Age Old Question
I saw something that blew my whole perception of NFL QBs out of the water. I am a firm believer in practice and timing and comfort when it comes to the relationship between a QB and his receivers. There’s something very concrete to me about knowing when exactly to throw a ball so that when it reaches it’s destination, the intended receiver is there to catch it. And that’s something that I’ve always believed took months even years to perfect. Oh how I was wrong. Enter Vinny Testaverde. He’s on his 512th season in the NFL…or so it seems. I remember when he was drafted by Tampa Bay, and I remember the first time I saw him. I’ve met him a couple of times, too. He was up on a platform stage at Family Fun Fest at the old Tampa Stadium signing autographs for the 100s of fans who had engulfed said platform. He was to be Tampa’s savior. The Heisman Trophy winner from the U riding in to bring the franchise who had endured so many losing seasons into the future. Fast forward 20 years (21 seasons) and 7 NFL teams later, and you come to present day where Vinny holds the record for consecutive seasons with a TD pass. Vinny has played for the Bucs, the original Browns, the Ravens, the Jets (twice), the Cowboys, The Patriots, and now the Panthers. This past Sunday, he had an 88.7 passer rating (a better rating than Peyton Manning had in the Super Bowl) and completed over 60% of his passes to receivers that he only started practicing with since Wednesday morning. Even Brian Griese couldn’t get it together that quickly when he was named starting QB for the Bears a few weeks back. Here’s the story from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King (my very few comments in italics):
With apologies to Tom Brady and his consistent greatness (I obviously did not write this), the Patriots and their quest for perfection, Adrian Peterson and his Gale Sayers-ish day at Soldier Field, and LaDainian Tomlinson‘s déjà vu rampage over the Raiders, I’m leading with the most charismatic story of Week 6.
It’s the story of Vinny Testaverde coming off the couch — literally — a month shy of his 44th birthday to start his first football game in two years, and playing quarterback for a serious playoff contender. I’m not sure you’re going to believe it. I’m not sure I believe it.
I’ll begin at the beginning. Eight days ago, Testaverde was home on Long Island, doing what all his sports-fan neighbors were doing — watching the Giants and Jets on TV from his living room.
Testaverde is married and has three children (girls 16 and 5, and an 11-year-old boy), and he drives them to school and to sports practices. He was cut by the Patriots on Sept. 2, and his football career was basically over. If the Pats had an injury, maybe he’d mop up for them as a third quarterback. Maybe. But he just figured he’d move on with life. He hadn’t thrown a football for five weeks. Until last Monday. And then his semi-house-husband life started changing rapidly.
The Cardinals called. Matt Leinart had suffered a broken clavicle the previous day and coach Ken Whisenhunt needed a backup for Kurt Warner. Testaverde was interested, but the distance bothered him. By the end of the day, though, he was excited enough to think: Hey, this is for me (SERIOUSLY…you’re almost 44).
He liked Warner, liked Whisenhunt, and figured he might get a chance to play some for a team that looked like it might contend for a division title. So he agreed to a one-year contract Monday night with the Cardinals and prepared to join them Tuesday to learn Whisenhunt’s system. The Cardinals left an E-ticket for Testaverde for the first thing Tuesday morning, even arranged a car service for his trip to the airport at 4:30 a.m.
“The alarm rang Tuesday morning, and I just sat there thinking, I can’t go. I can’t leave my family. It’s too far,” Testaverde told me Saturday evening, over the phone, from Phoenix, ” And so I went back to sleep, and when I got up, I called Ken and told him how sorry I was. But I said if I didn’t tell him now, I’d have done it three weeks from now, and really left them in a jam.”
That was about 9:30 Tuesday morning. The kids were out of the house, gone to school, and now he just sat there. He thought: That’s it. That’s the end of my football career (Umm…hello…most people thought that was, oh, 5 years back at least). I had a chance, but it wasn’t the right one.
Less than an hour later, his phone rang. It was an old friend, Jerry Simmons, who he’d known as the strength coach with the Cleveland Browns when Testaverde played there in the ’90s. Simmons was with Carolina now. As soon as he heard Simmons’ voice, Testaverde figured he was calling to see if he wanted to play for the Panthers. Which he was. And the good thing about Charlotte is that it’s a 70-minute flight from New York, not the four-hour-plus trip to Phoenix.
So here was Testaverde, who hadn’t thrown a football in five weeks, who was sure his career was over — now he was beating off teams with a stick.
“The first thing I thought of was I didn’t want to go play for Carolina, because they were playing Arizona this week, and I felt bad about saying no to Arizona after I told them I’d come,” he said. “But then I thought of the positives. I know the offense they run, because it’s basically an offense I’m familiar with from my years in New York and New England, and I knew they had a good team. Plus, I’d be closer to home. In Phoenix, I don’t think I’d have been able to come home on my off-day.”
He flew to Charlotte on Wednesday morning, but his plane was late, and by the time he dressed and got to the Panthers’ practice field, the workout was already in progress. Quite literally, he jogged onto the field, met a couple of the offensive coaches and was handed a play to run in the huddle.
Without meeting a single player, he jogged to the huddle, said “OK,” and then called the play. No “Hey, I’m Vinny.” He just called the play and ran it.
“Surreal,” said tackle Jordan Gross. “If the new guy’s a tackle or a linebacker, he’d be able to walk in and sort of blend in. But the quarterback, he’s the leader of the whole team, and here comes Vinny without saying anything. It was one of those weird moments. Like, we all knew who he was and had respect for what he’d done in football. But he didn’t know who we were.”
By Saturday, after three practices, Testaverde still didn’t know who they all were. “I’m still meeting guys,” he said. “I’ll probably take a media guide next week, look over our roster and try to figure out who everyone is. But I’ve got too many things to get straight here for the game before I do that.” (Oh and did I mention Vinny is color blind, too.)
With the Cards, Testaverde would have been a relief pitcher. With the Panthers, because starter Jake Delhomme was lost for the year with an elbow injury and backup David Carr was likely out this week with a bad back, there was a good chance Testaverde would start for the first time since November 2005. “If he has to play,” coach JohnFox said Saturday, “he’ll probably have about 60 percent of the game plan down. Physically, after watching him for a few days, there’s no question in my mind he can handle it.”
Carr tried to get loose Sunday morning but didn’t feel good enough to play. And so it fell to Testaverde, at 43 years and 335 days old, to try to George Blanda the Panthers to a win to keep pace with Tampa Bay atop the NFC South. He started strong, completing nine of 11 in the first quarter.
“I felt great,” he said Sunday night. “I felt strong.”
Gross said Testaverde got none of the mental stuff wrong, and erred only when he began calling some plays before the substitutes got to the Panthers huddle. He looked heavy-legged, though he was sacked only twice. As the game got down to the nitty-gritty midway through the fourth quarter, with the Arizona defense clogging the line and inviting Testaverde to throw deep, he knew he might have to stretch the defense to have a chance to win.
This is Testaverde’s 21st year in the NFL, and he’s had quite a few talented receivers to work with over the years. But none had the explosion and consistent playmaking ability of Steve Smith. During the week, Smith had told him, “Don’t worry about overthrowing me. You can’t overthrow me.”
With just more than five minutes remaining in the game and Carolina trailing 10-9, this advice came in handy. On first down from the Carolina 35, Testaverde sent Smith in single coverage streaking down the right side. He faked a handoff to his back, then looked up top to see the coverage. “I saw a single high safety, which was good,” he said. The safety couldn’t cover the whole field, and Testaverde was happy he wasn’t rushing to help on Smith. Vinny let it fly.
Does anyone throw a nicer deep ball, with any more perfect mechanics, than Vinny Testaverde? Remember when he used to be derided with the Bucs for being such an up-and-down player? No one ever said he couldn’t throw a football the way God intended it to be thrown.
“Oh no!” he said to himself after launching the ball toward Smith. “I overthrew him.”
He didn’t. “For some reason, the corner on that side stopped, or slowed down,” said Testaverde. Smith pushed into an extra gear, caught up to the ball, and brought it down for a 65-yard touchdown.
“See?” Smith told him on the sidelines. “You can’t overthrow me.”
Carolina 25, Arizona 10. Testaverde: 20 of 33 (.606) for 206 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, 88.7 rating. More yards than Brett Favre. More accurate than Carson Palmer.
“Great game, Dad!” Gross said to Testaverde, with a grin, afterward.
He’s not old enough to be Gross’ dad, but it’s close.
When Fox gave Testaverde the game ball, the Panthers noticed Vinny was a little emotional. “I’m so happy to be here, playing football,” he said. “A week ago, I was sitting on my couch, watching games on TV. Now I’m playing games that mean something.”
What does the future hold? A starting job? Vinny in the playoffs? Who knows? Let’s not spoil a great story. Let’s let the fairy tale of a guy who never thought he’d start again live for a while.
“Hey Dad,” 16-year-old daughter Alicia told him over the phone after the game. “You still have it!”
Out of the mouths of babes.
You see. This is a guy who figured he was done, who doesn’t know the names of the players on the team he’s playing for, and managed to make it look like he’d been playing with the Panthers since training camp. The offensive line was trusted with making sure they didn’t put this guy in a wheelchair prematurely, and he trusted them only getting sacked twice. The receivers were trusted with making sure they were there when the ball came down, and even though Vinny slipped in his confidence in that one a couple times, his stats say otherwise. This is a guy who’s beaten the odds for at least the last 20 years. He wasn’t what everyone thought he would be when he was drafted 1st overall in 1987, but what he lacks in meeting the expectations of his critics, he makes up for in persistence. He has no quit in him. I’m not sure what he’s playing for. Does he believe that if he keeps coming back, he’ll win a Super Bowl? Does he just love the game so much, that he can’t let it go? Maybe a little of both, but whatever the reason, the guy’s got heart. Geriatric jokes aside, Vinny answered his critics on Sunday with that single 65 yard touchdown pass. He does indeed still have it.