David Carr knew before the NFL scouts did, before the Mel Kiper Jr. types, before the media know-it-alls. In leading unheralded Fresno State to an 11-2 season and breaking school passing records in bunches last fall, the choirboy quarterback knew he was committing a gridiron sin: Before throwing a pass, Carr wasn't always getting the ball up high enough to be in the football-cocked-at-his-ear, trading-card pose. As the season wore on—and the passing yards and touchdowns came easier than ever before—he started his throwing motion lower and lower, even slinging the ball sidearm on occasion. Sure, the unorthodox mechanics saved him on some plays, but then Carr started dropping down just to be different. He did it because he could. It was, he thought, no big deal.
So in the months preceding the mid-April NFL draft, Carr was stunned to hear the talk and read the stories about how his delivery might keep him from being the No. 1 pick. Every time a draftnik soiled Carr's reputation with remarks about unsound mechanics—a Division I-A-best 4,308 passing yards and 42 touchdowns be damned—Carr would shake his head out of confusion. Even after the expansion Houston Texans, who owned the first pick, assured him before the NFL scouting combine in early March that he (and not Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, as the pundits predicted) would be their guy, the perceived passing flaw remained a hot story.
Carr tried to ignore all the fuss, until the day in early April when he watched yet another talking head criticize his technique and his brother Darren turned to him and asked, in mock outrage, "Jeez, David, did you ever throw overhand?" Carr laughed, but inside the polite, devout, happily married father of a two-year-old son burned with an emotion he rarely feels: anger. "It didn't really hurt my confidence, but I was offended," he says. "No one had ever questioned my arm or my motion, and then people were suddenly saying, 'Everything's all wrong.' I know I'll always have my critics, but it started getting ridiculous."
What, then, do we make of all the clatter? What must be done to correct the supposedly horrible defect? When asked these questions at the start of camp this summer, the three men most responsible for making Carr the first player drafted—Texans general manager Charley Casserly, coach Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer—sighed heavily in exasperation. "Look, it's not like we're bringing David in here and teaching him how to throw a football all over again," Capers said. "With his arm strength and quick release, he reminds me of a young Brett Favre, who never releases the ball the same way twice. Yes, we'll tweak David's delivery a bit, but if it ain't really broke, why fix it?"
Carr readily admits that he became lazy with his mechanics, but it should be noted that Fresno State's passing attack included many variations of the quick throw to the flat—screen passes to receivers that in Casserly's words, "David, with his extraordinary arm strength, could've made underhanded." Also, during the season Bulldogs coaches installed the shotgun, a formation that Carr had not played in before, so a lot of times he improvised. "Honestly, I thought back to watching Dan Marino on TV, with that quick sidearm thing he did [out of the shotgun]," Carr says, miming Marino's quick three-quarters release. "I figured that's how you were supposed to do it. I didn't know any better."
Truth be told, Carr is in good hands. When Capers was coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995, his starting quarterback was rookie Kerry Collins, the fifth pick in the draft; in his 12 years as an NFL assistant, Palmer has worked with Warren Moon, a young Drew Bledsoe and Mark Brunell. In 1999, Palmer's first year as coach of the expansion Cleveland Browns, his starting quarterback was rookie Tim Couch, the No. 1 pick.
"The simple truth is, David's delivery was never a concern," Palmer says. "We thoroughly scouted David during the season, and I always thought his flaws were very minor things that could be easily corrected. David was so dominant last year, it was more of a relaxation of his mechanics. His problems weren't in his delivery, they were in his preparation. He was holding the ball lower later in the season, and he needed to improve his footwork. He was making big downfield throws flat-footed, just because he could."
Palmer was the first member of the Texans' brain trust to see Carr in action, when Carr led the Bulldogs to a 24-22 upset of Colorado in Fresno State's opener last season. By the time the game was over, Palmer had seen enough. "He made some throws in that game that only three or four guys in the NFL could make," Palmer recalls. "In that game his mechanics were prototypical. Based on that performance I thought David was deserving of the top pick, and he did nothing the rest of the way to change that opinion."
Palmer was further convinced after spending Fresno State's bye week observing team workouts and offensive meetings and talking to Carr's coaches. In practice he saw that the young quarterback threw in classic over-the-top fashion the vast majority of the time; he also found Carr coach-able and eager to learn. Watching videotape, Palmer graded each of Carr's 503 throws over the previous two seasons. It was clear that Carr had a quick release and was deadly accurate—two things that Palmer knew would only improve with greater emphasis on proper ball position in Carr's setup. Palmer was also delighted to see that Carr was as accurate throwing to one side of the field as the other: He completed 133 of 209 passes (63.6%) to his left and 198 of 294 throws to his right (67.3%). The tape further debunked the myth that Carr's delivery was too low—of those 503 passes, only 18 were deflected at the line.
Carr's one-hour postseason workout for the Texans in Fresno clinched his spot at the top of the draft. After Palmer placed five seven-foot ladders at the line of scrimmage, to emphasize the importance of a sound delivery, Carr threw better than he had all year. "I'd heard about the ladders," Carr says with a wry grin. "Still, I think I showed them what they wanted to see."