NFL teams like quarterbacks who can fit the football into tight windows.
In the first throw of his trick-shot video, Alex Tanney fired the ball out of a tight window — specifically, from a dormitory room on the third floor of Bowers Hall at tiny Monmouth (Ill.) College. Kneeling on his couch and showing impeccable timing, Tanney threaded a pass out the window and into the hands of a teammate sitting in the bed of a moving pickup truck.
Tanney, vying for a spot as a reserve quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, became a virtual overnight sensation with the five-minute video, which he posted on YouTube in February 2011.
The video shows him making a slew of eye-rubbing throws, among them a toss from atop the school's library, another over the football field's scoreboard and off the crossbar, and one that sails from the floor of the school's main gymnasium, through the doors of a mezzanine area and into a trash can sitting on the floor of an adjacent gymnasium.
"Everybody's like, 'Is it fake?'" said Tanney, during a break at Cowboys training camp. "No. I've never even thought of it as looking fake because we actually did it. So when I watch the video, there's nothing I see where you could say, 'Oh, they edited a football in there.' We didn't edit a football in there."
The video, which has been viewed 3.2 million times in the past 2 1/2 years, isn't the reason Tanney has a chance to crack the Cowboys' roster, or why the Kansas City Chiefs had him in camp last summer and on their roster for much of this off-season. (He was on injured reserve last season.)
Tanney made his mark as a player, setting NCAA Division III career records with 14,249 yards passing and 157 touchdowns. To NFL types, the trick-shot video is a curiosity, at best. Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said he hasn't even watched it.
"He's got a little moxie to him," Garrett said of the 6-foot-4 Tanney. "He's got some instincts. He can move, he can throw."
But Garrett also understands that college players who weren't in the national eye sometimes seek creative ways to grab the spotlight. After all, Garrett faced some of the same challenges as a quarterback at Princeton who likewise beat the odds and made it to the NFL.
"You're trying to do everything you can," the coach said. "There's scouts everywhere, and word of mouth, 'You've got to see this kid.' That exists. But a lot of times, these guys need to do this. There are a lot of football players out there, and how do you distinguish yourself? I don't begrudge him at all" for the video.
Tanney has had some highs and lows in Cowboys camp. In the Hall of Fame game against Miami, he completed five of 10 passes for 58 yards. Against Oakland, he completed one of six for eight yards. Both Nick Stephens and Kyle Orton got more work behind Tony Romo in the second exhibition game. The Cowboys play at Arizona on Saturday.
Tanney's post was inspired by a trick-shot video of Connecticut quarterback Johnny McEntee, whose submission has garnered 7.1 million views. Tanney's pals essentially said, "If he can do it, so can you." Tanney's video took a week to shoot with an inexpensive, hand-held camera.
"We weren't even going to put it online," Tanney said. "My friend was like, 'Why don't I edit this and we'll put it on YouTube?' We're sitting there that night and we're watching it climb from like 20 hits. We'd refresh and it would be 40 hits. And we were like, 'Oh, this is pretty good.' We wake up the next morning and it's at 400,000 hits. Within a week, it's in the millions."
The hardest shot didn't necessarily look the most difficult, Tanney said. He threw a bullet pass into a springy net, and the ball landed in a trash can on the ricochet.
"I stood there for I don't know how long," he said. "You've got this ball that's not round like a basketball but is oblong. You think you've got a feel for the way it's going to ricochet, but if you don't throw it with the same spiral, if that point isn't where it's supposed to be, it might bounce way over the other direction."
So Tanney reverse engineered the shot, marking where the misfires most often landed, then putting a trash can in that spot. Bingo.
For Monmouth teammate Vinnie Miles, who shot most of the video, one of the more impressive shots was the first footage he got. Tanney threw a long pass through a basketball hoop.
"We had about six guys there, one of them was a quarterback in high school, and we tried for about a half-hour to make one. Not one of us made a basket," Miles said. "Alex hit one on the first try."
Tanney comes from an athletic family. His father, Don, is a retired football coach and Hall of Fame basketball player at Monmouth. Alex is the youngest of three sons. The eldest, Matt, played basketball and football at Wabash College and is now associate athletic director at Western Illinois. Mitch, the middle brother, played quarterback at Monmouth before Alex and now is director of analytics for the Chicago Bears, meaning he crunches numbers to help the personnel department and coaching staff.
"That video is fun, but just the fact he's gotten this far speaks to the hard work he's done," Mitch said of Alex. "Coming from a small school, it's an uphill battle."
Yes, up the hill, around the corner, off the light post ...