikely success. Meanwhile, humiliated NFL scouts wonder how, after Tom Brady and Kurt Warner and Tony Romo, they missed another hidden star.
And to think, this Chase from Missouri isn't even that Chase from Missouri.
Back in 2008, scrappy and stumpy Chase Daniel is looking an awful lot like the best college player in the country. Funny thing is, he might not even be the best NFL quarterback prospect on the Tigers. That could be the statuesque specimen holding his clipboard, Chase Patton.
It's one of the toughest things for football fans to fathom. You've followed the NFL and college games for years, watching College GameDay as if it were porn and listening to Kiper like he was a prophet, and yet you're left scratching your head when a college QB goes from Pac-10 star to combine stud to draft castoff. All while a guy you never heard of from Northeast Montana State suddenly emerges as the hope for the future of your favorite NFL team.
It's enough to drive you crazy, but it shouldn't. Because you're hardly alone. The men who are paid to figure out this stuff are mostly bluffing. When an NFL GM claims there's a universal truth explaining why some great college quarterbacks flop in the NFL, he's lying. And if he says with certainty why so many mediocre college QBs end up NFL stars, he's really lying. Because nobody really knows why some QBs make the leap and some don't. "A GM who's had two out of every 10 quarterbacks he's drafted turn into Pro Bowlers—he's a genius," says 49ers GM Scot McCloughan. "You never know what goes through a quarterback's head when it's third-and-10 on the road. You just don't know."
Every franchise puts its stock in different traits. Some teams, like the Raiders, want rocket arms. Others, like the Patriots, want heady passers with good intangibles. The Ravens, meanwhile, have three different approaches on their current roster: big-time arm (Kyle Boller), proven winner from a big school (Troy Smith), small-school no-name with good fundamentals (Joe Flacco). Michael Lombardi, a former player personnel chief for the Raiders, wrote on the website National Football Post a list of questions he asked when evaluating college QBs: How often does he watch tape? Alone or with the coach? When during the week does he get the game plan? How much time does he need to "know it"? How thin-skinned is he? When do his turnovers occur? What are his cold-weather habits? Can he see down the field? How comfortable were the coaches with his changing plays at the line? What is the main coverage he faces every week? Against which types of defenses does he complete the most passes? How accurate is he in practice compared to games? What do his teammates say about him, off the record? Is he a gym rat? What kind of ball (old, new) does he throw in practice and in games? QBs who have a favorite ball are scary. It fits their hand like a glove. In the game, all the balls are new.
And that's just one guy's list. In the next few months, dozens of scouts will ask those questions, and plenty more, about two Missouri seniors. On a warm September evening, the two Chases in question are eating dessert at The Upper Crust, a restaurant one block from Mizzou's campus. Daniel is with his girlfriend, Blaire Vandiver; Patton is with his wife, Ashley. Patton offers his brownie sundae to Daniel. "Man, Chase, you gotta try this," Patton says. "It's extra good tonight."
"That's what she said," Daniel retorts, repeating the line from The Office. It's his new catchphrase, and he says it regardless of relevance or logic. It keeps things fun, as if this season hasn't been fun enough. The 22-year-old from Southlake, Texas, is the Heisman front-runner. After finishing fourth in last year's race and missing the BCS championship because of a Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma, Daniel has played as if he expects to possess both trophies by season's end. Directing the Tigers' mighty spread offense, he's completing 76% of his passes and averaging 333 yards passing a game and has thrown 15 touchdowns and one interception. Because of his familiarity with the offense, he says, he knows where he's going with the ball before the snap 85% of the time. "Every time I play," he says, "I expect myself to be better than anyone on the field and better than anyone in college football."
The Chases have differences, far beyond playing time. Daniel is charismatic and carefree, Patton shy and cautious. Daniel is particular about throwing only broken-in footballs; Patton doesn't care. Daniel gets waved in at his favorite bars, Shiloh and Harpo's; Patton hangs at the condo he and Ashley own. Patton is a premed major who's been accepted to dental school in Kansas City; Daniel maintains a 3.45 GPA in finance while watching video of opposing defenses on his iPhone during lectures.
But the biggest gap between the two is their build, and by virtue of that, their NFL futures. Daniel is listed at six feet, 225, but scouts have measured him as anywhere from 5'11" to 6'0‰". Patton, on the other hand, is designed for the next level: 6'4", 230 pounds, with 7% body fat and an arm so strong that after each practice, he stands at midfield and throws passes over the crossbar. The Chases' height difference is raised constantly, even at dessert. Mowing through his apple pie and digging into Patton's brownie, Daniel says that they've got a 7:30 a.m. weigh-in: "I'll be about 228."
"I'll still outweigh you," Patton says.
"Yeah," Daniel says, "but how tall are you?"
"Six-four," Patton says.
"Exactly," Daniel says. Blaire squeezes her boyfriend's arm and says, "You're a little short one."
That's what she said—and it's no joke. Daniel's stats scream first-round prospect, but his height cries training-camp project. Making his NFL case, Daniel says a few things. One, his high release point: Only three of his 563 passes in 2007 were tipped at the line. Two, his résumé: He owns 34 school records. Three, Drew Brees is barely six feet. But Daniel still worries. "If I get measured at 5'11"," he says, "I might not even get drafted." That's why when talk turns to pro futures, Daniel turns to Patton, who hasn't started a game since high school and in his four years at Mizzou has completed 16 of 26 passes with one interception. Daniel says to his backup, "You'll probably get a better shot than me."
Five years ago, Patton didn't know that a sculpted body and a stellar arm get a quarterback only so far. The golden boy from Rock Bridge High, just three miles from Mizzou's Faurot Field, was the Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year and was rated a top-five national quarterback recruit. Patton's coach, A.J. Ofodile, a former pro tight end, watched his signal-caller zip deep outs and told the kid he was already comparable to an NFL third-stringer. Patton, much to Mizzou's surprise and delight, stayed home instead of going to Tennessee, UCLA or Iowa. His plan: redshirt one year, back up Brad Smith for another, then start for three.
In 2005, after Patton's redshirt season, head coach Gary Pinkel scrapped Mizzou's conventional offense for a spread attack. Patton struggled, but a true freshman from Texas did not. Daniel had led Carroll High to the Class 5A state title by running the spread. Adapting to Missouri was like majoring in Spanish after living in Mexico. "A lot of the concepts were identical to what he did in high school," says Pinkel. "He had a good base and background the moment he walked in."
It took only 18 practices for Daniel to rise from fourth-string to second. Patton, slow to read coverages, was forcing passes. "I'd let bad plays eat me up all day," Patton says. Daniel recognized Patton was overthinking and experiencing a crisis of confidence. The two had bonded quickly in preseason practices that summer, with Daniel intimidated by Patton's arm and Patton amazed at how well Daniel knew the spread. Being a friend first and a position rival second, Daniel tried to help: "Chase," he'd tell his friend slowly, "just throw the ball to the guy in our colors." It didn't work. Patton was stuck as the third-stringer.
Against Iowa State in 2005, Daniel relieved an injured Smith midway through the fourth quarter and rallied Mizzou from 10 points down to a 27-24 overtime win. Daniel's star was born, and nobody knew it better than the guy still on the bench. Patton and Ashley drove around Columbia in her Pathfinder for 90 minutes after the game. "He was devastated," Ashley says. "It was the first time he realized he wasn't the best at something, especially when he could have been."
Patton is proud of what he did next, something he'll preach to GMs: Instead of publicly complaining or transferring, he vowed to his coaches that he'd show them the kind of quarterback he was. To build his confidence, Patton watched high school tapes and read old clips. By his sophomore year, in 2006, the offense started clicking for him, even if he got to show it only in practice. The past two years, Patton's stats in the annual Black and Gold spring game compared favorably with Daniel's. Patton is proud of those numbers, not so much as a metric of his ability but as a measure of his perseverance. "I've learned that mental toughness is the biggest part of being a quarterback," Patton says. "If you can't flush a play and move on, you can't play."
Problem is, he never gets a chance to really prove himself. His job is to back up Daniel and prep him for Saturdays. That means partaking in all the starter's peculiarities. Daniel likes routine—his clothes are organized in his closet by color. Pregame for the Chases begins Friday afternoon with "cold tub confessionals," when they sit in ice baths and go over new plays. At 7 p.m., Daniel and Patton move to the team hotel, always Room 215—the number of the room they shared as sophomores. At 10:30, they watch film of their 2008 completions (Daniel now has 119, Patten 10). Lights out by 11. Quarterbacks coach David Yost enters at 6:45 a.m. and, in the Zen-like sunrise, reads the 60 plays the Tigers use each week. A few hours later, the Heisman favorite excites the nation. On the bench is his backup, who Yost says "throws the prettiest ball I've ever seen."
FANS LOVE Tom Brady's sixth-rounder-to-Hall-of-Famer story, but it terrifies scouts. So does the fact that 25% of current NFL starting quarterbacks were once afterthoughts. Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Marc Bulger, Derek Anderson and J.T. O'Sullivan were all sixth-rounders. Romo, Warner, Jake Delhomme and Jon Kitna weren't drafted at all. Because of those unlikely successes, most teams mandate that their scouts fully research all seniors, regardless of how much they've played. That's how Matt Cassel, who threw 33 passes in four years at USC as a backup to Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer, ends up drafted. And how in next year's draft, overlooked QBs like Patton, Ohio State's Todd Boeckman and others (see right) might end up on a team as well.
Twenty-five scouts have visited Yost to inquire about his two senior quarterbacks. They always ask about Daniel and his arm strength first. Yost says Daniel doesn't have the biggest gun but makes any throw asked of him. "He'll get drafted later than he should," he tells the scouts. "And he'll be better than you thought." After first-round disasters like San Francisco's Alex Smith, some scouts are wary of spread passers who line up exclusively in the shotgun, lacking drop-back skills. One such scout says Daniel is probably a fourth-round pick. But another says, "He's accurate in the spread. You can't teach accuracy." He sees Daniel going one round earlier.
Scouts always ask about Patton, too, but never about his size or arm strength. When they wonder about his accuracy, Yost says Patton can put the ball exactly where he wants when his feet are set, and when they're not, he misses. When scouts ask about Patton's learning curve, Yost says that despite taking a few months to grasp the spread, it's been quick. One scout likes that Patton toughed it out at Missouri; another thinks that not transferring—and applying to dental school—means he doesn't love football. One scout cares that Patton hasn't played much; another thinks he's a good player beaten out by a phenomenal college quarterback. Both like that he's married—he began dating Ashley in high school—and mature. "Is Chase a project?" Yost says. "Yes. But he's on their radar."
Without game tapes for scouts to dissect, Patton will have to prove himself at Mizzou's pro day. The scouts say Patton could be a seventh-rounder if he performs well. "You simply have to take a hard look at a guy who has those types of measurables at a big school," says one. "Because there's no set way to find a quarterback."
Exactly. Fortunately for the Chases, there's a football season to be decided before the draft. They finish dessert and lean back, laughing about a win against Illinois last season. Daniel had run up the middle for 17 yards and was hit so hard, he blacked out. Patton came on and handed off on a running play. The next call was a rare chance: a play-action pass to the right, with three receivers as options. But as Patton yelled the signals, he got slapped on the back. It was a glassy-eyed Daniel, who had sprung off the bench without telling anyone. Missouri was flagged for an illegal substitution. Patton went back to the bench. Daniel finished the game. Patton, laughing and shaking his head, says, "That was my chance."
At least in college.
No college QB plays his position better than Chase Daniel. So why does his little-used backup, Chase Patton, have as good a chance of making it in the NFL?