September 08, 2010
There's a quarterback on the Arizona Cardinals' current roster who went undrafted, spent some time working in Iowa before he got his shot at the NFL, has a strong sense of faith, and wasn't thought by too many to have a chance at pro football success.
The future Hall of Famer did indeed hang them up after the 2009 season, but the Cards went out and got a new signal caller who bears an interesting resemblance to Warner in several ways. Rookie Max Hall(notes) didn't play for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena League or work at the Hy-Vee supermarket in Cedar Rapids for $5.50 an hour, but he did spend time on a Mormon mission in the state from 2004 through 2006. And like Warner, who once bombed out of the Green Bay Packers' organization before finding his way half a decade later, Hall -- an undrafted player from BYU who has moved up to second on the post-Warner depth chart -- has had to defy the odds from day one. Now, with the release of Matt Leinart(notes) and starter Derek Anderson's(notes) inconsistency still a factor, Hall is a few odd swerves of fate away from taking the reins of a team that went to the Super Bowl just two seasons ago. Kind of like the injury to Trent Green(notes) that catapulted Warner to the NFL limelight with the St. Louis Rams in 1999.
"I have had people throw out similarities between me and Kurt, and I take that as a huge compliment because of the things he did while he was here and through his career, and the kind of guy he is," Hall told me. "He's a man of faith, a good person in the community, and a guy who played extremely well on the football field. If I can do all that -- to be good in those three areas -- I'd be sitting right where I want to be. I try and look at the things he did here, and model myself after him a little bit."
It's been a Cinderella story for Hall so far, and one of the nicest parts is that he was born and raised in Mesa, about a 40-minute drive from the stadium his team will be filling. "It really is kind of a special deal, being home," he said. "My family's here, my wife's here, all the friends here to support you -- it really is kind of cool to be part of this team and contributing. With the position I'm in now, it took a lot of hard work and a lot of things going my way, but it worked out, and it's exciting for all of us."
Of course, being on one's home turf can lead to logistics issues -- when it was time to get all the friends and family members in to watch him play in the preseason, he had to go scrounging for tickets. "We probably had 25 family members there, with the aunts and uncles and everybody. It was a lot of fun, and not everybody gets to be in my position while moving up the depth chart and being a second-string quarterback in the NFL."
Hall's road to the second string was interesting in that he started out fourth on the depth chart when the Cardinals signed him on April 27. There was Leinart and Anderson, and fifth-round pick John Skelton(notes) from Fordham who had been on the sleeper lists of several draft experts. The first inkling NFL fans may have received about Hall's future may have been in the team's only preseason loss, a 24-10 groaner at Tennessee. Leinart went three-and-out on his three drives, Anderson missed two easy touchdown throws in the red zone, and Hall threw for the only score of the day. Hall completed just 7 of 15 passes, but was able to get the ball downfield. By the end of the preseason against the Washington Redskins, Hall was impressing more and more, completing 7 of 9 throws for 126 yards. For Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the choice was obvious, even with some reservations.
"I think that Max has been pretty impressive all the way through the OTAs and into camp -- there have been a number of different tests that he had to pass," Whisenhunt said last week. "He hasn't passed every one with flying colors. He is not the second coming at that position, but he has done a lot of good things. He has performed well in a game. He has performed well in practice. He has come back after he has made a bad throw and responded to that. There have been a number of things that you try to judge the quarterback position other than his completion percentage or things like that, and I have seen Max handle those things very well. That is definitely part of the progression of why you feel comfortable with him."
Quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer had even more faith in Hall -- he was the one who told Whisenhunt that the Cards should bring Hall on board in the first place. "I met with him before the draft, and he's the guy who gave me my shot," Hall said. "So, he's been rooting for me the whole time, and we get along very well. And Coach Whisenhunt is a great head coach, and I think all the players love him. Traditionally, he's always had good relationships with his players, and it's the same for me. It's not like we sit down and talk every day -- he's a man of few words at times -- but I like his philosophies. He's my kind of coach."
Hall had two advantages to draw from when he did get to the NFL level -- his uncle is former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White, and the West Coast Offense he ran at BYU gave him an impressive ability to read more complex defenses quickly. While he's been talking to and getting help from White since his high school days, Hall said that the real football education came in college. Unlike many spread-happy quarterbacks, Hall played exclusively under center in high school and only started running shotgun snaps after a semester at Arizona State, his two-year mission, and his eventual transfer to BYU.
"It's an offense that really puts a lot in the hands of the quarterback," he said. "They gave me a lot of freedom to do audibles and make checks at the line. It was my show to run, but at the same time, they coached me hard and helped me out. It's a great quarterback tradition, and they taught me a lot and really prepared me for the next level. You're probably making 30 ‘drop back, read and throw' plays per game. You have to be able to read coverages, to know where your hot routes and sights are, and it's the same in the NFL. So, it's not like some teams, where you're looking to the sidelines to get a new play in the spread offenses you see. If you see something, audible to it, and we're letting you play the game."
Of all the great quarterbacks to go through Provo since the days of Steve Young and Jim McMahon, Hall has talked to most of them, but has remained closest to Ty Detmer, who played in the NFL from 1993 to 2003 and started a total of 25 games for four different teams. At 6-foot-0 and 189 pounds, Detmer proved to the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Hall that being undersized isn't a curse. And if Detmer's career didn't prove that to Hall, the story of current Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees(notes) certainly did.
"I remember thinking after the Saints won the Super Bowl that it might be the best thing to ever happen to me," Hall said. "He's the perfect example of that -- if you can play, you can play. It doesn't matter what size you are. He's my favorite quarterback in the NFL, that's for sure -- he's a guy I look up to. I try to model my game after him because of the success he's had, and it's been a good thing for me."
For Whisenhunt, Hall's resilience and personality factored in more than the measurables. "He is definitely not afraid to make a mistake or call a play or get in somebody's face. There is a little bit of that. He obviously doesn't like Utah very much either, based on what I have heard. He is not shy about expressing his emotions and some of the best competitors I have ever been around are like that. If you can back it up with consistency of play and how you handle yourself around your teammates, that's a good thing. So that definitely is a mark in his favor."
And when I asked Hall to name the play that best personified his wild ride so far, he went atypical on me and selected the touchdown run he had against the Redskins.
"The call was that we had a couple of crossers, and a back going up the seam," he said. "It was scat protection [free release by the blockers], so I knew I had to either get the ball out quick or I was going to have some pressure. And that's what happened -- I had some pressure on my left side, and I escaped out to the right. I was trying to find someone [a receiver downfield], but then I realized that I had a lane to run. I tried to hold the linebackers off as long as I could, I took off toward that pylon, and I was able to stretch out and score. It was just a good ending to everything that's happened so far.
"I was able to make a play, and that's what taking advantage of those opportunities in preseason has been all about."
The Cardinals face off with the Rams in St. Louis on Sunday afternoon. In his first regular-season NFL game, Hall will be on the sidelines -- at least for the beginning -- looking over at first overall pick Sam Bradford(notes). Hall will make $320,000 in base salary this season compared to Bradford's $50 million in guaranteed money over the life of his six-year, $78 million contract. Bradford's the golden boy in this equation, but if things proceed as planned, Hall just might be in this movie, too.
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