David Carr’s locker is sandwiched between Alex Smith’s and Nate Davis’ in the 49ers’ locker room, and it doesn’t get the heavy traffic. Smith is the projected face of the offense. Davis is an intriguing project, a player with a unique ability to polarize Niners fans. Those two have been receiving a lot of interview requests the past few weeks, while Carr quietly goes about his business.
It wasn’t always this way, of course.
During his first five seasons with the Houston Texans (2002-06), Carr played, and lived, under a high-powered microscope. As the first overall pick of the 2002 draft – and the first in the history of the Texans franchise – he was expected to lead the brand-new team to the big time. For five years he was celebrated, vilified, gossiped about, analyzed, quantified and generally picked clean.
Eight years after leaving Fresno State, Carr is in a much different place. Generally considered a bust as the top pick, he has been reborn as one of those capable, unexciting backups who go from team to team and act as insurance should the starter go down with an injury.
It’s not as glamorous as his former role, but Carr seems to have settled into a much more comfortable frame of mind.
“Now, it’s so much about just football,” Carr said after practice one day last week. “All that other stuff I worried about when I was younger, how the perception was, how I came across to certain people, even my teammates… If you master your football stuff and you go out there and you play like you’re supposed to, everything will take care of itself.”
Carr played for Carolina after leaving the Texans. He started four games for the Panthers in 2007, lost three of them and generally played poorly. Then it was on to New York, where he backed up the Giants’ Eli Manning for two years. He didn’t start a single game in 2008-09, and threw just 45 passes.
But Carr said he learned valuable lessons from veterans Vinny Testaverde and Jake Delhomme in Carolina, and from Manning, too. Most important, he learned how to be himself.
“Especially those early days in Houston, so many people wanted you to be so many different things,” Carr said. “When you think of how many first-round quarterbacks have come out – a million. And there’s so many different attitudes and teams they go on, and just different ways to go. You find yourself almost trying to be all those people. … Now you just go out on the field and you know what you’re doing. Athletically you can just let it rip.”
For Carr, part of letting it rip is accepting his unconventional throwing motion. Rather than the classic overhead delivery of NFL quarterbacks from Johnny Unitas to Matt Ryan, Carr tends to gather the ball tight into his shoulder and let it spring away. It looks a little like he’s shot-putting. Other than perhaps a greater chance of getting passes knocked down at the line, Carr’s motion doesn’t seem to affect his results. The ball gets out quickly, and he can make the deep throw. Still, it isn’t pretty.
“I first saw myself in junior high or high school on film, and I was like, ‘It looks different.’ I always thought I came over the top perfect,” Carr said. “No one ever told me I threw it funky. … I’ve tried to change it in the past with coaches. It looks good in drills, and honestly, I can make it look any way you want in practice. When it gets down to a game situation, it comes out like it comes out.”
The Texans tried hard to alter Carr’s delivery. He willingly went along, but it was like swimming upstream. He admits now that he was sometimes thinking more about his mechanics than about which receiver was hot on a given play. It couldn’t have helped his performance.
Carr didn’t really breathe easy until he got to New York. He still remembers the first time he stepped on the field for a 7-on-7 drill with the Giants.
“I’m always curious the first time they see me throw the ball live,” he said. “It looks a little bit different. So I’m sitting there, wondering what they’re gonna say. Not one word was said. They just went on about the looks, about where I was throwing the ball, and we went on. And at that moment I was like, ‘Ah. OK. This is how it’s supposed to be.’ “
In San Francisco, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye and quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson have tinkered with Carr’s footwork and weight transfer. No one has said a thing about his delivery, which again has come as a relief.
“I’m 30 yrs old,” Carr said. “It’s not gonna change.”
His receivers certainly don’t care. “I mean, you’re kind of told when you first become a receiver to like watch the ball leave the quarterback’s hand,” Josh Morgan said. “But in true game situations, you can’t see the quarterback. You just got to see it when it gets there anyway.”
Carr was first attracted to the 49ers because of the weapons they have on offense, and because Raye likes to take the occasional deep shot down the field. He also was keen to return to California. Carr still has family in Bakersfield, and his younger brother is a freshman at Fresno State.
The former No. 1 still believes he can be a star quarterback in the NFL if he gets the right opportunity. He just prefers not to dwell on the race to get there.
“God’s put me in this situation for a reason,” Carr said. “He’s given me the talent and the drive to do what I do, and honestly, I don’t lose sleep over it at all, over any situation I’ve been in in the last couple of years. And they’ve all been very similar. I’m gonna get my shot again, and when I do I’ll make sure I make everyone proud that’s been watching me and rooting for me all along.”