Monday, May 21, 2012

Undrafted Stars: From the Checkout Line to the Goal Line

Today, we finish our look at undrafted free agents (UFAs) who clawed their way onto the NFL playing field and became stars.  Our last two players profiled are both quarterbacks—but their similarities end there.


Iowa Barnstormers, 1995-1997
Amsterdam Admirals, 1998
St. Louis Rams, 1998-2003
New York Giants, 2004
Arizona Cardinals, 2005-2009

Kurt Warner’s route to the NFL elite had more twists than a barrel full of pretzels.  Warner went undrafted after graduating from Northern Iowa University in 1994.  He was invited to the Green Bay Packers’ training camp but was released before the start of the regular season; since he was competing with Brett Favre (who started for the Packers for over 15 years), Mark Brunell (who played in the league nearly 20 years), and 1994 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, you could say the odds were not in Kurt’s favor.

Stocking shelves at a grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa was not going to pay the bills for long, so he decided to return to the Northern Iowa football team as a graduate assistant coach.  He also signed with the Iowa Barnstormers, a team in the Arena Football League.  Warner had an impressive career in the AFL, being named to the All-Arena team (the AFL’s equivalent of the Pro Bowl) twice and leading his team to consecutive Arena Bowl appearances.  Kurt was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2011.

After a freak spider bite on his throwing elbow prevented a tryout with the Chicago Bears in 1997, Kurt finally got an NFL contract in 1998.  He was hired by the St. Louis Rams, who promptly sent him to Amsterdam to play QB for the Amsterdam Admirals, a team that was in the now-defunct NFL Europe.  He was brought back to St. Louis for the 1998 NFL season, as the third-string QB.

Warner finally got a starting gig in the NFL in 1999 when the Rams’ starter, Trent Green, was injured prior to the start of the season.  With little time to work with the rest of the offense, expectations were not high.  Warner proved the doubters wrong, and in convincing fashion.  Achieving numbers that put him near the top of the record books, he threw for over 4,300 yards with 41 touchdown passes; with super stars like running back Marshall Faulk and wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt, the Rams offense earned the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.”  Their crowning achievement was victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV; Warner earned both the Super Bowl and league MVP awards.

After leaving the Rams in 2003, Kurt Warner was signed by the New York Giants; however, he lost the starting jobs after the first two games of the 2004 season to Eli Manning, and we all know how things have turned out for Eli.  Kurt chose to become a free agent after the season, he found a second home with the Arizona Cardinals.  Like his career, his tenure with his new team began with fits and starts:  he was named the starter, but lost the starting job after a groin injury; when his replacement, Josh McCown struggled, he was put back in the starting position.  In 2006, he was benched in favor of rookie Matt Leinart after the first three games, and the two men would exchange roles several times over the course of that season, and the next.

The quarterback situation in Arizona was finally resolved in 2008.  Warner responded to his new-found security with stellar performances, ending up with over 4,500 passing yards for 30 TDs.  Not only did Warner lead his team to their first post-season home victory since 1947, but he navigated them through a story book playoff run, leading them to their first ever Super Bowl, Super Bowl XLIII.  Unfortunately, the Cardinals lost a heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23.

Walking off the field after Super Bowl XLIII

Since retiring after the 2009 season, Kurt has had a very full calendar.  He’s been on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, been an analyst for NFL Network, has made numerous TV appearances and is slated to host a new reality series on USA Network called The Moment.  The recipient of the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2008, Warner and his family have devoted themselves to many charitable causes, primarily through his First Things First Foundation.

If you want to learn more about Kurt Warner's Cinderella story, you can vote to have it told as NFL Network's "A Football Story" this Saturday.  Click on this link to vote: 

Other Notable UFAs of the 1990’s:

John Randle (1990), defensive tackle:  Minnesota Vikings,  1990-2000 and Seattle Seahawks, 2001-2003 (pictured below)

Adam Vinatieri* (1996), placekicker (and another Amsterdam Admirals alum):  New England Patriots, 1996-2005 and Indianapolis Colts, 2006-present  

Priest Holmes (1997), running back:  Baltimore Ravens, 1997-2000 and Kansas City Chiefs, 2001-2007 (right)

Jeff Saturday** (1998), center:  Indianapolis Colts, 1999-2011 and Green Bay Packers, currently


Tony at Eastern Illinois
Despite a stellar college career at Eastern Illinois University (a Division I-AA school), Tony Romo went undrafted in the 2003 NFL draft.  Like Kurt Warner, his name wasn’t called over draft weekend; otherwise, their careers don’t have much else in common. 

Romo was signed as a UFA by the Dallas Cowboys soon after the draft and he settled into his role as a third, then second-string quarterback until the 2006 season.  That season began with veteran Drew Bledsoe as the starter for the Cowboys.  Bledsoe had signed on with the team the previous year and had led the team to an improved record and hope for the future.  Unfortunately for Drew, his performance dropped off significantly in 2006 and he would be replaced by Tony Romo halfway through the season.  Romo, and the Cowboys, never looked back and Bledsoe was released at the end of the season; he announced his retirement in April 2007.***

Romo was comfortable at the helm of the Cowboys’ offense, and it showed.  Winning six of the remaining ten games of the season, the Cowboys made it to the playoffs and Romo finished the regular season with 2,900 passing yards for 19 touchdowns and an impressive passer rating of 95.1.  Unfortunately, the Cowboys would lose in the first round of the playoffs when Romo fumbled the placement on a field goal attempt just before the final minute of the game.**** 

Unfortunately, the 2006 season became the start of a pattern in Romo’s career:  seasons starting with stellar performances by Romo, who appears to be leading a cohesive offensive team; then missteps by Romo late in the season that either have the Cowboys limping into the playoffs, or being left out of the postseason entirely.  As a starter, Romo has a dreadful record in the month of December:  2-5 in 2006 (with a loss in the first game of the playoffs), 2-2 in 2007 (another loss in the team’s first playoff game); 1-3 in 2008 (no playoffs); 3-2 in 2009 (losing in the second round of the playoffs); and 1-4 in 2011.*****

Romo’s late season collapses are a bit of a mystery, considering the impressive statistics he has managed to put together over his short career to date.  Tony owns several team records, including the number of games with three or more TD passes (24), games with 300 or more passing yards (32), and season passing yards (4,483 in 2009).  His career passer rating of 96.9 is second in the NFL (behind only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers who has a 104.1 rating).

Many theories have been advanced by the media and fans to explain Romo’s late-season collapses:  detractors offer lack of maturity, composure and/or leadership as explanations; supporters blame lack of cohesion between owner Jerry Jones and his head coach of the moment, the rest of the offense and poor offensive strategy; and everyone likes to gab about off-field distractions (like his much-discussed relationship with Jessica Simpson, which ended in 2009). 

Cowboys devotees certainly hope Romo can shake off the December doldrums in 2012, but until then, they’ll continue to be his biggest defenders, and sharpest critics.

Other Notable UFAs of the 2000’s:

Antonio Gates (2003), tight end:  San Diego Chargers, 2003-present 
[Gates was featured in our Stars and Legends post on tight ends.]

Kris Dielman (2003), left guard:  San Diego Chargers, 2003-2011
[Dielman is also another Naptime Huddle star and was noted as a retiree earlier this offseason]

Wes Welker (2004), wide receiver:  San Diego Chargers, 2004 (looks like the Chargers had good scouts in 2003 and 2004); Miami Dolphins, 2004-2006; and New England Patriots, 2007-present
[Click here for Welker’s profile in our wide receiver Stars post.]

I hope you've enjoyed our look at undrafted free agents who have made it big over the years.  When you hear about your favorite team signing a UFA, ask yourself--will he be the next Kurt Warner or Night Train Lane?

*Vinatieri has made appearances in other Naptime Huddle posts for his ice-cold performances under pressure.  Click here for his appearance in “Super Bowl Game Changers." 

**Since it was widely anticipated that Jeff Saturday would retire this offseason, especially with Peyton Manning moving to Denver, Jeff appeared in our first post on this year’s retirees.  Click here to read that post. 

***Of course, this wasn’t the first time Bledsoe would be supplanted by a rising star—the first time was at the end of his tenure in New England.  Tom Brady stepped in for an injured Bledsoe in the second game of the 2001 season and Drew would never start a game for the Patriots again.
****This spectacular error merited a spot in Naptime Huddle’s series “Super Bowl Game Changers”; click here for the post that includes Romo’s “Ruh roh.”
*****Romo’s 2010 season ended on October 25th when a hit by New York Giants linebacker Michael Boley broke his left clavicle.

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