Brady Quinn spent the Kansas City Chiefs' bye weekend alone at his house in South Florida, cleaning up a giant mess. Leaking fluid, courtesy of a backed-up air-conditioning unit, had infiltrated his garage, which doubles as a weight room. Quinn, instead of working out fresh off his first NFL start in three seasons, was bailing out. He tried very hard not to view the situation as a metaphor.
When Quinn returned to Kansas City, he was still a backup quarterback – but not for long. On Monday morning, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel called the former first-round draft pick into his office and delivered some unexpected news: Quinn, who'd filled in for the injured Matt Cassel the previous Sunday, had officially displaced him as the team's starter.
"It was pretty surprising, to be honest with you,” Quinn said earlier this week. “We were competing over the bye week, but Matt got most of the reps. So I was surprised, but excited about it, for my career.”
Quinn, who turns 28 on Saturday, hopes to revive a career that stalled in Cleveland, where he arrived as the Browns' homegrown savior-in-waiting five years ago, and got swallowed up by Tebowmania in Denver last season.
Beginning Sunday against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium, Quinn will try to rally his 1-5 team in the same way Tim Tebow sparked the 1-4 Broncos to a stunning division title in 2011. Quinn, who Tebow leapfrogged on the depth chart before becoming the most polarizing and compelling figure of the NFL season, grew weary of the breathless hype and came to believe it played a role in relegating him to backup duty after Kyle Orton was benched.
After the season, Quinn turned down an offer to return to the Broncos – who were still in the process of courting Peyton Manning – and took less money to go to Kansas City, convinced it was time for a change.
Once typecast by critics as a pampered pretty boy, the former Notre Dame star has won over many in the NFL community through perseverance and positivity. One Broncos executive described him Thursday as a "class act," an opinion echoed by several coaches and teammates.
"When you don't have that early success, you kind of get lost in the NFL shuffle, especially as quarterback," Chiefs tackle Eric Winston says. "He's had a tough go of it, and he's bounced around and had to do a lot on his own. Yet he's always positive, always into it and has always kind of waited for his chance and tried to make the most of it. That's probably his best trait."
Last season was especially challenging for Quinn, who had come to Denver in a trade after the 2009 season. Because the Broncos ran such an unorthodox offense with Tebow at quarterback – and opposing defenses adjusted accordingly – Quinn was forced to prepare for possible duty largely on his own, extrapolating what plays he might run against schemes that weren't being highlighted in film study.
"It's hard," Quinn told nfl.com's Jeff Darlington last December. "If I'm going to get in the game, I have to prepare a completely different way. Without giving too much away, we have a different set of play calls that I'd be running."
Looking back, Quinn believes he may have become too unnerved by the situation.
"There were just a lot of things going on that were outside of my control," he said Tuesday. "Sometimes in life we get caught up in the outside stuff and don't focus on the things that matter. Sometimes you get frustrated. If there's one thing I learned, it's that each week I needed to prepare the best way I knew how to prepare myself. It's like being in college. You start to understand how you need to get ready for the test. You start to understand the way you learn."
Two days before the Broncos officially ended the Tebow experiment by acquiring Manning, Quinn decided to spurn the Broncos' contract offer while on his free-agent visit in Kansas City and sign with the Chiefs. Part of his decision came down to a comfort factor with Crennel, who'd been the coach in Cleveland during Quinn's first two seasons with the Browns. He also connected with Zorn, the former Redskins coach who is known as one of the NFL's outside-the-box thinkers.
"I sat with Coach Zorn for about three hours, and I really liked not only his coaching style, but his philosophy," Quinn said. "And I felt like, 'This guy's gonna make me a better quarterback, even if I don't step on the field at all this year.' "
Sitting in his hotel room overlooking The Plaza, a festive Kansas City shopping and entertainment district, Quinn made his choice — then sat alone and wistfully listened to St. Patrick’s Day revelers while waiting for the team to fax him a contract.
“Waiting for the formal written contract, you could hear everyone partying and all that,” Quinn recalled. “Being an Irish kid from Dublin, Ohio, I wish I could’ve partaken more."
"I thought, 'I can't worry about the decision I'm making right now.' You've got to be at peace with it, grow from it. It may take you down a different path than what you expected, but that's OK. I look at it like this: The rearview mirror is a certain size for a reason. The windshield is big – because you should be looking forward most of the time. The rearview mirror is just to remind us of maybe some of the decisions you made in the past so that it can help you make better ones for the future."
Quinn bonded immediately with Cassel, who helped familiarize him with the city and "kind of showed me where to live, right near him." Because Quinn's girlfriend, former Olympic gymnast Alicia Sacramone, is often out of town (she's currently touring the country as part of the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions), Cassel and his wife, Lauren, "invite me over for dinner a bunch, and sometimes I bring them food."
When Cassel went down with a concussion in the team's Oct. 7 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, Quinn simultaneously feared for his friend's well-being and scrambled to warm up on the sidelines for his first NFL action since 2009. With Cassel still recovering the following Sunday, Quinn got the start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completing 22 of 38 passes for 180 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions, in a 38-10 defeat.
He was told he'd be headed back to the bench when Cassel was cleared to return, but Crennel changed his mind during the bye week, meaning Quinn would prosper at his buddy's expense.
"That’s the worst part about this,” Quinn said. “Matt’s the best person. And it hasn’t just been him and his play — it’s the whole team. Everyone has a part.
"We've grown to have a friendship, so that makes it tough. And it's happened to me before. I can relate. I know what he's feeling. I can encourage him. I'm probably the last person he wants encouragement from, but I've been through this scenario before. You can be a professional, be a grownup about it, and realize that football is only a part of your life, and relationships and character matter more."
When Quinn talks like this, it's easy to see why teammates such as Winston refer to him as "a real cerebral guy." To be fair, Winston also goofs on Quinn for the quarterback's obsession with his physique, saying, "His nickname's 'Hercules.' He's always working out. He's got, what, 2 percent body fat? Believe me, I'm jealous. He's not narcissistic about it, but he's definitely cognizant of it. You see him in the weight room doing extra abs work and planks."
Quinn has made a conscious effort not to be weighted down by the challenges he has faced thus far in his career, staying upbeat in the face of frustration and waiting for his time to come.
"It's funny, looking at things now," Quinn said. "You look at the game of football, and you're going to be handed so many different types of circumstances. The only thing you can control is your attitude. If you say, 'Woe is me,' that's not productive. Or you can say, 'These are the cards I've been dealt,' and play them.
"When things happen, I try to keep it positive. You can be a man about it and confront the circumstances in the face and fight. It's like our team right now. We're 1-5. Look, Denver was [1-4] last year when we made that decision – and that's what it was, a decision – to turn things around."
This is one giant mess that Quinn relishes the opportunity to try to clean up, more gratefully than most people appreciate.
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