Sports Outside the Beltway

Drew Henson Highest Profile NFL Europe Player

Len Pasquarelli profiles Cowboys quarterback-of-the-future project Drew Henson, who has headed to NFL Europe to try to salvage his football career.

For a guy who played in the Big 10, and who started big games at the University of Michigan in front of crowds of 107,500 fans at the legendary Big House, this small-time venue might seem like a most incongruous place for Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Drew Henson to try to take the next big step in his stalled NFL career.

The well-manicured field at Skyway Park here, after all, is used more often by Pop Warner League teams than professional franchises. The roar of jumbo jets taking off from nearby Tampa International Airport provides a frequently ear-splitting distraction. Big rigs and minivans honk as they speed by on Memorial Highway, which is located just a good punt from one sideline. And the crowd for the Saturday morning scrimmage between the Rhein Fire and Amsterdam Admirals of the NFL Europe League, a group comprised mostly of family members and friends with a few curiosity seekers sprinkled in, numbered exactly 103, as hand-counted by a visiting scribe seeking any sort of preoccupation during warm-ups.

Yet don’t try telling Henson, who departs for Europe in two weeks and is the projected starter for the Fire, that this represents the classic one-step-backwards-to-take-two-steps-forward career approach. “No, I just see it as a step, the next thing I have to do as part of the process of becoming an NFL quarterback,” said Henson, following the 90-minute scrimmage, a session in which his participation likely accounted for the presence of most of the non-relatives spread out in the aluminum bleachers. “I don’t see this as a comedown. Not at all. It’s football. It’s getting a chance to play and getting snaps. It’s something I feel like I have to do and that I definitely want to do.”

Indeed, the two-year veteran, who first abandoned his college football career to sign a deal with the New York Yankees, and then forfeited the final $12 million of his six-year, $17 million baseball contract to return to the gridiron in 2004, is here voluntarily. About halfway through the 2005 season, a campaign in which he was No. 3 on the depth chart and didn’t take a single snap, Henson walked into the office of Jerry Jones and apprised the Cowboys owner he was willing to go to Europe if it would accelerate a learning curve that is in arrears principally because of his idleness. The move immediately made Henson, who denied there were suggestions from Dallas officials the previous spring that he play in Europe, easily the highest-profile player among the 366 hopefuls still on NFLEL training camp rosters on Saturday morning.

From just a physical stature standpoint, Henson, who clearly looks the part of a quarterback, seems the most NFL-ready of anyone else in the six NFLEL camps. In terms of recognition factor, and scrutiny as well, no one else is even close.

But in terms of recognizing how far Henson has advanced, even though Rhein offensive coordinator Steve Logan used the term “stunning” to describe his latest protégé’s progress over the last two weeks, Saturday morning actually offered only a little insight.

The Fire still have four quarterbacks on the roster, and during the scrimmage, Logan and coach Jim Tomsula used the live workout to get a look at all of them.

As a result, Henson got only about a dozen snaps, and completed 3 of 5 passes for 33 yards. His best throw of the day, a deep out pattern to the right sideline on a third-and-long play, was dropped. His next best attempt, a slant to the left hash on which he drilled the ball into an incredibly tiny window, was batted away on a terrific defensive play by Amsterdam cornerback Art Thomas. Henson was sacked twice, on consecutive plays. Henson looked mechanical and a bit too programmed on some plays, the telling signs of a quarterback who hasn’t been on the field very much.

Which is exactly where Henson, who has one start and 18 attempts on an NFL resumé shy of regular-season entries, is at this point of his football career.

Still, at the end of the scrimmage — and this is significant to both the gregarious Tomsula and the pragmatic Logan, the men charged with nudging his apprenticeship forward — Henson was a happy camper.

There were times during the warm-up period and the seven-on-seven passing drills Saturday in which the ball seemed to come off the hand of No. 2 quarterback Timmy Chang, the former University of Hawaii star and the most prolific passer in NCAA history, a lot cleaner than it did for Henson. But if Henson’s release is undeniably tardy at times, his smile is a quick one, and the Saturday morning effort, as uneven as it was on occasion, elicited a wide grin.

Which, an obviously passionate Tomsula insisted, is a meaningful part of the building process, too.

“A lot of guys, from the maturity standpoint, you can’t ever get them out of the backyard, you know?” Tomsula said. “With Drew, I want to get him into the backyard again. I mean, he had Michigan, then the Yankees. He had all the attention and the fame and the money. I’m not sure he ever had time to squeeze in being a kid. I don’t know the last time this was fun for him. We want him to have fun with this and just go out and play. And we’re starting to see some of that. The other day, he came out of a Porta-John, and I said to him, ‘Hey, Drew, honestly, when’s the last time you used a Porta-John, man?’ I mean, just think about it, Drew Henson and a Porta-John, huh? We both got a good laugh out of it. It’s good to see him laugh.”

Some skeptics, who have suggested Henson’s athletic career has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse in a relatively short period, might get a pretty good chuckle, too, out of the Porta-John image. Henson isn’t among those, though, who see the last few years as a series of wasted opportunities. If some shine has been rubbed off the onetime Wolverines golden boy, it’s not as if he’s been tarnished, but rather truant from real game action.

And certainly Henson — who suffered through three subpar seasons in the Yankees’ farm system, had problems hitting the curveball, struck out far too often, and fell shy of fulfilling his supposed destiny of becoming New York’s next great third baseman and a fixture at Yankee Stadium — doesn’t feel he is going to fail at his latest athletic endeavor.

Chosen by the Houston Texans in the sixth round of the 2003 draft, after he essentially bought his way out of his baseball contract, Henson was dealt to the Cowboys in 2004 for a third-round pick in the ’05 lottery. He signed an eight-year contract that guaranteed him $3.5 million and can be voided after only four seasons if Henson reaches certain predetermined performance or playing-time levels.

But Henson, who turned 26 earlier this month, has played in just two games at quarterback in two seasons. In his only start, the Thanksgiving Day 2004 game against the Chicago Bears, he was replaced at halftime by coach Bill Parcells. There are indications that some in the Dallas organization wanted to release Henson at the final wholesale roster cutdown before the start of the ’05 season.

Fortunately for him, Henson has some advocates in the Cowboys’ front office and on the coaching staff. Unfortunately, their support didn’t translate into playing time, and Henson spent the entire season behind not only starter Drew Bledsoe, but also third-year veteran Tony Romo, a onetime undrafted free agent.

What he will not spend, it seems, is much time reviewing what has transpired in his athletic career. Asked if he ever thinks about the $12 million he left behind when he quit baseball, Henson allowed: “Oh, yeah, every once in a while that figure pops into my head.” Beyond the eight-figure ramifications, however, it seems there is nothing Henson regrets about the circuitous path his career has followed.

He remains confident now that things are headed in the right direction. And that the direction of his head is right, too.

“I just think I’m better suited to be a quarterback than I was a third baseman,” Henson said. “I mean, I played baseball starting at age 5, and played in every summer for nearly 20 years. And while I loved the game, it tends to be a little too passive for me and my personality, really. I just think, with the way that I’m wired, this is what I’m meant to do.”

There are those, including one former Yankees scout spoke to, that feel Henson might be too over-wired for his own good. The scout postulated that, given his own expectations and the expectation level set by others, too, that Henson was wound too tightly to succeed in baseball. Indeed, part of Logan’s job, agreed the Fire offensive coordinator, is to create an environment in which Henson doesn’t stress so much over every mistake.

“To tell the truth, I want him to be a little more playful, to be more inventive. He still takes mistakes too hard, but he’s getting better in that area. He wants to be good, so you root for him, you know? Drew really has a great intellect. He is a very bright individual on many levels,” said Logan, who is regarded as a top-flight quarterback tutor and coached the NFLEL’s top passers in each of the last two years (Rohan Davey in 2004 and Dave Ragone in 2005).

Apparently, though, geography is not one of those levels.

In the self-deprecating manner his coaches and teammates have come to enjoy, Henson on Saturday related his experience of trying to locate the city of Rhein, Germany, when he found out that he had been allocated to the Fire. After several fruitless Google searches, he phoned Ragone, who broke the news to him: There is no such city. The team is named for the river and for a region. The club plays in Dusseldorf, a city that possesses a strong passion for the game, as evidenced by the fact there were two Fire fans among the small crowd in the bleacher’s for the scrimmage.

Henson has been to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, but never to Europe, and emphasized how much he is looking forward to the three months abroad. He noted that the NFLEL season concludes just about the same time the Cowboys get into the most serious segment of their offseason program, and that he will not miss any meaningful time. Whether he returns a quarterback ready to challenge for the No. 2 spot on the Dallas depth chart, and subsequently for a starting spot at some point soon in his career, remains to be seen.

There is no denying that Henson possesses prototype size (6-foot-4, 233 pounds) and an arm that is plenty strong enough by anyone’s standards. But he is typical of a player who has been idle for a long stretch, and whose physical skills have been retooled too many times by people trying to tinker too much with it. The result of those double whammies: Henson looks at times as if he is playing the game too robotically, that he is attempting to relearn it by rote, which is essentially a football equivalent of painting by numbers.

During the scrimmage, there was some hesitancy, an occasional absence of natural rhythm. And there were times when one could almost envision the wheels turning in Henson’s head before he stepped up to throw. There is even some suspicion that Chang, who played in a June Jones-designed run-and-shoot offense at Hawaii, and who has experienced far more exposure to a sophisticated passing game than Henson, could steal away with the starting job.

Given the commitment of the Cowboys in dispatching Henson to Europe, and the fact he is expected to sacrifice his spring for much-needed playing time, that probably won’t happen. Logan allowed that while there is “a competition” for the starting spot, the job “is [Henson's] to lose.”

“One of the things I admire about Drew,” Logan said, “is that he sees this experience as a journey.”

And one, Henson insisted, that will have a beneficial end point.

The instantly likable and ever-candid Henson said this not some last-gasp effort to salvage his career or a desperation move undertaken as some last resort. It’s a chance for Henson to earn that most elusive commodity, playing time in live situations, and he has embraced the opportunity.

“The way I see it,” Henson said, “is that this is a beginning.”

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