NFL Europe is a training ground for young football talent. So when a former NFL starter shows up to lead a team, the rest of the league takes notice.
That's what it has been like for Rhein Fire quarterback Chad Hutchinson. After starting nine games as a rookie in 2002 for the Dallas Cowboys, he knows what it's like to face a formidable pass rush on every play. And that's a big reason why he is the reigning NFL Europe Offensive Player of the Week. Despite the bullseye on his uniform, Hutchinson has put up decent numbers because competing at the professional level has become second nature.
Even his teammates are in awe.
"It's pretty cool going up against an experienced quarterback in practice. He knows all the reads and he's stingy with those interceptions," Rhein linebacker Charles Burton said.
It has been rough going the last few weeks for the team. After starting off the season 2-0, three straight losses tainted the Fire's schedule, including one in Week 5 to a winless Scotland squad. But Rhein righted the ship last week against Amsterdam and Hutchinson was 20 of 27 for 263 yards and two touchdowns in the 20-13 win. Hopefully that momentum can carry over against league-leading Berlin this weekend.
"It sure has been a roller-coaster ride," Hutchinson said. "We've played tough the whole time but we haven't gotten the balance that we wanted. We're a balanced team. We try to run the ball when we can but have ended up throwing it a lot lately. This last week was good because we got that balance and our backs did well."
Not only did the balance return, but the Fire got the complete game they were looking for. During its three-game losing streak, Rhein scored a total of 32 points and was outscored by 23. A 28-10 loss in Week 3 to Frankfurt was followed by a four-point loss to the Thunder and then the one-point defeat by the Claymores. Now that the Fire broke through in the win column last week, a win this weekend and Hutchinson is one game out of the World Bowl race with three to play.
"We take it game by game," Hutchinson said. "We're confident we can win every week. The preparation isn't any different this week. We might have a few wrinkles, but obviously I can't divulge them. I just want to win a few more games and get to the World Bowl."
A World Bowl berth was almost expected for the Fire when Hutchinson was allocated to Europe. He was one of the biggest names from the NFL to participate in the summer league. However, after a 2-3 first half of the season, the outlook was bleak. But just like every player will tell you, it's not over until it's over.
The schedule is favorable the rest of the way. After the contest against 5-1 Berlin, there will be two games against teams with four combined wins and another against a team ahead of them ... 5-1 Frankfurt. Winning out would virtually guarantee Rhein a spot in the championship and a chance to avenge last year's World Bowl loss. The schedule allows the Fire to catch up to the league leaders while also facing some of the bottom-half teams.
As NFL Europe begins to wind down, the players look forward to their NFL lives back home. But for Hutchinson, he will be welcomed back to a Dallas quarterback family that has added one more member. Just two days after Hutchinson left for Florida to participate in the NFL Europe training camp, the Cowboys brought in quarterback Drew Henson for a private workout and then traded for the former baseball player two weeks later. Now with incumbent Quincy Carter and Henson on the roster, Hutchinson knows his playing time in Europe is more valuable than once was expected.
Hutchinson said, "I'm taking all the experience I can out of this. I want to play 10 or 11 games here and then play in four or five scrimmages when I get home. Experience is what's going to help me get better because I only played one quarter last year.
"It's going to be tough cracking into that lineup. I'm looking forward to the competition. It's going to be a battle for those spots."
Hutchinson has the opportunity to gain more experience in the last four, or possibly five, weeks of NFL Europe. That's four to five more weeks of preparation and game situations the guys back in Texas aren't getting.