COLUMBIA — Late October 2008: Missouri football has one of the country's most prolific offenses and is No. 16 in the Associated Press poll. Two of its quarterbacks, Chase Daniel and Chase Patton, are on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
Meanwhile, in the NFL, another unlikely quarterback is earning publicity. In place of injured star Tom Brady, former USC backup Matt Cassel has the New England Patriots at 4-2. With Cassel on a roll, scouts begin to focus on backup college quarterbacks.
One scout tells Seth Wickersham, a writer for ESPN, about Patton, a tall backup with a rocket arm who might get some looks from NFL teams.
The ESPN cover tagline with Patton and Daniel was audacious considering Patton never started a game for the Tigers. "Chase Daniel might win the Heisman," the cover said. "His backup could win the Super Bowl."
Six years later, the cover couldn't be more wrong. Daniel never won the Heisman — he was fourth in voting in 2007 — but he did win a Super Bowl in 2010 as a backup quarterback with the New Orleans Saints.
Patton is now a dentist — he shares an office with Kent Willett in Columbia. He never won the Super Bowl. He never played in the NFL. And despite a four-star prospect rating during an outstanding football career at Rock Bridge High School, he never started a college game at Missouri. In 2009, after failing to land on an NFL roster after workouts with the Chicago Bears, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, Patton ended his football career and went to dental school.
He's a family man now. He's married to his high school sweetheart, who works as a dental hygienist in Patton's office. A year ago, the couple had their first child. The family lives in Columbia, where Patton and his wife grew up.
The last time Patton, 28, played a football game in which the score mattered was part of an intramural league while he was in dental school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"It was pretty competitive," Patton — 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds in his playing days — said without irony. "One year we lost to the fourth-year dental school class. Another year we lost to a fraternity who literally had a coach that was in a shirt and tie, and they had wristbands and they would call plays. We were just out there winging it."
The man Patton shared the cover with nearly six years ago still plays football, but not against fourth-year dental students. He is now one of the NFL's highest paid reserves, set to earn $10 million over three years to back up Alex Smith for the Kansas City Chiefs.
The ESPN cover, quite clearly, missed the mark. But it still made a point, said Wickersham, a Missouri graduate who still works for ESPN.
"The story was, in retrospect, kind of ridiculous," Wickersham said. "That it was ridiculous was the point. If college isn't an accurate predictor of success in the NFL, then why not put him (Patton) on the cover?"
The article was less of a bold prediction than an exploration in thought: What if Patton got drafted? What if he became a starter? What if he won the Super Bowl?
None of that ever happened. But the fact that scouts even considered it a possibility is evidence that projecting careers for NFL quarterbacks can be fickle.
"It's an inexact science," Wickersham said. "It's humans evaluating humans."
The absence of a perfect quarterback formula was good for Patton, who only attempted 31 passes in college and still got a shot at the NFL. It wasn't good for Daniel, who was overlooked despite a stellar college career. Though he hasn't replicated his college success in the NFL yet, the 27-year-old's work on the Saints and the Chiefs has earned him respect.
Len Dawson, the Super Bowl IV MVP and a color commentator for the Chiefs Radio Network, said Daniel is a "big asset" for the Chiefs.
"Anybody on that offense can come to him and he can give them the answer to what they want to know," Dawson said. "You can't throw anything at him that he doesn't know about."
Dawson praised Daniel's knowledge of the game and respects his tenure with the Saints. For three years in New Orleans, Daniel backed up Drew Brees, who is also just 6 feet tall but a Super Bowl champion.
"He has seen success in New Orleans and in Kansas City," Dawson said. "It's not a learning process (for Chase). He knows what it takes. He's seen it. That type of experience is very valuable."
Wickersham said Daniel's time with the Saints was "the perfect thing for him."
"He got to learn from a guy that was not only a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but one in a way Chase could relate to," Wickersham said. "He learned how to play football as a 6-foot quarterback."
Daniel said the Super Bowl in 2009 was his professional career highlight, without question.
"I joke about it sometimes that Dan Marino doesn't have a Super Bowl, but lowly old third-string quarterback, first-year rookie Chase Daniel got one," Daniel said.
When he found out he had made the cover of ESPN The Magazine, Daniel was thrilled. He enjoyed the accompanying article, too.
"I thought that he (Wickersham) had a point," Daniel said. "He was trying to make the comparison of the Matt Cassel to Tom Brady and Chase Daniel to Chase Patton. I got it."
Daniel isn't Brady, but if history is any indication, you can't sleep on a backup. Before his three Super Bowl rings, Brady was one in New England. Concerns about Daniel's size and ability to run a pro-style offense led to him going undrafted in 2009, but in five years, much has changed.
"My arm has gotten a lot stronger than it was three or four years ago — stronger than it was in college, I'd say," Daniel said. When asked to describe what makes him unique, Daniel speaks of intangibles: his leadership ability, his drive, his desire to get better. He understands he has a job as a backup in Kansas City, but his goal is clear: to someday be a starting quarterback in the NFL.
Patton didn't turn out to be Cassel, who is 32-36 in his career as a starter but a starter nonetheless. Few, if any, have been able to follow Cassel's path to the NFL.
"At the end of the day, situations like Cassel's are rare," Wickersham said. "To make up that gap is incredibly difficult, almost impossible. It turns out Cassel was more of an outlier than the norm."
Instead, Patton is now Dr. Patton.
It's not the future the ESPN cover envisioned for Daniel or Patton. But with a Super Bowl ring to Daniel's name and a DDS to Patton's, maybe sometimes it's better being wrong than right.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.