This story appears in the April 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Jimmy Clausen snatches the plastic water bottle off the table, pushes his black leather chair against the wall and crouches in his agent's conference room, as if under center.
Awaiting the imaginary snap, the former Notre Dame quarterback adjusts his white polo shirt, then checks the depth of the strong safety, in this case a plastic fern in the far corner.
Since having surgery in January to repair
ligaments in his right big toe, Clausen has been under strict doctor's orders not to do what he's done better than anyone his age since his days as a fifth grader: throw a football. But when the
conversation on this March day turns to the pursuit of the perfect throw, Clausen just can't help
showing off his life's obsession. First he plants his back foot. Next he separates his hands, tucks his front elbow into his rib cage and cocks his
throwing arm behind his ear, the water bottle
serving as his football. Then he pauses, to check his form in the reflection of the glass frame on the opposite side of the room. "The goal is to get as close to perfect as you can with your throwing
motion," he says, speaking mostly to himself.
Clausen arrived on Notre Dame's campus as the nation's highest-profile recruit and started for three years in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense. In the end, though, it's his performance today, in this conference room, that shows why the 22-year-old QB is one of the most coveted players in his draft class. Even in jeans and after a three-month layoff, Clausen performs the most complex motor skill in all of sports -- the forward pass -- and makes it look easy. "Jimmy is the most natural kid I have ever seen throwing the football," says quarterbacks guru Steve Clarkson, who has mentored, among others, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Leinart.
This is not to say that scouts are united in their love for Clausen. Some think his arm strength is just okay. His toe injury, while expected to heal in time for camp, hints at durability issues. His footwork could be better. Yet there's no doubt that his sublime mechanics give him an important edge over his peers. That's because in a league dominated by both the pass and
defensive speed, the difference between a completion and a pick -- between winning and losing, playoffs and layoffs -- often comes down to the
efficiency and precision of a QB's throwing motion. "You might be talking about just a 10th of a
second's difference in someone's motion," says Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, a former NFL QB coach. "But that's enough time for a cornerback to move another three or four feet and blow up a play.
In the NFL, that's everything."
No wonder Clausen is a quarterback obsessed.
Clausen started out as a snarling, spiky-haired, 4'11" youth-league linebacker -- and waterboy for his oldest brother's high school team in Mission Hills, Calif. Under Clarkson's tutelage, Casey Clausen was on his way to Tennessee. (Middle brother Rick, also a QB, would end up there as well.) But it was often the waterboy who stole the show. One day, an errant pass landed on the sideline near Jimmy's feet. He picked it up and fired it back on a rope, 55 yards across the field. Did we mention the kid was in the fifth grade?
"Who the heck is that?" asked Clarkson, sitting in the stands next to the Clausen family.
"That's my son Jimmy," said Jim Clausen, a
former assistant football coach at Cal State Northridge who now runs an insurance company. "He's a linebacker."
"Not anymore," Clarkson replied. "He's better than your other kids right now."
Clarkson was exaggerating, of course, but his exuberance was understandable. Most 10-year-olds can barely throw the ball 20 yards, let alone put any kind of spiral on it. That's because an NFL football is usually too big for their hands, so they palm it from
underneath and use a long, looping,
circular throwing motion -- bad habits that can be hard to break. (Yes, we're talking about you, Tim Tebow.) But growing up in a football family, Clausen was hardwired to throw the correct way from an early age. Even watching from the stands that fateful day 12 years ago, Clarkson could tell that the youngest Clausen brother gripped the ball like a pro: using his fingertips, with his middle finger and thumb forming a C just below the cone of the ball, his index finger running nearly parallel to the seams. And, as a Little League catcher, Clausen
had developed a compact and explosive throwing motion, one that translated almost perfectly to a downfield pass.
By the time Clausen started working with Clarkson for real, as a 13-year-old, his form was even better, but his work in
perfecting it had just begun. "As a quarterback
develops from high school to college and the pros, he has to keep cutting down the margin of error," Clarkson says. "To do that, you're constantly throwing out the parts you don't need until you have a simple, compact, efficient motion that gives you the maximum amount of power and control with the least amount of stress and energy."
As a teenager, Clausen ran through his full throwing motion hundreds of times a week, step-by-step, but in superslow motion, so that he could more readily identify flaws. Even for a gifted
athlete who started at Oaks Christian School in California as a sophomore and led his team to the state title as a senior, it was a tedious, tortuous process. That's because throwing the football isn't about doing one or two big things well. It's about linking together, with perfect alignment and timing, a hundred elements in a biomechanical chain that runs from the toes to the fingertips, little of which feels instinctual. Says Ravens QB coach Jim Zorn, a former NFL passer, "I always tell my
quarterbacks that to throw the ball well, you have to make your body do what it should do, not what it wants to do."
Of course, perfect mechanics aren't enough. Those mechanics also must be fully committed to muscle memory, so they can be instantly accessible, and flawlessly reproduced, under any circumstance. Which is why, after Clausen had a bone spur
removed from his elbow before his freshman season at Notre Dame, he spent countless hours on throwing reps and drills to make his mechanics second nature again. It was clear by last season that his work had paid off. Despite enormous
pressure (and pain from his toe injury), Clausen completed 68% of his passes with fundamentals that were so consistent he looked like a pitching
machine wearing a shiny gold helmet. Midway through the fourth quarter of an October win over Boston College, he delivered a 15-yard out across his body and to the left sideline. Amazingly, the ball traveled inside the
defensive end, over a linebacker and just in front of the corner, right into the hands of receiver Golden Tate, who turned up the left sideline for the game-winning, 36-yard TD. More amazing still, even throwing across his body, Clausen's hand, wrist,
elbow and shoulder came together to form a
perfect L. That allowed the rotational force created by his body to transfer, cleanly and precisely, through his hips, torso and shoulders and into the ball. "It's a lot like a golf swing," Clausen says. "You don't have to squeeze the ball, grit your teeth and throw as hard as you can to get what you want out of a pass. Just like a smooth swing gets the ball down the middle of the fairway, you want a smooth motion. And the reason you practice so much is so you're not thinking about it -- you're just hitting it."
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Nearly all of Clausen's body parts play a role in his delivery, but the most important one is his
elbow. As his shoulders rotate to the target, his arm acts as a lever, whipped forward by the force of his body's torque. As his arm swings, he keeps his elbow above the shoulder and bent as close to 90 degrees as possible, turning it into a powerful fulcrum. To perfect this stage of his motion, he constantly pauses midthrow during practice and pushes against the ball with his left hand. When his elbow is aligned, the resistance is strong, stable. But if it's off, even a few degrees too low or outside, he can feel the strain under his elbow or in the back of his shoulder.
While Clausen tries to keep the alignment of his elbow a constant (and some scouts ding him
for occasionally throwing slightly sidearm), he is always tinkering with the release point of his throws. Release points are like an opera singer's scale: Great QBs must have the entire range -- high, short, soft, long -- perfected and memorized in
order to produce accurate passes from every
possible body position. Anytime a quarterback learns a new throw, and he has to learn hundreds in the NFL, he must add a new release point to his repertoire. Good thing Clausen is a quick study.
In throwing a game-winning, two-yard TD against Purdue on Sept. 26, he released the ball in front
of his body, near the end of his motion. When
he burned USC a few weeks later, on an arcing,
45-yard TD pass that dropped between two defenders and into Tate's shirt pocket, Clausen released the ball around his eyes. His 88-yard bomb against Nevada in the season opener left his hand even sooner, just at his ear.
On all his throws, Clausen's pinky is the first to leave the ball. The rest of his fingers flow off the seam in order. And when the tip of his index
finger leaves the leather, he snaps his wrist, pronating his hand, palm out. His arm continues to straighten as it stretches across his body, the thumb finishing down and pointed toward his left pocket. The remarkably consistent result is a tight spiral, one that cuts through the air like a shark's fin through water. (For more on the physics of the spiral, see this story.)
Sure, some very successful NFL quarterbacks
manage to produce those spirals without being slaves to proper form. The Chargers' Philip Rivers has a wicked sidearm delivery and a career passer rating of 95.8. Kurt Warner threw for 32,344 yards using a low, three-quarters release. And on too many occasions to count, Brett Favre has thrown lasers through triple coverage and into the end zone using mechanics that would make Garo Yepremian blush. But when a scout's job is to
predict a passer's future success with millions of his boss' dollars riding on the outcome, he will always red-flag funky fundamentals. That's
because the more refined, efficient and practiced a young quarterback's mechanics are, the more likely he'll be able to complete a pass and earn his paycheck even when everything else breaks down around him -- which is about 98% of the time in the NFL. "If you're a guy with a throwing motion that requires you to be in a perfect position to complete a pass," says Zorn, "you're probably not gonna be a good NFL player."
This is why Tebow, for all the rejiggering of his loopy throw, ranks a grade or two below Clausen and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. It's not surprising that someone as gifted as Florida's Heisman winner should be able to master a new throwing motion in just a few months and demonstrate it for scouts at half speed. Question is, after throwing one way his entire life, how long will it take for Tebow to reproduce that nifty new form with a bug-eyed James Harrison blitzing him through a wide-open A-gap?
Scouts needn't worry about Clausen's form. Go back to that two-yard TD against Purdue. Initially holding the ball with both hands just below his back shoulder, he brought it straight back behind his ear and delivered a laser, through a thicket of defenders, to Kyle Rudolph in the end zone.
With the tiniest glitch or hesitation in Clausen's
mechanics, he would have found himself buried
under a pile of Boilermakers or watching from the turf as the ball was batted away by a defensive back. "The time it takes from when the brain says 'fire' to when the ball is out of your hands is the key to being a great QB," says Air Force's Calhoun.
No wonder Clausen is back to his feet inside his agent's office, running through another set of imaginary throws. He drills a pass up the middle to a tight end. He rolls to his right and hits a wideout falling out of bounds just behind the first-down marker. With every hip rotation, every 90 degrees elbow, every picture-perfect release point and palm
pronation, his potential as a pro nudges higher.
After an hour and dozens of throws, Clausen sends one last fly route to the deep corner of the room. Convinced it's a touchdown, he heads for the exit. Halfway to the door, he pauses and lowers the now misshapen water bottle to the middle of the table -- his only mistake of the day. Because after this performance, he really should have spiked it.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.