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Senior NFL Columnist

Meet Robert Quinn, who is terrifying QBs while living with a brain tumor

More on Robert Quinn: On the legend of Deacon Jones | Breaking down Clowney

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- St. Louis Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle has witnessed a lot of great defensive plays in his 17 seasons coaching in the NFL, but one stands out from the rest, one that he says is the best he has ever seen from any pass rusher.

The former Marine isn't one to throw sunshine around, and he is known to get on his young players. So when Waufle, a man who has coached his fair share of top pass rushers over the years, including Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck with the New York Giants, says this particular sack by Rams defensive end Robert Quinn last season is the best he has ever seen, you listen.

"That's one of the greatest plays ever," Waufle said. Here's a still of the strip, and we'll have the full play a little further down.

Robert Quinn got the strip on Drew Brees in a Week 15 win vs. the Saints.
Robert Quinn got the strip on Drew Brees in a Week 15 win vs. the Saints.

Waufle made that statement a short while after I spent an hour with the man who made that sack, Quinn, the Rams' young pass-rushing star. Quinn had 19 sacks last season to lead the NFC and earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl, yet he is hardly a household name, despite plays like that.

"Small market," Quinn said as he settled into a seat here at the team's practice facility in the defensive backs' meeting room.

That's the reason why I am here to watch tape with Quinn and talk about his special 2013 season. He deserves to be known, and plays like the one he made against the Saints are the reason why.

I picked out 10 or so plays from Quinn's 2013 season to watch with him on a big screen, and break down what he did on each play. The Rams kindly put together the cut-ups (plays) for him to dissect, sat us in front of a big screen and let Quinn do his thing with the clicker in hand.

The Waufle play

That play -- the one I will now officially call the "Waufle play," -- was one of the select plays that I had pulled out for Quinn to evaluate. When I first saw it, I was amazed. After I watched it over 10 times? Even more so. It's a testament to will and want and desire, but also freak athletic ability. Here's a look.

It came in the Rams' 27-16 upset of New Orleans. The Saints, as you know, are always a high-flying offense, but on this day the Rams were able to take them away from their strengths.

Concerned with the Rams' pass rush, and especially Quinn, the Saints used All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham more as a chipper in pass protection, preventing him from doing what he normally does, which is to create matchup problems down the field. They also didn't use tailback Darren Sproles as much because he isn't great in pass protection.

"We took them out of what they wanted to do because of our rush -- and Robert," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "That doesn't happen to the Saints much."

Said Quinn: "He [Graham] did stay in a lot to chip me. When you face an opponent, and they take one of their best players to slow down one of your players and it doesn't work out in their favor, it goes to show we had an excellent day. We were able to overcome what they were doing."

Quinn had two of the Rams' four sacks that day. Graham had two catches for 25 yards.

But he did have a knockdown of Quinn, which came on the play Waufle raved about. It came in the third quarter on a third-and-17 from the Rams 37. On the play, as you can see above, Quinn got knocked down by a chipping Graham, crawled on his knees to knock the ball loose from Brees, and recovered it.

"He definitely knocked me down," Quinn said as he we studied the play. "He knocked me a gap over."

Instead of staying down, like some might, Quinn fought on and made the sack, forced the fumble and recovered it.

"I was trying to score," he said.

Robert Quinn has thrived working with DL coach Mike Waufle.
Robert Quinn has thrived while working with DL coach Mike Waufle. (USATSI)

"Jimmy Graham standing there at the line of scrimmage knocks the snot out of him," Waufle said. "Knocks him on down his hands and knees. He crawls on his hands and knees. He gets off, reaches in, knocks the ball out of Drew Brees' hands and recovers his own fumble. That's relentless."

NFL grand slam

Another play that I wanted Quinn to break down was one that he did score on. It came against the Chicago Bears, and it featured what I like to call the pass-rusher grand slam: Sack, forced fumble, recovery and return for a touchdown.

"You kind of fill up every category on one play," Quinn said smiling.

On the Bears sack, he whipped left tackle Jermon Bushrod with his speed, knocked the ball free from Josh McCown, scooped it up and ran it in for a game-clinching touchdown.

Here's a look:

"Great get off," Quinn said as he rewatched the play.

That's the key to his success as a pass rusher: his ability to get off the ball. And on that play, Bushrod found out the hard way. He never had a chance. As we watched the play, Quinn let me in on a little secret.

"Don't tell anybody this, but my legs kind of gave out on me 10 yards down the field," he said. "I am glad I had a couple of guys throw blocks for me. [Bears running back Matt] Forte would have got me.'

Those are the types of plays that define great pass rushers. Sack, fumble, game over. With so many games decided in the fourth quarter now, and so much more passing, the premium on that skill is even higher.

There is a new push by many analytics guys to say sacks aren't as important as they are perceived, that pressures are much more important. So I asked Quinn about that.

"Sack, strip, forced fumble, that can change the game in a heartbeat," he said. "All the pressures and quarterback hits are fine and dandy to get the quarterback rattled. When you sack and strip, those are the things that really impact the game. Sacks are definitely lovely for a defensive lineman."

Pick one: 35 pressures and six sacks or 25 pressures and 15 sacks?

"Oh, I am taking the 15 sacks," Quinn said.

Sacks pay the bills.

Examining the run dimension

Edge rushers are often considered bad run defenders. The notion is they love sacks, love running around tackles, but hate the idea of tangling with them in the run game. So the theory goes. At 6-feet-4 and 260 pounds, Quinn isn't huge, but he isn't small either, and he's a fighter in the run game.

In the past, the belief was you could run at elite pass rushers. They hated the dirty work, despised the nastiness of playing run defense. But Quinn isn't one of those defensive ends. His tape shows a player who is not only willing to play in the run game, but a player who excels at it.

Quinn had 23 tackles for loss last season to lead the NFL, displaying ferocity when the runs were at him and speed when they were away from him. In a division with two run-heavy teams in Seattle and San Francisco, it has to be that way.

"I led the NFL," Quinn said. "I don't like to brag on myself, but numbers don't lie. I am trying to become a complete [end]. That way I can stay on the field on first down and if it goes to fourth-and-inches, they don't have to take me off because I am a liability out there. I am trying to become a complete player. It's more of a mindset of becoming an elite pass rusher and an elite run player. So I am trying hard at both. If you run to my side, plan on either a sack or a tackle for a loss."

We put up some of his impressive run plays from 2013 for Quinn to discuss. The first one was a trap play against Seattle that he blew up for a loss. As we watched the play, you could tell Quinn (No. 94) took pride in that one.

"I could see the tight end coming back and was able to get my hands up on him and shed him off," Quinn said. "And Marshawn [Lynch] was right there. I have some pretty long arms. So it was easy for me to reach out for the guy."

Quinn was also outstanding at chasing down run plays from the backside, but the play I wanted him to discuss was one against Seattle where he moved inside over the left guard (photo below).

Robert Quinn can also line up inside.
Robert Quinn can also line up inside. (USATSI)

He then blew up the play, as you can see in the GIF below.

In that defensive alignment, Quinn is at tackle and Chris Long, the Rams' other end, lined up outside of him on the right. Quinn abused left guard Paul McQuistan and knifed through to drop Lynch for a loss.

"It was a little changeup," Quinn said. "Me, personally, I want to be able to line up anywhere on the defensive line and be able to dominate. I was able to make a TFL."

"The goal we have in the room is to be the complete player, not just that guy tagged, 'just good on third down,'" Waufle said. "That's what I am most proud of. There are times he lined up in the B-gap, got double-teamed by the offensive guard and offensive tackle. That's not the easiest job in the word. But he wasn't scared and he did it."

So does Quinn want more of playing inside?

"Once or twice a game, it's OK," Quinn said. "I want to live on that edge. I don't want to make my money inside. You can have the double teams in there. Leave the tackle or the tight end to me. "

But don't dare call him one-dimensional. It's simply not true, and as he matures he will be even better against the run.

Quinn and the tumor

Quinn is a great player, period. But what he has accomplished so far in his three seasons is even more astounding when you consider he's doing so with a brain tumor in his head.

Yes, brain tumor.

That just sounds horrific and frightening, but you would never know it by talking to Quinn.

"I've been living with it for so long, I don't think twice about it until they tell me I need to go get a checkup," Quinn said. "It's part of me."

The tumor, the size of a dime, has been at the base of his brain at least since it was first discovered during his senior season in high school in North Charleston, SC, in 2007. Quinn said he first realized something might be wrong when he had constant headaches, but others later told him they also noticed he had trouble with balance and his mother said his eyes were a yellowish color.

Then one Sunday, he collapsed twice at the family home and was raced to the hospital. He was a 17-year-old kid who had no idea what was wrong.

"They ran some tests and some scans and they told me I had a brain tumor," Quinn said. "A few days later, they told me I wasn't playing sports again. Potentially, I could have been brain dead. Being 17, that's a lot to take on."

Quinn said the tumor, which was at the top of his spinal cavity, was preventing the fluid from flowing in and out of his brain like it should. It was building up and causing pressure on his brain, thus the headaches. Doctors operated, drilling two holes to drain the fluid, but leaving the dime-size tumor in his head.

"They did their best to take care of it," Quinn said. "At the same time, they didn't want to put me in a situation where my dreams and goals were shortened because of the tumor. That had to weigh a few options. The one they took worked out for the best."

Quinn was back wrestling the next spring and went to North Carolina on a full football scholarship and earned a starting job as a true freshman. He also started as a sophomore and finished with 10½ sacks. He appeared poised for a big junior season, but he was ruled ineligible for lying to investigators about taking jewelry -- two watches -- and travel from an agent.

Quinn has said he didn't know the man was an agent, but it didn't matter. His college career was over. He entered the 2011 draft with many questions, including the tumor and the ban from college sports.

"I was nervous about how teams would approach it," Quinn said.

Despite his medical red flags, Quinn was the 14th pick by the Rams in 2011.
Despite his medical red flags, Quinn was the 14th pick by the Rams in 2011. (USATSI)

He said then-Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo told him they heard his explanation and focused on his tape. That led to Quinn being the 14th player taken in 2011 at the age of 20. In the three years since, he has 34½ sacks, 29½ of those the past two seasons.

Quinn said he undergoes tests on the tumor twice a year. The Rams are part of the testing.

"We check on it every so many months," Snead said. "Since he's been in the organization, it hasn't gotten any worse. That's a great thing for him. Being able to overcome that, that's the grit you see from him on Sundays."

Quinn hopes it can also help send a message.

"That it may give kids a little inspiration," he said. "Even if things seem tough, there's a guy out there who was told at the age of 17 that he might be brain dead and never play sports again. And here I am seven years later living my childhood dream."

A regular 'country boy'

Quinn now makes his offseason home in the St. Louis area. Snead was impressed with that because he said it shows a commitment.

There's another reason.

"I'm a cheapskate," Quinn said.

Quinn said there is no reason to have a home somewhere else and live in St. Louis during the season. Plus, it splits things halfway between his hometown in South Carolina and his wife's in California. It also allows him to work out for free at the team facility, rather than paying for a gym somewhere else.

"I try to save as much as possible," he said. "The game only lasts so long."

Quinn said he still drives a 2009 truck that he proudly parks each season in a lot full of expensive cars.

"I am a country boy," he said. "I don't need much to be happy. I want to save as much as possible. This game doesn't last forever. It gets me from point A to point B perfectly fine. Rip me, but I can get to the same place you're going. It [yours] might be more fancy, but I don't have a car note."

Living in St. Louis gets him more work at the facility, which doesn't go unnoticed by the staff. That's a far cry from his reputation in his first season with the team.

"When I got here [2012], they said he didn't play hard, that he was lazy," Waufle said. "That was one of the first things we changed."

So was he lazy?

"Oh, yeah," Waufle said. "He's from South Carolina. When I was in the Marine Corps, I was stationed at Paris Island. I told him people in South Carolina do things a little different. Being from New York, it's a lot slower. I told him I understand that. Meet me halfway."

Quinn has more than done that. And now he's about to cash in big time, even if it's not going to mean a bigger house, designer suits and a garage full of luxury cars. His rookie contract is up after 2015, and he will be 25 at that time. If he continues on his current upward swing, he should become the highest-paid defensive player in the league.

"I might go for a 2015 F150," he said.

The Rams know what's coming. They are preparing for it. But who wouldn't want to pay a 25-year-old pass-rush star?

"The ceiling for him is Canton, especially in an age where you are throwing the ball more," Snead said. "The kid has matured. Being really good means something to him. It means something to him Monday through Saturday, not just Sunday. It means something to him February through April, and not just during the season. So Canton is the ceiling. He wants to be great."

Put on the Waufle play -- you will almost certainly agree.

More Quinn: Legend of Deacon Jones | Breaking down Clowney | Examining Quinn's film | Rams draft spotlight | Rams pick up Quinn's option

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