Legends of DVOA: The Life and Times of Charlie Garner

Philadelphia Eagles logo
Philadelphia Eagles logo
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Before Alvin Kamara, there was Charlie Garner.

Both were mid-round picks out of Tennessee. Both were (are) diminutive, dynamic all-purpose backs. Both played for offensive masterminds and made a big impact for not-quite championship-caliber teams. Heck, Kamara and Garner were almost the same guy!

Or perhaps our memories of Garner are a little cloudy. Yes, he was one of the most effective all-purpose runners of his era, with five top-10 finishes in rushing DVOA and four top-10 finishes in receiving DYAR. But times were tougher for everyone, especially tiny scatbacks, in the days when running back workloads weren't well monitored, marijuana use was considered a serious character issue, and concussions often went undiagnosed.

This is the story of an outstanding player who spent his career shunning a spotlight that some of his teammates and coaches couldn't stop hogging.

A Human Joystick

Garner was atypically focused and driven as a youth. When Garner was 11 years old, according to a 1995 profile by Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he grew so obsessed with Pac-Man that he would play until his fingers were red and blistered. A rec center counselor in his Northern Virginia hometown later taught Garner to play chess, and Garner played every day until he could checkmate the counselor.

Garner went on to be a standout running back at what is now Justice High School in Virginia, rushing for over 2,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in his senior season. From there it was off to Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, where he broke a variety of juco records.

Garner idolized Herschel Walker growing up, and he verbally committed to Georgia before ultimately choosing Tennessee. Vince Fulmer took over as head coach midway through Garner's first season, and the Vols went 18-5-1 in two years with Heath Shuler at quarterback and Garner splitting time with future NFL players James "Little Man" Stewart, Aaron Hayden, and Jay Graham.

The Vols were so good, and so deep at running back, that it cut into Garner's playing time. "There were a lot of games in Knoxville my senior year that I really didn't get a chance to play in the second half," Garner later told the university website. "We'd be up 25 or 30 points and, well, they'd bench me and then would have to bench James because he's running well, and then Aaron and then finally you got Jay Graham."

"Back in school, I would get negatives on [my practice grades] because I'd just stand and watch whenever Charlie had the ball," Shuler would later say. "I've never seen a player who could go from right to left like he does and not lose momentum."

Despite sharing the load, Garner managed to rush for 1,163 yards and 7.6 yards per carry in his final season. He was expected to be a first-round pick. But Garner failed his combine drug test for marijuana use. Agent Tom Condon blamed secondhand smoke, front office types performed their usual background checking and pearl-clutching about the devil's cabbage, and Garner fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in the middle of the second round of the 1994 draft. (It must be noted that Garner's size, often cited around 5-foot-9 and 189 pounds in his playing days, may also have contributed to the slide).

The Eagles of the mid-1990s were a franchise in transition. Jeffrey Lurie had just purchased the team from Norman Braman, who was the archetype of a terrible owner. Rich Kotite coached a team loaded with holdovers from the fabled Buddy Ryan era, including Randall Cunningham, coming off his second major leg injury in three years. Garner's childhood idol was also in Philly: Herschel Walker, several years removed from his college/USFL/Cowboys stardom, was the Eagles' somewhat-plodding featured back.

Garner's Eagles career got off to a rocky start. He missed a flight to Atlanta for a preseason game because he went to the wrong airport terminal. "He must have thought he was going to Beirut or something," Kotite joked. Garner then suffered a rib injury and missed the first three games of the 1994 season.

Slick, Quick and Licked

Once healthy and on the same page of the travel itinerary as his teammates, Garner made an immediate impact. He made his debut in Week 4 of the 1994 season and rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-8 romp over the heavily favored 49ers. He rushed for 122 yards on 28 carries the next week against Washington. But Garner re-aggravated his rib injury and was forced out of both games in the second half.

"He was slick and quick and, as usual, left the game after taking an unusually large lick," wrote columnist Phil Anastasia of South Jersey's Courier-Post after the Washington game.

Walker, still semi-effective at age 32, replaced Garner in the 49ers and Washington games. Burly James Joseph and darting Vaughn Hebron, both adequate committee backs, were also available. So there was no reason to overtax Garner. But Kotite had a reputation for incompetence to cement. Garner was held out of practice contact drills, then fed to the teeth of the Cowboys defense 17 times for 57 yards in Week 6. Garner carried 29 times for 69 yards in the three games after that, then was only sporadically healthy for the rest of the season. Garner ended the year on the injured reserve after knee surgery.

The Eagles climbed to 7-2 while Garner grew increasingly ineffective, then went into one of the most epic tailspins in pro football history, losing their final seven games. Cunningham, now barely able to scramble, endured a severe second-half slump and was benched in favor of Bubby Brister. The offense collapsed and the team appeared to quit late in the year, coughing up a 17-point lead to lose to the Bengals in the season finale.

Garner's back-to-back 100-yard games became a footnote in a doomed season. Still, fans and observers were encouraged by what we briefly saw. "After decades of watching plodding running backs such as Michael Haddix, Keith Byars, James Joseph, and even Herschel Walker, Garner is a refreshing sight, a slashing runner with incredible instincts which cannot be taught," wrote Bob Brookover in the Courier Post.

Lurie fired Kotite after the collapse. Longtime 49ers defensive assistant Ray Rhodes took over as head coach, bringing along an offensive wunderkind from pal Mike Holmgren's Packers staff named Jon Gruden.

Four Little Words

With Garner recovering from knee surgery and Lurie eager to give his team a 49ers flavor, the Eagles signed Ricky Watters, fresh off a three-touchdown performance in Super Bowl XXIX, for a whopping $6.9 million over three years before the 1995 season. Garner dealt with another round of marijuana rumors that offseason, then had a phenomenal training camp, leading the NFL with 251 preseason rushing yards on 41 carries.

Yes, Garner was given 41 preseason carries eight months after knee surgery. Let's put a pin in that for now.

Anyway, you probably know where all this is heading. Let's get to Watters' Eagles debut in a season-opening loss to the Buccaneers. Take it away, legendary Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon:

It was as though someone had written on a blackboard all the things a professional athlete shouldn't do and all the things he shouldn't say, and then Ricky Watters defiantly stood up and did them and said them, every last regrettable, stupid, self-absorbed one of them.

In the Eagles' season opener ... Watters, the running back who has yet to prove he is nearly as wonderful as he believes he is, blatantly shied away from collisions on the field, threw telephone tantrums on the bench, and then committed the most grievous sins of all afterward.

In response to the question of why he didn't try to reach a pass aimed his way over the middle and then pulled up to a dead stop when he saw a defensive back coming at him, Watters offered up the following quote, one that should be in every manual given to rookies, one that could be engraved on his own tombstone:

"Hey, I'm not going to trip up there and get knocked out. For who? For what?"

Lyon's column comes off as patriarchal to problematic today, but he accurately captured the local response to Watters' debut. "For who? For what?" instantly became the stuff of Philly legend. The "tantrum," on the other hand, has been largely forgotten. When Garner came off the bench in the third quarter and ripped off two runs for 20 yards, Watters (who was already getting the business from the Boo Birds) could be seen stewing on the sideline. When Garner needed a breather at the end of the drive, Watters returned and promptly fumbled to kill a scoring opportunity.

"Charlie Garner needs to be in the game more, and we'll address that," Rhodes said after that game while dodging Watters questions.

Rhodes had a lot to address. Cunningham was completely unsuited to Gruden's version of the West Coast Offense. Rodney Peete replaced Cunningham in Week 2, then came on in relief in Week 4 before taking over as the starter. "Games, for the 1995 Eagles, have become like Mike Tyson fights," wrote Fitzpatrick in the Inquirer, "A few minutes of occasionally interesting action surrounded by days of gale-force controversy."

The Watters-Garner controversy sorted itself out by virtue of the Eagles' utter lack of a downfield passing game, which gave both backs plenty of touches. Watters toned down the drama and shook off the rough start, rushing for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 62 receptions. Garner rushed for 588 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. The Eagles went 10-6 and won a playoff game through the sheer force of Rhodes' brimstone motivation and Gruden's intricate short game.

Garner led the NFL in rushing DVOA in 1995; Emmitt Smith finished second. Garner finished ninth in rushing DYAR despite his part-time role; Smith led the league. Watters ranked 29th in DVOA and 18th in DYAR; he was also 49th in receiving DVOA.

The 1996 season brought more of the same. Watters rushed for 1,411 yards and 13 touchdowns, adding 51 receptions. Garner came off the bench for 5.2 yards per carry but failed to qualify for the DVOA leaderboards. Peete battled Ty Detmer to see who had the peskiest popgun, while Irving Fryar added a credible downfield threat for any quarterback who could reach him. The Eagles reached the playoffs again. Gruden became a hot head coaching commodity.

The formula wore thin in 1997. Watters and Garner put up similar numbers in similar roles for a third straight year. Garner finished fifth in the NFL in DVOA behind Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, and Corey Dillon, ranking 11th in DYAR. Watters ranked 20th in rushing DVOA and 18th in DYAR, with some positive receiving value. But Rhodes' defense began to crumble and Gruden could only coax so much adequacy out of Peete and RePeete. Hope came in the form of a cannon-armed second-round pick from Ohio State: Bobby Hoying looked sharp in some late-season performances.

Late in the 1997 season, Watters' then-girlfriend approached Gruden in the tunnel after a loss and demanded, in front of reporters, that Watters get the ball more. Watters, who was never quite 100% with the program despite his production, left for the Seahawks as a free agent after season. Gruden also left to become the head coach of the Raiders. Rhodes replaced Gruden with Stanford offensive coordinator Dana Bible, who was billed as a West Coast offense guru with a longer pedigree than Gruden.

Bible was a disaster. Hoying became so hapless on Bible's watch that he could barely execute handoffs properly and sometimes crumpled untouched in the pocket, forcing Peete and a Detmer (Ty's brother Koy) into service. Garner, who signed a contract extension in the offseason, averaged just 4.0 yards per carry behind Duce Staley and missed the end of the season with another rib injury.

Out went Ray Rhodes. In came Andy Reid. Garner was now an oft-injured 27-year-old backup coming off a poor season with a reputation (overshadowed for years by Watters' shtick) for missing the occasional team meeting. Reid unceremoniously released Garner in April of 1999.

Here, There, and Anywhere

Garrison Hearst, a former Georgia standout and third overall pick whose early career was ruined by injuries, gained 2,105 yards from scrimmage for a 49ers team that went 12-4 in 1998. But Hearst bent backwards while getting pulled down on his first carry of the wild-card game, breaking his left leg so badly that the resulting vascular damage would erase his next two seasons.

When the 49ers realized the severity of Hearst's injury in July of 1999, they held a casting call for free-agent running backs. Charlie Garner won the audition.

Not everyone was excited by the new arrival. "In the good old days when NFL scouting was more of a hit-or-miss matter," wrote Ray Ratto for the San Francisco Examiner, "Charlie Garner might have excited you more than he seems to now." Ratto lamented that the Eagles were "always finding someone better, from Herschel Walker to Ricky Watters to Duce Staley." Even the 49ers hedged their bets, signing the deeply troubled Lawrence Phillips days after Garner.

Finally given a featured role in a functional offense, Garner quieted any skeptics. He rushed for 1,229 yards at 5.1 yards per carry, relegating Phillips to irrelevance. He also caught 56 passes for 535 yards after never catching more than 25 passes for the Eagles. Garner finished fourth in the league in both rushing DVOA and DYAR. Stephen Davis, Marshall Faulk, and Napoleon Kaufman finished ahead of Garner in DVOA, while Davis, Faulk, and Emmitt Smith topped him in DYAR. Garner also finished eighth in receiving DYAR for running backs.

How did Garner take to Steve Mariucci's West Coast Offense so quickly? "I give a lot of credit to Jon Gruden," Garner said after topping the 1,000-yard mark in December of 1999. "He really helped me learn this offense. So when I came here I was able to step right in."

"He has been terrific," Mariucci said of Garner. "He's such a tough guy. He has taken a lot of hits this year."

Garner was the only terrific thing about the 1999 49ers. Steve Young got injured, giving way to Jeff Garcia and Steve Stenstrom. The defense was miserable. The 49ers finished 4-12.

Garner enjoyed another fine season for an awful 49ers team in 2000: 1,140 rushing yards and 68 receptions, ranking second to Faulk in receiving DYAR among running backs. He became a free agent after the 2000 season. 49ers general manager Bill Walsh remarked, somewhat accurately, that Garner "suffered wear and tear at the end of the season." Agent Scott Crawford fired back. "Bill's comments hurt Charlie a lot," Crawford said. "He feels that Bill is trying to de-value him, and we are not going to tolerate that."

The 49ers decided to roll with a totally refurbished Hearst instead. So Garner signed a four-year deal with the Raiders, reuniting with Gruden. "I always had the Raiders in my mind," Garner said at the signing.

"He's an outstanding football player, a very productive back," Gruden said. "He's versatile and tough. He can play here, there, and anywhere on the football field."

Indispensable, Invaluable, Invisible

It's shocking how many coaches, legendary and infamous, used Charlie Garner incorrectly.

Garner just looked like someone who should get 10 to 20 carries and five to seven targets per game. Everything about him, from his stature to his shifty style to his injury history, screamed for such a role. Yet Kotite briefly tried to use him as a battering ram. Then Gruden and Rhodes limited his receiving opportunities, lest Watters get nettled. Mariucci finally figured out that Garner could run routes and catch, but also used him as a 25-carry workhorse for part of the 2000 season. Garner was always either stuck behind a Watters or Walker who needed lots of touches to get going (weren't as effective but got paid more, in other words), or, in San Francisco, without any reliable complementary back at all.

Gruden knew how to use Garner after their reunion. Bruiser Tyrone Wheatley and fullback Zack Crockett did most of the short-yardage dirty work but were strictly complementary players. Garner caught 72 passes while rushing for 839 yards for a Raiders team that went 10-6 with the help of another player from across the bay: a fellow named Jerry Rice.

Gruden, meanwhile, was in a contract squabble with Al Davis. And the Buccaneers felt they were headed in the wrong direction under defense-oriented Tony Dungy. A few weeks after the Raiders lost a playoff game to the Patriots on a controversial call [winks devilishly], the Buccaneers traded two first-round picks to the Raiders to acquire a new head coach.

Gruden left behind a strong staff that included Bill Callahan, Aaron Kromer, and Marc Trestman. Callahan, now the Raiders head coach, was in charge of the Eagles offensive line during the Watters/Garner years and knew what Garner was capable of. Garner, playing the same role in a very slightly (probably too slightly) tweaked offense in 2002, finished third in the NFL in rushing DVOA and DYAR behind Priest Holmes and Clinton Portis and led the league in receiving DYAR and DVOA. Garner finished second to Marshall Faulk in the NFL with 1,903 scrimmage yards.

"Charlie Garner may be the most indispensable, invaluable—yet often invisible—Raider," wrote Gregg Bell for the Sacramento Bee as the Raiders approached the playoffs. Bell noted that Garner avoided interviews and remained in "seclusion" during the week, only to emerge on game days as a trash-talking chatterbox. It's a common thread throughout his career: even when Eagles columnists were interviewing Garner's family for Pac-Man and chess stories early in his career, Garner declined most interview requests.

The Raiders cruised through the playoffs, then got pummeled by Gruden's Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. Quarterback Rich Gannon threw five interceptions in that game. Garner rushed seven times for just 10 yards. Gannon later claimed that Buccaneers defenders were calling out Raiders plays at the line. Tim Brown and Rice suggested that Callahan changed his entire game plan in midweek, possibly for nefarious reasons. Looking back, I can't help but think that Callahan got a late case of the yips because he knew he hadn't changed enough of his offense after Gruden's departure, then tried to make last-second changes which proved counterproductive

Whatever the cause of the Raiders meltdown, Gruden walked away with a Super Bowl ring, and Garner did not.

Garner finished seventh in rushing DVOA in 2003, but Wheatley outgained him as a rusher. Gannon suffered a midseason shoulder injury. Callahan completely lost the locker room. The Raiders fell to 4-12. Garner and Charles Woodson missed curfew before the season finale and received a one-game suspension in one of Callahan's last acts as head coach.

Garner signed with Gruden's Buccaneers in April of 2004, but he lasted just three games before suffering a knee injury which ended his season, and ultimately his career.


The Jets snapped up Rich Kotite soon after the Eagles fired him. The former Jets assistant was hailed as a likely franchise savior. Instead, he led the team to a 4-28 record in two seasons, ending a 20-year NFL career.

Bill Callahan coached the University of Nebraska for several years before returning to the NFL as an offensive line coach, coordinator, and sometime assistant head coach. He currently coaches the excellent Browns offensive line.

While it might never be written on his tombstone, For Who, For What: A Warrior's Journey is the title of Ricky Watters' memoir. Watters spent several seasons as a productive, mostly quiet running back for the Seahawks after leaving Philly, retiring with 10,643 rushing yards. The girlfriend who yelled at Gruden has been his wife for decades.

Herschel Walker has become an outspoken political figure on social media and may be considering a Senate run in Georgia. Hearst played three more seasons for the 49ers, who bounced back into contention after Garner's departure. Ty Wheatley is now the head coach at Morgan State. Duce Staley is the assistant head coach of the Lions.

Doctors told Charlie Garner in 2017 that he is likely suffering from CTE. Garner was only diagnosed with two concussions during his career yet estimates that he suffered "at least a dozen concussions per year over 11 years."

"I don't have all my faculties anymore," Garner told the Sporting News in 2017. "I can't remember things. When I go to the mall or grocery store, I have to take one of my kids with me to remember where the car is parked. I have trouble remembering conversations I had five minutes ago. Bright lights bother me. I just don't feel right all the time." Garner recently announced involvement in a sports entertainment enterprise called Legit Rare on Facebook.

There's an unmistakable undercurrent just below the surface of Garner's story: the undiagnosed concussions (probably less than 132 but certainly more than two), the moody reputation, missed flights and meetings, frequent marijuana peccadillos, even the obsessive childhood video gaming. I'm not going to pretend to really know a person based on press clippings and memories from 30 years ago. But if he played today, Garner's concussions would be better diagnosed and treated. (Not ideally diagnosed and treated by any means, but better). Any marijuana dabbling he might have done would be shrugged off, or perhaps identified as self-medication. Some behavioral traits, from youth through superstardom, are better understood and tolerated/managed these days than they were 30 years ago.

A modern Garner might well be Kamara, someone whose workload was carefully managed and optimized, a star in his own right instead of an invaluable but invisible role player. At the very least, he'd emerge from his career a little bit healthier if he played in our somewhat more enlightened era when running backs don't endure 40 preseason carries while recovering from knee surgery.

DVOA suggests that Garner could have been one of the all-time greats. But the NFL, in various ways, just wasn't quite ready for him.


40 comments, Last at 13 Jul 2021, 10:21am

#1 by Raiderfan // Jul 08, 2021 - 9:56am

“Devil’s cabbage”. 😂 

and peskiest popgun should be a rating.

Points: 0

#2 by Boots Day // Jul 08, 2021 - 10:23am

Great stuff but I think you mean "Philip" Fulmer.

Points: 0

#3 by BigRichie // Jul 08, 2021 - 12:05pm

Lots and lots of NFL players smoked pot at the time. Without getting caught. If they had to give it up for 2 weeks so as not to test positive, they temporarily did.

Garner couldn't. I've known dozens of pot users, a handful of whom were serious pot users. That handful has not mentally aged well. At all.

Points: 0

#4 by theslothook // Jul 08, 2021 - 12:59pm

A couple thoughts:

Its a delicious bit of sad irony that the Rich Kotite story marries so well to the Adam Gase story. 

I like how Tanier gave a bit of optimism about Charlie Garner 2.0's chances in today's NFL. The receiving combo back is still not really embraced to the degree it should be in todays NFL. I think a few too many teams would shoe horn Charlie Garner into the exact role he shouldn't be in.

To that end, its a tale of caution about how careers depend on circumstances beyond their control. Throw 6th round Tom Brady onto the Lions and what career does he have? Is he even on a practice squad in 4 years? And consider if Luck had been drafted by the current Colts rather than the Grigson Pagano Colts. What might his career and reputation look like?

Points: 0

#5 by BigRichie // Jul 08, 2021 - 3:20pm

Given his drive, Brady would've always been a good QB. He still would've gone to that QB camp, he still would've massively physically improved by heeding all of its lessons and each and every other lesson on technique and conditioning he so avidly sought out. He and Belli made each other the GOAT. Without each other maybe they don't even make the HoF. That's probably their joint floor, 'very good' but this side of 'great'. But "even on a practice squad in 4 years"?!? Absurd question.

Luck was drafted onto the Grigson/Pagano AND! Arians Colts. As the Uber of uber-prospects, he was just about destined to go to a lousy team. And given his playing style, an injury risk anywhere. And given his brains and extremely good nature, liable to pull the plug wherever.

You're welcome. Always happy to answer any and all questions!

Points: 0

#6 by theslothook // Jul 08, 2021 - 3:46pm

2001 Brady on a bad team probably never gets a shot again to be a starter. Almost assuredly that team would be drafting high and likely a first round QB. Maybe Brady knew all along he was capable of reaching these heights, though I bet gun to his head he didn't think he'd have the career he did. He certainly didn't play like that out of the gate. 

As for Luck, he changed his play considerably under Frank Reich than he had under Grigson and Arians. Sure, he had a maverick style to him but much like Favre, good coaching can coax out the good habits and limit the bad. One has to wonder what Mahomes would have looked like being paired with Indy coaches that Luck found himself with rather than Andy Reid. 

Points: 0

#9 by BigRichie // Jul 08, 2021 - 5:43pm

See, there's this teensy, weensy gap between "never gets a shot again to be a starter" and "the career (GOAT) he did." Maybe you should give up your argument that the GOAT actually fits somewhere below Blaine Gabbert talentwise, just he had a really great opportunity.

Points: 0

#12 by theslothook // Jul 08, 2021 - 6:11pm

I think you are missing the nuance of my argument or just misunderstanding my point altogether. And calling it nutso makes me wonder if you read it at all or bothered to spend two seconds giving it a proper thought. Nevertheless, I will clarify once more. 

Let's remove Tom Brady's name for the moment. A quarterback that's drafted high is going to be afforded a lot more opportunities to succeed than a quarterback who has not been drafted high. If Eli Manning was a 7th round pick and played exactly as he did as a rookie he would never see the field again most likely. You can make the same argument for Troy aikman or John elway or other famous first rounders who struggled their first year. On the flip side for a low round quarterback to be given a chance to become an established starter, they need to be really good right out of the gate. Kurt Warner was an MVP his first year. Tony Romo is another example. Basically you get a lot more latitude as a first-rounder and almost none as a low rounder.

My point above was to say that 2001 Tom Brady inserted onto a bad team with a different coaching staff probably gets replaced and we may never know if he'd have gotten another chance because guess what? Most sixth round quarterbacks never get many chances. I don't really know what is so controversial about this basic point. 

As an aside, I expected better ettiquete from replies at FO.

Points: 0

#14 by Scott P. // Jul 09, 2021 - 4:04am

I would need more evidence to accept the idea that there are a bunch of 6th and 7th-round picks who could be as good as Eli Manning (let alone Brady), but they never get a real shot.

I think rather that most 6th and 7th-round QBs don't get many chances because they simply aren't very good.

Points: 0

#16 by SandyRiver // Jul 09, 2021 - 8:55am

The 2000 Patriots finished 5-11 and the major change for 2001 was the addition of lots of bargain-basement FAs, most relatively unknown at that point.  After going 0-2 and losing Bledsoe, they were dead last in Dr. Z's power rankings.  I don't think anyone was calling them a good team at that point, so Brady actually was "inserted onto a bad team" in a sense.  They must've been double-digit dogs going into week 3 against the 2-0 Manning Colts, then the near-miraculous began to happen and 20-20 hindsight can see that he was inserted into a very good team.

Points: 0

#19 by theslothook // Jul 09, 2021 - 11:44am

Sure that's true. But it doesn't negate my basic point. If 2001 Tom Brady was placed onto last years Jaguars, how many wins do they end up with? And does his play give enough a vote of confidence that he should be the starter long-term? Remember being a sixth round pick works against him here. And that's really all I'm saying.

The fact is a player like Tom Brady needed to be on a good team such that he was given time to develop into the player he became. That's not because he sucks, it's because he's a sixth round pick and that's the reality of being a 6th rounder.


Points: 0

#24 by SandyRiver // Jul 09, 2021 - 2:30pm

Agree with the last, and if Bledsoe had not been injured I'm guessing Brady would've seen very little time on the field (and the Pats wouldn't have made the playoffs.)  However, I think someone with Brady's competitive fire would've made his way into a starting job somewhere.  It was NE's (and Brady's/Belichick's) serendipity that he was able to develop under the coach/staff best able to utilize his strong points. 

We can play the what if game, but I look back at the Narnia tales where the quote was "You'll never know what would have happened."  Fun to discuss, though.

Points: 0

#29 by Duff Soviet Union // Jul 09, 2021 - 10:30pm

"However, I think someone with Brady's competitive fire would've made his way into a starting job somewhere."

Where, though? Who's signing a 6th round pick who, in this alternate universe, has basically never played, to be anything but a 3rd stringer?

If Bledsoe had never gotten injured, Brady's best hope would have been to just hang around long enough and hope to land somewhere where somebody *did* get injured.

Points: 0

#33 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jul 11, 2021 - 2:34pm

There was a reason he was drafted. There's a reason he was still on the team. Thinking that he wouldn't end up a top 31 (or 62 since you said 3rd string) QB when he ended up being a PB and SB MVP his 1st year starting...is weird. Like that's a significant gap of talent we're waving away just because he's a 6th rounder, who again, was still employed for a reason. He must've shown SOMETHING to earn the 2nd string from NE in the first place. Like was he really destined to be worse than 4th rounder Rob Johnson (31st in attempts in 01) if Bledsoe isn't hurt? Like...really? Almost solely random chance he was in a situation that made perfect look like crap? Even though, as pointed out going 5-11 his rookie on the bench is not exactly great. 

Might be being too rigid with the 6th rounder thing. A couple rounders earlier (not too far of a stretch, still day 3) like Rob Johnson and he gets opportunities to start for 3 different franchises and 5 teams overall.

Heck is Dak being good pure luck because Romo got hurt? Is even Rodgers pure luck because he took over a for an injured Favre in Dallas? Is Young lucky Montana got hurt? Guess it's technically lucky Cousins watched Washington mismanage RG3s injury? Luck is involved in everything. But that's a lot of luck for Brady to become a GOAT (and that's before we even discuss the opposite of luck: unluck, which it was to lose to Eli...twice. And then Foles, etc).

Points: 0

#10 by ImNewAroundThe… // Jul 08, 2021 - 5:47pm

To not even be on a practice squad to winning 7 SB at the most important position would describe being put in a situation that makes perfect look like a piece crap.

There's no logical connection in thinking he was purely a whim of Bills choosing because...he sucks and wouldn't be worthy of the practice squad? Uh...so he was tanking? But Brady randomly became great in actual games because...he was actually good? And worthy of MORE than a practice squad spot?

Points: 0

#34 by MJK // Jul 11, 2021 - 7:59pm

In addition to opportunity, Brady needed to be inserted into the right offense, which is where his good luck in playing for the Belichick Patriots really comes through. How many good football players see their careers squandered by coaches that insist on running “their system” and forcing round pegs into square holes?

2001 Brady had very good pocket elusiveness, good understanding of the game, the ability to make quick decisions, but had a relatively weak arm, was undersized by the standards of top early 2000s QBs, and was (and still is) one of the slowest guys in the NFL. Put him in the wrong offense and he would have failed horribly.  The Patriots already were running a modified Earnhardt-Perkins offense that catered to Brady’s quick release and decision making.  They modified their offense in 2001 and 2002 to be a novel (at the time) widely spread quick passing offense, and never asked Brady to throw mighty rainbows off of seven step drops while standing tall in the face of pressure, or scramble past linebackers. Put him in an Al Davis vertical offense and force him to be a QB that he wasn’t (at the time), and he would have failed horribly and probably never gotten another chance. 

Points: 0

#36 by theslothook // Jul 11, 2021 - 9:10pm

I rewatched the Rams Pats first SB a few years back on a lark to see how different the game changed. Ill openly acknowledge that its unfair to use one game to judge a player, but the player I saw had one truly great skill and a lot of other hinderances. 

Brady has always been a terrific pocket player. By that I mean, he's been comfortable operating in pocket where he doesnt get jittery and he constantly keeps surveying the field without feeling the pass rush. 

However, in that SB, the game was scripted very well and he felt like a slow player in terms of processing the play itself. He made some good decisions and some smart throws, but he was the epitome of a game manager. Now, lest people consider me a Tom Brady hater, I will state plainly what is beyond obvious. He got better. Dramatically better. The Tom Brady a few years later was a vastly different QB than the Tom Brady we saw in 2001. But, since we are discussing 2001 Tom Brady and since evidently some people have a hard time reconciling that 2001 Tom Brady was a different player than 2007 Tom Brady, we get into this debating point.

I also agree with you, it takes a good coaching staff to craft a gameplan around your QBs strengths and weaknesses. I truly believe, especially back then, most coaching staffs would have looked at Bradys weaknesses and just said hes unplayable. I also think if he had gone to a truly bad team and manged to be the starter, that same coaching staff would have blamed the team's failure on his weaknesses. That's not unique to Tom Brady. That's life in the NFL, especially a 6th rounder. 

To second a poster above's point. Brady made the most of his opportunity. But I am dubious that it was evident without playing meaningful snaps that he was going to turn into this. If that were true, he would have been inserted over Bledsoe long ago. And Warner would have been the week 1 starter. And Romo would have been the starter as well/. And Deshawn Watson wouldn't have been riding the bench in favor of the awesome Tom Savage. And Lamar would have replaced Flacco week 1. That's also a function of the position Brady plays. Receivers and defensive backs can get spot duty on specific plays to prove themselves. Qbs really can't.   

Points: 0

#37 by Scott P. // Jul 12, 2021 - 5:05am

Trent Green was a pretty good player and, frankly, if you sent me back to 1999 to advise Vermeil I think I still tell him to start Green unless he gets injured.

Points: 0

#39 by Mike B. In Va // Jul 12, 2021 - 7:48pm

Yeah, his KC tenure shows they had an embarrassment of riches in STL in 1999.

Points: 0

#7 by Beavis // Jul 08, 2021 - 4:41pm

What kind of career does Brady have if Bledsoe doesn't get hurt? Bledsoe had just signed the biggest deal in NFL history, it's not like the Pats were looking to replace Bledsoe.

Points: 0

#11 by BigRichie // Jul 08, 2021 - 5:48pm

Approximately the career Kurt Warner had. Different shape certainly, but Brady always was going to work his heinie off, always was going to explore each and every last possible avenue toward getting better and better, always was going to keep coming and coming and coming.

Points: 0

#13 by theslothook // Jul 08, 2021 - 6:13pm

If you read some of the testimonials on Brady Quinn, you will read a guy who poured a ton of energy on and off the field trying to be a great player. 

I've heard the same things being used in Tim tebow's defense every year. 

Even if all that is true, it's not some guarantee that you're going to get a starting gig or be any good

Points: 0

#17 by Bowl Game Anomaly // Jul 09, 2021 - 10:25am

To further your point, you hear this about dozens of QBs. Look up testimonials for John Beck's work habits. The guy was equally as maniacal as Brady. And he was a second round pick! And he still only got 2 chances to start (in fact, only 2 seasons when he even got any snaps at all), one being his rookie year and the other being 4 years later. Imagine if Beck was drafted in the 6th round, he probably would never have started a single game. And not because his dedication was any less that Brady's, either.

It's easy to imagine an alternate-universe Brady having a Beck-like experience: A couple of starts as a rookie for a bad team, then languishing for years as a third-stringer before getting another few starts for a different terrible team. Would Brady have performed better than Beck? As a rookie, probably not by a lot. Eventually, probably yes. But then it comes down to opportunity. Give him a Kurt Warner-like opportunity, and presumably he shines. Then again, if Warner doesn't get that opportunity, he's probably a career backup.

Give Brady the same opportunities as a Gardner Minshew or Nick Mullens, and he establishes himself as a star. But there are a lot of low-drafted QBs who never get chances like that.

Points: 0

#18 by Joseph // Jul 09, 2021 - 11:17am

I think another factor both of you haven't mentioned is practice/training camp/preseason opportunities. I am sure that there are a large group of HS & college players who work hard, study the playbook, push themselves, etc. However, they don't ever get much playing time/get the scholarship/etc. because either they don't have the high-end athletic talent, or can't translate their learning into their actions, or both. For guys like Beck and Tebow (and others), they just couldn't put it together. They had opportunities, they just couldn't put it all together. 

Guys like Brady/Warner/Romo had to have demonstrated some competency to be the backup so they could take their opportunity when it came.  Otherwise, their team tries to make a trade for someone (like when the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford a few years ago). Mullens/Minshew/Keenum-types had opportunities, just couldn't play competently consistently. 

Points: 0

#21 by theslothook // Jul 09, 2021 - 11:49am

The thing about it is I'm not sure it's a wrong approach overall. 

There's a ton of survivorship bias baked into this problem already so maybe the answer is unknowable. We don't have that many stories of low round quarterbacks who are given time to develop. I mean players who played okay to solid but weren't spectacular. How many of those players were given multiple seasons to develop?

On the other hand I'm convinced that Tom Brady in this story is a dramatic outlier and that even if you gave Gardner minshew three to four seasons worth of starts he probably tops out as a solid starter. At which point committing three to four seasons for that end game simply isn't worth it.


Points: 0

#23 by Joseph // Jul 09, 2021 - 1:51pm

I agree with the correct approach--players who are seen as more talented from their demonstrated body of work (whether in college or in the pros) are going to get more opportunities. At some point, production trumps potential/talent. Whether low-round picks get enough opportunities to develop is definitely a good question. They used to have the World League, and now could choose the XFL. Whether they will try that is a different story. I completely agree with your last paragraph.


Aside--Here is my developmental league idea: 1 big city, one decent sized domed stadium for games, multiple practice fields in the area. Either 4 or 6 teams, play in the May/June timetable. Every team plays each other 2x, all on Sat or Sun in a doubleheader/tripleheader. Games are played as close together as is reasonably possible for TV purposes. This also makes it easier to scout all players at the same time. With it taking place after the draft, but before minicamp, it gives NFL teams an opportunity to look at UDFA's that might fit at a position where they have less depth. Fans get to buy a ticket for the entire day and can come and go as they please. Keep costs down with little to no travel, salaries can be low b/c the goal is get picked up for NFL training camp; if a player isn't good enough, they can go back to wherever they are from to earn a living because the commitment is for 3 months of the year at the most (approx. 1 month camp, 2 months of games). 

Points: 0

#25 by Bowl Game Anomaly // Jul 09, 2021 - 4:25pm

Let me clarify why I brought up Minshew and Mullens: I am not suggesting that Gardner Minshew could have been close to as good as Tom Brady. Just the opposite. Minshew got enough opportunities to show that he isn't as good as Brady and probably never will be. I'm arguing that there are other low-drafted or undrafted QBs who could be (or could have been) better than Minshew, above average starters, Pro Bowlers, but will never get the opportunities that Minshew got. And furthermore, I am arguing that in another universe Brady could have been one of those "never-weres" because he might never have gotten the chance to show how good he was.

Points: 0

#27 by Duff Soviet Union // Jul 09, 2021 - 10:19pm

Yeah, think about Kurt Warner and how unlikely it was for him to ever get a chance. I don't know how many other alternate universe Warner's are out there who it just never happened for, but I'm sure they do exist.

Points: 0

#40 by Independent George // Jul 13, 2021 - 10:21am

I think the comparison you want for alternate-universe Brady is Rich Gannon or Trent Green: late-round picks that bumped around the league on bad teams for a while before finally getting opportunities in their 30s, and then excelling in a limited window. 

Points: 0

#31 by JimZipCode // Jul 10, 2021 - 2:12pm

We don't have that many stories of low round quarterbacks who are given time to develop.

Other leagues have often payed a role in "surprise" QB development stories.  Kurt Warner played three seasons of Arena League.  Jeff Garcia played in the CFL.  Jake Delhomme played a couple seasons in NFL Europe.


Points: 0

#28 by Duff Soviet Union // Jul 09, 2021 - 10:22pm

"However, they don't ever get much playing time/get the scholarship/etc. because either they don't have the high-end athletic talent, or can't translate their learning into their actions, or both."

And a lot of times, it's just because the organisation already has more resources invested in somebody else, so they're going to get chance after chance. Even the worst first round QB's will inevitably end up with more career pass attempts than late round picks who were better than them.

Points: 0

#22 by Beavis // Jul 09, 2021 - 12:24pm

I get it, you are a Tom Brady fan boy, that's great. I'm happy for you. But Brady is not the GOAT solely because he worked harder than everyone else. This is the silly Pete Rose mythology. Tom Brady and Pete Rose are/were great athletes in addition to being tireless workers. If all it took were hard work, Tim Tebow would be in Colorado next week for the MLB All-Star game before reporting to an NFL training camp as a starting QB. Let's get serious. No shit Brady works hard. None of it would have mattered without an opportunity to start, and those opportunities are not guaranteed especially when you are a 6th round draft pick. You seem to presume some sort of omniscience on Brady's part that would have led him to eventually landing with a team where he would get a chance to prove himself. I suspect it is far more likely that if he spent 3 or 4 years backing up Bledsoe, both Brady and his agent would have been for more concerned about finding the team offering the most guaranteed money than the team with the best opportunity. It's likely he would have remained a backup for a good team, or taking a starting job on a crap team, probably underwhelming due to the lack of talent and coaching around him, and then gone back to being a backup. None of this is to take ANYTHING away from Brady, he got his shot and lord knows he didn't waste it, and he gets all the credit for that. But, the fact that he ever got a real chance is a happy accident.

Points: 0

#26 by Duff Soviet Union // Jul 09, 2021 - 10:18pm

I think hard work is both very important for an athlete in the sense that it's hard to succeed without it, but overrated because just about *everybody* works hard. 

Take Michael Jordan vs Clyde Drexler, two very similarly built athletic marvels. Jordan is notorious for his work ethic and competitiveness, while Drexler was notorious for (relatively speaking) loafing through practices and not being nearly as determined to improve his game. Yes, Jordan was obviously a better player than Drexler, but Drexler is still one of the best shooting guards of all time. Hard work and competitiveness is the difference between Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler, not Michael Jordan and some guy who never made it.

Athletes always love to jerk themselves off about how hard they work for the same reason that people in other fields all like to pretend that their success is due to hard work. It's self flattering.

Points: 0

#30 by takeleavebelieve // Jul 10, 2021 - 11:31am

100% this. There’s probably also a lot of athletes and coaches who work hard but not smart, and don’t see the same ROI on their time. 

Points: 0

#32 by Duff Soviet Union // Jul 11, 2021 - 7:28am

Yeah, all these stories you hear about coaches who sleep in the office and work 23 hours days and blah, blah, blah. Every study on the subject shows this kind of stuff is somewhere between useless and counterproductive after a certain point, but owners (who think they're successful because *they* work hard) love that stuff, which is why Adam "grinder" Gase keeps getting jobs despite being demonstrably terrible.

Points: 0

#15 by Alex@ // Jul 09, 2021 - 8:19am

Its a delicious bit of sad irony that the Rich Kotite story marries so well to the Adam Gase story.

Ah, the Jets. This era of the nfl was early in my fandom, and I remember this hiring.

The Jets had just fired Pete Carroll, in part because he lost the last 5 games of the season.

What do they do? Hire Rich Kotite, who had just finished losing his last 7. Brilliant!

Points: 0

#20 by takeleavebelieve // Jul 09, 2021 - 11:45am

It’s not just the NFL, either. If Lloyd Carr didn’t become enamored with Brian Griese or if Jim Harbaugh becomes enamored with Dayne Crist, Brady and Luck could’ve had entirely different draft positions. 

Points: 0

#8 by CHIP72 // Jul 08, 2021 - 4:51pm

...didn't mention the combined nickname Ricky Watters and Charlie Garner were given by none other than Jerry Glanville (when Glanville was a color commentator during the early days of Fox's NFL coverage):

"Thunder and Lightning"

I think Glanville is the only announcer who called them that, but various Eagles fans called them that after hearing Glanville.

Points: 0

#35 by MJK // Jul 11, 2021 - 8:07pm

Based on some of the current research, the number concussions isn actually relevant to CTE. The mechanical insults that cause CTE (believed by many to be abrupt rotational acceleration of the head) can occur when a concussion (caused by a head impact) occurs, but can also occur without a concussion. Simply having repeated high speed impacts or tackles, even without head impacts, can ultimately lead to CTE, if you get too many of them. 

it’s very sad…once you build up enough impact events, even if you’re not showing any symptoms at the time and have never had an official concussion, you’re doomed to CTE later in life and early onset Alzheimer’s type condition.  

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Mike
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Mike Tanier. Use promo code TANIER to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Mike.