Pat White’s long journey back to the NFL leads him to the Redskins

RICHMOND — Pat White stood in front of his locker after the Washington Redskins’ preseason victory at Tennessee last week. There was plenty for the team’s fourth-string quarterback to feel good about after running for a late touchdown and throwing a two-point conversion pass to give the Redskins a one-point triumph. He had added some legitimacy — albeit perhaps just a small, preseason-size dose of it, for now — to his bid to return to the NFL after a three-season absence.

The locker room was crowded, given the relatively cramped visitor’s quarters and the size of an NFL team’s preseason roster, and a few media members climbed over the equipment bags littering the floor to surround White. One of them asked, mistakenly but not maliciously, what it felt like to have performed such fourth-quarter preseason deeds as a rookie.

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“I’m not a rookie,” White corrected. “Second year.”

White’s rookie season with the Miami Dolphins in 2009 indeed was forgettable to some. He played in 13 games, ran the ball 21 times, didn’t complete any of his five passes and was released prior to the 2010 season. The Dolphins, who had used a second-round draft choice on the West Virginia standout, and many of their fans might like to forget White’s stay there. White, at times, might like to as well.

But White’s short, unsuccessful NFL history follows him, and it is what made his signing by the Redskins in early April such a curiosity: What was he doing back with an NFL team at age 27? Why were the Redskins bothering to take a look? It all continued to seem like little more than a novelty while White worked to knock the rust off his game during offseason practices and early in training camp.

The version of White who played last Thursday night in Nashville, however, put more intriguing possibilities on display. He made the Redskins’ read-option offense — the one designed for starter Robert Griffin III and unveiled last season — work. He ran for 33 yards on five carries. He connected on 5 of 8 passes. He won the game with a nine-yard touchdown dash and two-point conversion completion to rookie tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi.

It all came in a meaningless game against overmatched defenders who are unlikely to be in the NFL once the regular season arrives. He probably remains a long shot to be on the season-opening roster. Still, the performance sent many Redskins followers scurrying to social media sites and online message boards to call for White to unseat veteran 11th-year quarterback Rex Grossman as the team’s third stringer behind Griffin and Kirk Cousins.

They’re not the only ones pulling for White to have more success.

“The media all thought he was a mistake,” Dan Henning, White’s offensive coordinator with the Dolphins in 2009, said by telephone on Tuesday. “I don’t think he was a mistake. In comparison to some of the guys who are around today, he’s a delight. What he did in college is sort of unparalleled. I’ve never heard anyone who coached him or been around him say a bad word about him.”

Henning disputes the notion that White was a bust in Miami, saying that White played a role in the Dolphins leading the league in rushing touchdowns that season. White held college football’s career rushing record for a quarterback until it was broken by Michigan’s Denard Robinson. He was drafted by Miami to run the Dolphins’ “wildcat” offense, in which the ball was snapped to a (usually) non-quarterback who could run with the ball or throw it. But the NFL’s wildcat craze was short-lived, and White was out of the league after one season that was cut short by a concussion.

White takes the blame for what happened in Miami. He said last week in Tennessee: “I wasn’t focused. My mind was in a million different places.”

Henning said: “When he came back for the second year, I don’t know what his fiscal situation was. I don’t know what his personal situation was. Maybe, like he said, he was not as focused. But he wasn’t as interested as he was that first year. He got a little lackadaisical about football. . . . We let him go. I wasn’t necessarily in favor of that.”

White, a two-sport star who’d once been selected in the fourth round of the baseball draft, signed with the Kansas City Royals and played in the fall instructional league. He had a football stint with the United Football League’s Virginia Destroyers in 2011 but was cut. He took acting classes and tried to help a friend start a music career. He was invited to spring training this year by baseball’s Miami Marlins. But White also was drawing interest from the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos and decided to try to return to football.

“I had to follow my heart at the end of the day,” White said this week at the Redskins’ training camp facility in Richmond, “and it brought me back here.”

He’d gone to the Senior Bowl to speak to NFL scouts. He trained in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr.

“He told me he had some baseball opportunities,” Whitfield said by phone Tuesday. “But it was football, period, and whatever happened after that happened.”

Whitfield said his first reaction upon meeting White, who is listed at 6 feet and 190 pounds, was to marvel at how a quarterback of such slight build did so many big things in college. “This is the guy,” Whitfield recalled asking himself, “who threw for all those yards and did all those things at West Virginia?”

But Whitfield said he soon was struck by White’s humility. Whitfield had some initial reservations about mixing White with a class of younger, draft-eligible quarterbacks. But White, he said, became a teacher as well as a student. He stayed in San Diego for close to three months. He showed up to throw even on scheduled days off and, according to Whitfield, worked diligently on his fundamentals.

“All superheroes — and you look at what he did at West Virginia, and that’s what he was — need to acquire an engineering degree at some point,” Whitfield said.

White threw for NFL talent evaluators at the pro days of West Virginia and Virginia Tech. The San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants were among the teams to demonstrate interest, but White signed with the Redskins.

“I felt like they were the most willing to give me the opportunity,” White said. “It’s definitely a blessing that I have this opportunity. And I hope to make the most of it.”

Henning said he once called a former coaching associate who was in Denver to urge the Broncos to sign White to back up Tim Tebow. There is a place in the league for a quarterback like White, Henning argues.

“I don’t know that he is a starting quarterback,” Henning said. “But those guys who do what Pat White does and what Tim Tebow does, they’re very valuable. . . . That’s a very effective weapon to have.”

Now White is attempting to prove he belongs.

“It’s definitely good to get out there,” White said, “and, I guess, perform, help the team to get a victory. [But] I’ve got a long way to go. . . . I’ve still got a long hill to climb.”

 
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