For most players, the NFL is hardly a place for second chances. Successful comeback attempts are rare—for every Randy Moss, there are countless players who get just a few reps in training camp before they are shown the door.
However, when it comes to quarterbacks, teams are desperate enough to give anyone with a near-remote chance of playing seemingly countless opportunities, but so few of these reclamation projects actually pan out.
As rare as it is, reforming a quarterback from the gutter of NFL rosters can pay dividends while carrying minimal risk. Buying quarterback lottery tickets never initially looks like a brilliant move, but it could result in the next Kurt Warner or Tommy Maddox.
From a team standpoint, finding these reclamation projects is more or less a shot in the dark. On the other hand, these quarterbacks have a level of control over their fate and can turn their careers around if they have the right approach and mindset.
Identifying the Problem
There is no clear, defined road map to total quarterback reformation, simply because every quarterback is dealing with their own unique mental or physical shortcomings.
Former first-round pick JaMarcus Russell, for instance, has perhaps the most gifted arm on the planet, yet he is prepared to spend another season watching from his couch. After his release from the Raiders in 2010, nothing was going to change for Russell until he was able to change his mindset.
Earlier this year, Russell began to train at Jeff Garcia’s TEST Academy. Speaking on NFL AM (h/t NFL.com) Garcia agreed with the notion that Russell’s issues centered on his mindset rather than any other physical limitations:
Mentally, was the state where we needed to get him back to thinking football, speaking football, knowing football, being a student of the game. I don't know if that's ever been part of his background, to be a student of the game. That's where he needs to get to. He needs to sleep, eat, drink football. It can't be anything else if he wants this bad enough.
When Russell finally changed his attitude and got himself back under 300 pounds this year, he landed a workout with the Chicago Bears. No one signed him, but the fact that NFL doors are starting to creep open for Russell is a direct result of him putting in the work he should have when he was considered the future of the Raiders.
Other players find themselves at the bottom of quarterback totem poles because they are no longer able to mask their physical limitations.
The cerebral Ryan Fitzpatrick was a backup for the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals before he seized the Buffalo Bills' starting job in 2010. With his quick decision-making, Fitzpatrick was able to get his team on a hot streak early in 2011, winning Offensive Player of the Month in September. The Bills rewarded his play with a $59 million contract extension.
However, Fitzpatrick’s squirt-gun arm would eventually catch up to him. As the season progressed, it became more and more difficult to hide his weak arm on a weekly basis. The Bills released Fitzpatrick in March, and he is now a backup for the Tennessee Titans.
Other players suffer from both mental and physical shortcomings. Mark Sanchez was never an exceptionally talented passer coming out of USC, but he was perceived as the most “pro-ready”—the primary reason the New York Jets drafted him with the No. 5 pick in 2009.
The Jets were able to hide Sanchez’s deficiencies behind a strong running game and a top-ranked defense during their two trips to the AFC Championship Game, but as the roster deteriorated, so did Sanchez—and his confidence.
With average arm strength and an abundance of accuracy issues, Sanchez could not overcome the growing number of holes on the Jets roster. As a result, the once-bold, unafraid rookie was the target of offseason criticism. Teammates even called him “lazy” following the 2011 season, as told to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News (h/t Yahoo! Sports).
The Jets did Sanchez no favors when they brought in Tim Tebow, who turned out to be nothing more than a media distraction and a rhythm disruption when he would replace Sanchez at seemingly random points in the game.
Just two years removed from being one game away from the Super Bowl, Sanchez finds himself battling a rookie, Geno Smith, for the starting job he was entitled to over the last four years.
Drafted just 19 years after his date of birth, Tommy Maddox is a prime example of a player whose career appeared to be over before it eventually grew into something special.
Maddox was a talented player coming out of UCLA, but he was simply not mature enough from a mental or physical standpoint to survive in the NFL at such a young age, especially at such a demanding position.
Plus, the fact that he came in to replace living legend John Elway seven years before his retirement hardly put Maddox in a position to succeed.
After bouncing around between the Rams, Giants and Falcons, Maddox eventually took a two-year hiatus from football, and his career appeared to be all but over. Eventually, the Pittsburgh Steelers gave him one more shot as a backup in 2001, and the franchise would ultimately define his legacy.
Maddox finally got the starting nod in 2002 over the struggling Kordell Stewart, and he turned the smash-mouth, run-first Steelers into the greatest show in Western Pennsylvania. As he threw for multiple touchdowns on a seemingly regular basis, Maddox won the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award and would hold the starting job until a young Ben Roethlisberger showed up on campus.
Tommy Maddox’s story is unique on many levels, but how was he able to go from being a first-round bust to Comeback Player of the Year?
For Maddox, his stunted NFL growth was a result of him entering a league filled with full-grown men as a boy who should have been taking introductory college classes. The game was too fast and the stage was too bright for a kid with so little experience under his belt.
However, after he gained humbling experience at the bottom of depth charts and in other professional leagues, Maddox had finally matured into a full-grown NFL quarterback by the time he got to Pittsburgh.
While there were many years in Maddox’s career that he likely would rather forget, his story contains a great lesson in the importance of experience and maturity in the NFL.
Like Tommy Maddox, Mark Sanchez was a one-year starter at a Pac-10 powerhouse. Although Sanchez was older than Maddox (22) when he was drafted, he was thrust into a starting position in the buzz saw known as the New York media market—an environment that can be overwhelming for many, regardless of age.
And after much disappointment, Sanchez’s once-promising career has been boiled down to one infamous play:
Sanchez will go into next season on the Jets roster, but he is a prime candidate for a change of scenery and a fresh start on a new team, just like Maddox got with the Steelers. The difference is, a 26-year-old Sanchez will have a lot of time to work his way back into being a respected starting NFL quarterback—that is, if he takes advantage of his opportunities.
Getting a New Arm
Just about every quarterback has the potential to change their mindset and mature with age, but not everyone can simply increase their talent level several years into their NFL career.
As a tough, cerebral player, Fitzpatrick rose from the pit of the depth chart to be the Bills' starting quarterback for nearly two whole seasons. However, after a fast start to the 2011 season, Fitzpatrick’s lack of real NFL arm talent could no longer be hidden by the scheme, and Fitzpatrick once again finds himself as a backup to Jake Locker in Tennessee.
Mental issues and laziness are not easy to correct, but most people are at least capable of overcoming these intangibles. Talent and arm-strength issues, on the other hand, cannot be solved with a simple change of scenery or attitude adjustment.
Arm strength is largely determined by genetics, by the quick-twitch muscle movements that happen in the microseconds of a throw. This explains how the players with the strongest arms in the league, such as Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco, are able to put so much velocity on the ball while carrying a modest amount of muscle on their body.
While it is very rare to see a player increase their arm strength several years into their NFL career, it is not unprecedented. Drew Brees hardly had a cannon when he came out of Purdue. A pre-draft scouting report by nfldraftscout.com, for example, revealed that Brees was less than spectacular when making throws down the field, indicating that he seemed "more comfortable in the short/intermediate passing attack."
Brees was successful in San Diego with his average arm strength, but it was not until he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that he began to see an increase in his velocity, particularly on deep throws.
Does this mean that Ryan Fitzpatrick has to tear a muscle in order to start in the NFL again? Not necessarily. While the timing of Brees' increased arm strength coincides with his surgery, this does not mean that the surgery itself is what added some mustard to his throws.
Perhaps Brees made a slight change in his training regimen, increased the use of his lower body or tightened up his delivery during his rehab. None of these things can replace a lack of genetic gifts, but using the proper weight distribution and mechanics can help maximize the talent within.
Fitzpatrick is never going to have a rocket-powered right arm, but it is possible to increase the velocity he puts on the ball with improved mechanics and weight-distribution practices, which is absolutely attainable with the right environment and proper coaching.
Here is a clear example of Fitzpatrick not stepping into his throw, relying too much on his windup to deliver the ball. If he were able to learn how to use his entire body in every delivery, his arm strength would improve.
Breaking these habits so late in a player's career is never easy, but the alternative is to keep doing what has gotten them into the dire straits they are in now.
Seizing the Opportunity
All three of our case studies—Sanchez, Russell and Fitzpatrick—have already had their chance to prove that they can be long-term starters in the NFL (and have landed handsome contracts in the process).
Now, they all face the reality that their NFL days are numbered, if their career is not over already.
Obviously, all three players would love a chance to walk into training camp to be the unquestioned starter once again, but those days are long gone. Sanchez is in a head-to-head competition with Geno Smith; Fitzpatrick will likely be relegated to clipboard-holding duties and only see the field if Locker completely falls on his face or is injured.
Meanwhile, Russell is still trying to get his foot in the door of an NFL facility.
All three players are going to get at least one more chance to prove to an NFL team that they belong in the league. Sanchez has this preseason to prove that he is a changed player. Fitzpatrick may have to wait, but if the door opens for him to get some playing time, he will have to make the most of every second he is on the field.
If Russell continues to bring his weight down and work off the rust, he will likely get another opportunity to work out for a team.
Just as Tommy Maddox did, all three players must seize the opportunity to prove themselves once more, because the league is not going to wait for them to catch up with everyone else.