- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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EACH THROW IS AN ACT OF DEFIANCE.
David Carr will never admit that, of course, but just watch him as he winds up. The quarterback gurus say his elbow should be level with his shoulder, like a waiter carrying a platter. But during a May Carolina Panthers practice, Carr's elbow hangs low, parallel with the bottom of his rib cage. His arm stops shy of a full windup, too, never rearing behind his head like Tom Brady's does. When it lashes forward, it drifts off at a three-quarter angle, instead of 90°, like Peyton Manning's. Once the ball leaves Carr's hand, his arm slaps across his body, as opposed to straight down, capping his assault on proper throwing mechanics.
It seems impossible to throw with any force from such an angle, which is why Carolina's four other QBs curiously -- and nervously -- look on. Three of them are shorter than the 6'3'' Carr. Not one of them has ever made as much money as he has or been as hyped as he has. Nor have they been as battered. And nobody ever fell in love with their arms the way the NFL did with Carr's. His motion, however rule-breaking, is blinding. One second the ball is clasped at the end of a million-dollar limb. The next moment it's spiraling so tightly on a
20-yard comeback route to Drew Carter that the rotating laces disappear, splitting not only two defensive backs but also the 1 and 8 of Carter's jersey.
That Carr employs this motion, after five NFL seasons, is his way of saying that he will quarterback in a way that's natural for him, not his coaches. His reward for such faith is a high five—from starter Jake Delhomme as he passes by to reclaim his huddle.
IT SOUNDS LUDICROUS, but if David Carr is going to rebuild his career, he's going to have to get dumber. Watch guys like Brady and Carson Palmer, and there's a temptation to frame them as brainy types, the thinking man's quarterbacks whose games are crafty and cunning. But they're not. That's not to say Brady and Palmer are dumb. In fact, they're geniuses, football savants in the
tradition of Joe Montana and Dan Marino, because they're smart enough not to overthink the game.
Carr, 27, is an overthinker. That happens when the perils of quarterbacking have crept into your psyche, so much so that in the chaos of the pocket, you pause for a millisecond to consider doubt or failure, delaying your decisionmaking ever so slightly. Needless to say, it's an unwanted trait in a game that doesn't allow for hesitation. The proof came last March when Carr -- after being the inaugural pick of the expansion Texans; after suffering 249 sacks and hundreds of other hits the past five years; after a 22–53 mark as a starter; after completing a league-leading 68 percent of his passes in 2006 -- was dangled for a trade, and nobody bit.
The fact that Carr had to be released was humiliating, not only for him but also for the Texans. The team had to take a $6 million cap hit and part with two draft picks for his replacement, Matt Schaub, who got a six-year, $48 million contract despite just two career starts. That no one, not a single team, would trade for Carr was a rather loud rebuke, one that confirmed what most scouts whispered only off the record: He was too damaged to recover from the unprecedented beating he suffered in Houston, which included 76 sacks in 2002 -- Carr's lone NFL record.
Carr was once coveted because he deftly reacted to pressure rather than thinking about it. When he led Fresno State to an 11-3 record as a senior --
including upsets over Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin -- he played unburdened, trusting himself and those around him. His 46 touchdown passes against only nine picks that year made believers not only of his team but NFL scouts.
Heading into the 2002 draft, Carr's prodigious talent, unfailing maturity (he was already married with a kid) and GQ looks made it seem as if only the details -- How many Super Bowls? How many NFL records? How many Pro Bowls? -- had to be worked out before he would get his bust in Canton and a cushy postplaying career in broadcasting. While some coaches quietly mumbled that his delivery was too low for the NFL, there was never a question of who would be drafted first overall. Just to be sure, then-Texans GM Charley Casserly announced 17 days before Paul Tagliabue took the podium that Carr would be Houston's pick.
And then things quickly turned ugly. First Tony Boselli, the Pro Bowl left tackle charged with protecting Carr's blind side, was lost before fastening a Texans helmet because of a career-ending shoulder injury. Then former coach Dom Capers refused to alter Houston's downfield passing scheme, which meant Carr was dropping back seven steps behind a papier-mâché line. He didn't have many threats running patterns, either. Except for Pro Bowler Andre Johnson, drafted in 2003, Carr was tethered to underachievers. Receiver Jabar Gaffney. Tailback Jonathan Wells. Tackle Seth Wand. Bust after bust deflated Carr, and it seemed to have the same effect on Casserly. In 2004 the Texans didn't even draft an offensive player until the seventh round, when they picked a wide receiver and then another quarterback. "I knew it would be tough," Carr says now, "but I didn't expect it to be that tough."
Meanwhile, the Texans offensive bosses during Carr's first four years -- two offensive coordinators and three line coaches -- tried to compensate for Houston's lack of talent by changing Carr. He was always throwing with defensive linemen in his face. And when he wasn't getting sacked, his passes were often batted down. Chris Palmer, Houston's offensive coordinator from 2002 to 2005, ordered his star to pass from a higher release point and even made Carr face a ladder in practice and throw over it. But instead of slinging the ball with the fluid, unhitched motion he employed in college, Carr would rear back and cock it, as if posing for a football card, before pushing it out. Palmer simultaneously implored Carr to lower his release at times so he could throw around encroaching defensive linemen if need be. Carr learned to dish from the waist, like a point guard, and underhand it, like a bowler.
Not surprisingly, reconfiguring his mechanics didn't do much to help ease the pressure -- Carr was the league's most-sacked passer during three of his first four years -- or help his psyche. "It was a travesty, what happened to him," says Niners backup Trent Dilfer, who's known Carr for 15 years. "It's what happens when you have coaches who don't understand the quarterback position."
Carr needed help, which seemed to arrive after the 2005 season. Capers was fired, and Houston again had the first overall pick. When owner Bob McNair interviewed potential replacements, the first question he posed wasn't whom the team should draft but how they were going to use Reggie Bush. Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak had all the right answers. Kubiak even told McNair he was sure the Texans could win a Super Bowl with Carr as their quarterback. So McNair picked up Carr's $8 million option. And the quarterback grew hopeful about the prospect of working with John Elway's tutor and Matt Leinart's safety valve.
But everyone knows what happened next: Houston opted for defensive end Mario Williams. "People are always going to ask why," Carr says, "and I'm one of those people."
Still, with Kubiak there was reason to be optimistic. The new coach taught Carr to slow down, to breathe as he read his progressions, to trust. Then a starting lineman went down in September -- meaning Carr would have to set up behind a patched pocket for the fifth year in a row -- and the QB reverted to his old ways. He knew it but was too beaten down to do anything about it. He had happy feet, rushed his passes, wondered as he threw whether his release was high enough. Carr was, he says, "just trying to survive."
While Carr was publicly applauded for leading the NFL in completion percentage, his coaches privately dismissed it. According to one former staffer, Kubiak and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman estimated that Carr's panicked progressions cost Johnson at least 500 receiving yards. They exploded on him, berating him in front of teammates. Carr, true to his style, rarely reciprocated with any emotion. But what was once seen as a cool demeanor was now perceived as indifference, which made the coaches angrier. It got so bad that other players in the huddle could hear coaches yelling at Carr through his helmet earpiece. "He never blamed anyone, he never pointed the finger," says Texans left tackle Eric Winston. "But it would be impossible for it not to wear on him."
Carr was benched during a midseason loss to the Titans, and even though he returned to start every remaining game, he knew his Houston career was over. Everyone did. "Kubiak wanted to see if Carr stepped up," an ex-Texans staffer says. "He didn't."
IS IT POSSIBLE? Can you replace an instinct to pause with one of reflex? Carr thinks so. Which is why he's wringing as much as he can from drills that most players consider tedious. He's dropping back in the simmering Carolina heat and throwing quick slants. Quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy looks on as Carr sprays bullets from his old (and new) three-quarter motion. As a free agent, Carr picked Carolina in part because McCoy told him, "I'll never mess with your arm."
Carr needed to hear that. The day he was released, in March, Carr drove with his younger brother, Derek, to the practice fields of Clements High in Sugar Land, Texas, just outside of Houston. For two-and-a-half hours, Carr threw. Sometimes he dropped back, other times he didn't. Sometimes he stepped into his passes, other times he didn't. Sometimes Derek ran routes, other times he stood still. There were no fans, no defenders, no coaches in his ear, nothing to overthink. It was just Carr and his low delivery and a target. And, he says, "relief."
McCoy and John Fox see Carr fitting snugly into the Panthers' new offense, a copy of New England's, with multiple formations, short passes and well-designed downfield throws. But they see him, for the time being, as a backup. While Fox says that he's been "relaxed and confident so far," he adds that it's because "he's coming in behind Jake, and the microscope's not on him."
Right now, Carr is saying all the right things, like "I'm going to be Jake's best friend here." And Delhomme does the same, explaining how happy he is that Carr picked the Panthers, because "I love having another set of eyes." Even the suits are stroking their starting QB's ego. When Panthers owner Jerry Richardson invited five players to his North Carolina lake house in June, Delhomme was one of them and Carr was not.
But how will that change in October if the Panthers stumble? Delhomme knows he's vulner-able, having thrown only 17 touchdowns for what should have been a Super Bowl contender last year. If he contributes to a similar slide this year, it's easy to see Carr coming in, like Tony Romo, and rescuing a static group of underachievers. That may seem a distant prospect right now, but it's not to Carr. When practice ends and Carr stays behind to get in extra reps, it's a clear sign of his ambition.
But it's something else, too. He finds reassurance in throwing that simple slant route. So he does it over and over, hoping his gifts rise up the more he dumbs things down.
David Carr got beat up, put down and thrown out of Houston. But to find success in Carolina, he really needs to get out of his head, writes Seth Wickersham.