LB Shelton Quarles always seems to be headed uphill, career-wise
In August of 1994, Shelton Quarles was a rookie linebacker cut loose by the Miami Dolphins, unsure if he had a future in the game.
Today, Quarles is the starting strongside linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a quietly steady producer on the league's most feared defense.
Obviously, no path from that Point A to that Point B is going to be direct. Pick up this narrative at almost the exact midpoint, spring of 1997, and where do we find Quarles? Working at a printing press and showing up uninvited to NFL tryouts at Vanderbilt.
Yet, as far as Quarles may have seemed from his NFL dream that spring, he had actually taken several steps in the right direction, and he was about to take another. In retrospect, Quarles' route from that cut day in 1994 through the pivotal spring of '97 to this triumphant season was a rather straight line upward.
Rewind to his rookie season. Undrafted but confident, Quarles showed up in the Dolphins' camp and performed rather well…to his own standards, that is. His release seemed to him like an injustice at the time, but Quarles can see the truth now.
"When I first got down there, I was real optimistic about my chances of making the squad," said Quarles. "I thought I was playing as well as any of the linebackers that were there at the time, even the starters. But, at that point in my life, it wasn't right for me to be playing football in the NFL. I was real wild, just worried about me and not about the team.
"I think the Lord knew that it wasn't my time at that point, so he sent me in another direction. I got released, and it was the first time I ever got released or ever had anything like that happened to me. It took me in another way, and I get a hold of myself and get going again."
That puts as at the nadir of Quarles' NFL career. He was disillusioned by the experience and not interested in trying again, even to the point of declining to have his agent set up tryouts.
"Two weeks later, he said these guys in Canada wanted to fly me up there to see how I would do in a workout," said Quarles. "He was begging me, but I said no, I wasn't going to go. But then there was another guy that I had played with in high school and college and then we both went to Miami. He got released and (my agent) got him a tryout in Canada, and he said he'd get me a tryout and send one of my buddies with me.
"So we both went up there and had tryouts. They couldn't sign us for that year because it was too late in the season, but they said they would bring us back the next year for an opportunity to play with them. So we went back there, both of us, and I played two years up there."
So there he was a year after believing his desire to play football was gone, back on the field, a step up the ladder even if he wasn't yet back in the NFL. Quarles played well in Canada, but even more importantly, he made a change in life that re-established his purpose.
"I met some really good people, Christians, in Canada," said Quarles. "I started going to bible study with them and started getting close to the Lord. I think that's the reason why I was sent down here to play for Coach Dungy."
But not directly. Quarles finished his two-year stint in the CFL and then headed back to Tennessee. He didn't have an NFL job. He didn't even have a lead. He could get tryouts but no real interest, as teams looked past him to free agents just leaving college.
So he went back to college. Kind of.
While working at the aforementioned printing press, Quarles would take a day off any time there was an NFL workout scheduled for current Vandy players. Since he kept in shape by working out at the campus, he knew when those workouts were scheduled.
"I worked out for a number of teams," said Quarles. "Any time that they said that some team's coming in to work out guys at Vanderbilt, I would just show up. I worked out there anyway, so I kind of knew when teams were coming in. I just tried to get myself in the best possible shape so I would be ready for the workouts.
"I was pretty determined. I was going to put myself in the best possible situation to get that. The only way I could do that was through hard work. I'd go to work at the mornings, get up at about six and work until about three or four in the afternoon, then I'd go and work out until about six at night. It was just a routine. I got myself in a routine day after day."
It paid off. Among the teams that took a look at Quarles that spring was the Buccaneers, at the urging of Quarles' agent. The Bucs even agreed to fly Quarles down for a workout, seemingly a breakthrough for the NFL hopeful.
Quarles had to wonder, however, when he arrived in Tampa and found no hotel reservation in his name. At either Marriott. He was eventually put into the room of another visiting player who had cancelled, but he went to sleep discouraged by his impression of the Bucs' interest.
"I said, 'I guess someone will call me in the morning when it's time to work out,'" said Quarles. "I figured all I can do is just come and work hard, do my best at whatever they tell me to do."
The reservation issue was a communications mix-up, and the Bucs were interested, even more so when his performance in the 40-yard dash and the shuttle confirmed the numbers they had gathered. Quarles was signed, with little fanfare, and given a chance to win a job on special teams.
"It was tough early," said Quarles. "Some of the things they were asking me to do, I'd never done before. I didn't play special teams much in college, I just played defense. When (Special Teams Coach) Joe (Marciano) was asking me to do different things, it was kind of hard to understand at first."
But Quarles was on the team. Another year and another clear step forward. To make the most of it, Quarles had to learn to make the most of his special teams gig.
"When you first go out there, you think you're playing a full game," he said. "It is a full game on special teams, but it's different. When you go out there on special teams, you go 100 miles per hour on each play, whereas on offense and defense, sometimes you might not go 100 miles per hour. You still make your play, but you might not have to go full speed.
"On special teams, you always have to run full speed. When I first went out there, I didn't understand the tempo. When I started playing more on special teams, I started to understand what was required of me in order to make plays. Each game, I started to get a little bit better, a little bit better."
Did he ever. Quarles played in every game and led the team with 16 kick-coverage tackles. By the end of the season, he was already considered the team's best special teams player. The Bucs liked what they saw and, heading into 1998, had bigger plans for Quarles. If not for a groin injury in training camp, he might have won the strongside linebacker position that quickly.
"I thought it was a heck of an opportunity for me to do that in '98, but I was real unsure," he said. "I was wondering, how can I come in as a free agent, just playing special teams, and have an opportunity to start. But then I thought, if my coach thinks that I might be able to play, I have to go with his decision. He knows more about football than I do. If he thinks that I can play, maybe I can. So I just tried to go out and give it my all."
The injury knocked him off that course and the job went to Jeff Gooch. Quarles recovered in time to be his usually productive self on special teams, again playing in every game and again leading the team in tackles (20).
The following preseason, Quarles took yet another step forward. Sidelined only briefly by dehydration early in camp, he stayed in practice long enough to confirm the coaches' belief that he was the best option on the strongside. Quarles won the starting job and played well, recording 57 tackles and three passes defensed. He split time with Al Singleton and came out when the Bucs went into a nickel package.
There was no question in 2000 that Quarles would remain in the SLB slot, but there was yet another opportunity for his career to progress. With the departure of Hardy Nickerson, who had previously stayed on the field with Derrick Brooks on nickel downs, there was a void in that package.
"I was second team last year at 'Mike' in the nickel package, and I knew that the natural progression was for me to become first team," said Quarles. "I wasn't going to take it for granted that I was the first-team Mike just because Hardy wasn't there.
"If I'm going to be the first-team make then I'm going to have to step my play up and understand what that role requires of me. That's to be the leader of the defense in nickel situations. The Mike makes the close calls and he does a lot of things to keep the defense going. I had to be on top of all my checks. I knew that if I came in out of shape I wouldn't be able to make all those checks because, mentally, you start to lag a little bit when you start to get fatigued."
Quarles hasn't lagged. He didn't think he was fit for the NFL in 1994 and he wasn't sure he was a special teamer in '97. He didn't realize he could win a starting job in '98 or '99 until the coaches put the idea in his head. When Linebackers Coach Lovie Smith said he was the man to take over Nickerson's role this year, Quarles believed them, and seized the opportunity.
"Coach Lovie is probably the smartest coach I've ever been around," said Quarles. "He gives us an excellent opportunity to make plays. If he thinks you can do something, chances are you can do it. He knows what he's looking at when he see an athlete. He knows what you can do and knows what's required of you, and then he puts you in a situation where you can excel."
Some time between 1994 and 2000, Quarles learned how to take full advantage of such situations.