By: Will Burchfield
Due to the plainness of the word “pass,” football fans have come up with a slew of colorful alternatives.
A dart. A bullet.
But how about a bird?
To Jim Caldwell, that’s what it sounded like when perhaps the hardest-throwing quarterback ever unleashed a pass. More than 30 years later, he still remembers it.
It was sometime in the early ‘80s and Caldwell, then an assistant coach at the University of Colorado, was visiting the Denver Broncos’ training camp. He had been invited by the team’s offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, who thought Caldwell might benefit from the exposure.
Caldwell sat in on quarterback meetings. He roamed the practice field. One day, when he had his back turned to the action, something purred through the air behind him.
“I thought it was a bird initially. It was just ‘choo-choo-choo-choo-choo,’” he recalled, mimicking the helicopter-like sound. “I turned around and it was (John) Elway throwing the ball. You could hear the ball cutting through the wind.”
During Elway’s playing days, he was considered one of the NFL’s premier riflemen. In the game’s current crop of quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford is often mentioned in the same vein. But Caldwell thinks this might sell his talent short.
“Matthew’s one of those guys that can throw it. He can really make all the throws. He’s not just a power thrower, he can throw touch passes, which you’ve seen. I mean it’s not a real surprise what he can do, I don’t think he’s surprising anybody in that regard,” said Caldwell.
Lions wide receivers have long talked about the heat on Stafford’s passes. In fact, they’ve been victims of his arm strength as much as beneficiaries. After retiring, Calvin Johnson had surgery to repair his damaged fingers. On Thursday, Golden Tate said he has abandoned his dreams of being a hand model.
There’s a price to pay for catching birds, and Stafford’s fly as fast as any.
As for how they sound?
“Not quite like Elway’s,” Caldwell maintained. “Elway’s was pretty unique.”
But Caldwell didn’t want to get hung up on arm strength, explaining it’s not a quarterback’s most essential ability.
“The important tool is how accurate are you. The important tool is do you have touch?” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that are not in professional football that probably have a stronger arm than the guys that we see from Sunday to Sunday. That’s not the important ingredient, some of them can only make that throw.
“These guys have to be able to have a lot of touch, they have to be able to think along with it. They have to have quick feet, their delivery, I mean there’s a lot of things to being a pro quarterback. It’s not an easy job and it’s not one dimensional by any respect.”
Still, when all else fails, the Lions are fortunate to have a QB who can step back and let it rip.