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Better late than never

Rags-to-riches QBs try to make up for lost time

Posted: Tuesday February 13, 2007 4:45PM; Updated: Tuesday February 13, 2007 5:29PM
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Jeff Garcia says he wants to stay with the Eagles, but a couple of teams may offer to make him their starter.
Jeff Garcia says he wants to stay with the Eagles, but a couple of teams may offer to make him their starter.
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Of all the players entering unrestricted free agency this offseason, Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Jeff Garcia may face the most difficult decision. He'll turn 37 on Feb. 24 and he must choose between being a backup in Philly or possibly a starter on a bad team.

One of the reasons Garcia's choice is so intriguing is the journeyman quarterbacks' long path to NFL stardom with the 49ers back in 1999. Now he's the latest to join a small fraternity of quarterbacks who have wanted to extend their playing days after facing so much heartache earlier in their careers.

For those who don't know Garcia's back-story, he spent five years in the Canadian Football League when no NFL team wanted to give him a look. He signed with the 49ers in '99, and that was only after team president Bill Walsh, a longtime fan of Garcia's, pushed to bring him into the organization. In sum, Garcia has had only eight years to live his dream of playing in the NFL. That kind of brevity makes a man hungry for any opportunity he can still find at this juncture of his life.

There's no question Garcia still wants to be a difference-maker in the league and you really can't blame him. He might talk as if he has two or three good years still left in him but there's a very real chance that he might extend his career into his 40's, if for no other reason than he's still making up for lost time. By the way, this doesn't make Garcia any different than other quarterbacks who've had to walk similar paths through the league. For most of these players, the lure of playing a game that once dealt them so many crushing blows is a high they just can't get enough of.

I'm talking about quarterbacks like Warren Moon, a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who played until he was 44 after he spent six years of his pro career in Canada. Doug Flutie spent eight seasons as a CFL hero and he didn't pack in his own NFL career until he was 43. Vinny Testaverde never played a down in Canada and he still was hanging around last season. The Patriots signed the 43-year-old late in the year and I'll bet good money that he still remembers all those tough times he endured in Tampa Bay and Cleveland at the start of his career. In fact, Testaverde now has come out of retirement twice in the last two years when teams have called him.

All these players were starting for NFL teams when they had reached the age of 41. They also all faced the same thing Garcia is dealing with now. The older they got, the more they enjoyed staying around because it helped them balance out their playing days. It allowed them to fully capitalize on something they could have had much earlier in life. They all had enough talent to enjoy more thoroughly fulfilling careers but they couldn't find a way to make it happen early on. So when the opportunities to prove themselves came around later in life, it didn't just feel like a blessing. It felt like a birthright.

I can see that same mindset brewing in Garcia now. I think it's also there in a player like Kansas City's Trent Green, a 36-year-old who is still feeling like he has some good football left in him even though there are whispers around that organization that it's time for him to start seriously thinking about retirement. To someone like Green, that's a crazy idea simply because he loves every aspect of football, from the practices to the games. The fact that he didn't become a Pro Bowl player until he was 33 -- and that he only enjoyed one full season as a starter during the first eight years of his 13-year-career -- surely colors his thinking.

But while Green will likely retire as a Chief, Garcia will likely find another chance to see if he can still lead another team for an entire season. It has to be an opportunity he's weighing heavily just because of his last two experiences before coming to Philadelphia. After making three Pro Bowls with the 49ers, he learned how hard it was to succeed in a place like Cleveland, especially without the West Coast Offense he had mastered in San Francisco. In 2005, he discovered how difficult it was to win in Detroit, especially when Steve Mariucci, his former 49ers coach, didn't have Jerry Rice or Terrell Owens playing receiver. These are the types of issues that Garcia should be pondering as he thinks about the next, and possibly final, move of his NFL career.

The reality, however, is that he likely will be influenced by those same feelings that drove the men who came before him. He'll remember how it felt to be dismissed and overlooked earlier in his career. He'll recall all the memories that came with fighting his way into the league and eventually becoming one of its best players. He'll basically do what anybody in his position should be expected to do. He'll keep thinking about how good it feels to be valued in a league that once doubted him and he'll find a way to make that joy last as long as he possibly can.