TEMPE, Arizona -- For the past several months, as Josh Rosen submitted to a scouting process that forced him to answer questions about his bravado, interpersonal relationships, outspoken opinions and perceived lack of affection for the game of football, the former UCLA quarterback did his best to keep it real. The goal for Rosen, rather than try to conform to the standards of his prospective professional employers, was to find a franchise that coveted him for the player and person he really is. As he told me in February: "I'm gonna be me, and hopefully a team falls in love with me."
Yet the hyper-competitive 21-year-old was feeling a distinct lack of appreciation from the NFL community as he sat and stewed in the AT&T Stadium green room during the first round of the 2018 draft Thursday night. Stung by the New York Jets' decision to take his collegiate rival, USC's Sam Darnold, with the third overall selection, Rosen was now in the midst of a free fall and wasn't sure when it might end.
Little did he know, at that very moment, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was attempting to give Rosen the best news of his athletic life. And yet, in what amounted to the draft-night version of an anxiety dream, the connection Rosen had been pining for was being derailed by a 21st century-style communication breakdown.
About a minute earlier, Keim had completed a trade with his Oakland Raiders counterpart, Reggie McKenzie, which allowed the Cardinals to move up five spots and secure the 10th overall selection. With Darnold and two other top-rated quarterbacks, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and Wyoming's Josh Allen, already off the board, and the Miami Dolphins lurking at 11 (and rumored to be interested in drafting Rosen), it was pretty clear to people inside the NFL community whom the Cardinals were targeting.
There was just one problem: Rosen didn't know the trade had happened, because when Keim called his cell phone, it went straight to voicemail -- again and again.
"I was pretty stressed," Keim recalled Friday from the Cardinals' training facility, about an hour after Rosen had completed his introductory press conference. "When you make a trade and are on the clock and you call a franchise quarterback two or three times -- and it goes straight to voicemail -- it's pretty alarming. Finally, I panicked and called his agent [Ryan Williams of Athletes First] as fast as I could, and I said, 'Why is his phone not working?' He said, 'I'm with him right now -- it's working! And I said, 'Put him on the phone!' "
By the time Rosen was done talking to Keim, first-year Cardinals coach Steve Wilks and owner Michael Bidwill, he was awash in the collective embrace of an organization proud to call him its quarterback of the future. He might well be the quarterback of the present: Though the Cardinals signed veteran Sam Bradford to a one-year, $20 million deal in free agency and also added former Bears and Bucs short-term starter Mike Glennon (two years, $8 million), they view Rosen, a three-year starter at UCLA, as the most pro-ready passer in the draft, and he'll have every chance to compete for the starting job in training camp.
And while Rosen, like so many of his NFL peers, will try to mine motivational magic from his draft-fueled disappointment, the pronounced belief that he has found his ideal match makes him a very happy rookie.
"You want a team to pick you," Rosen told me Friday, a couple of minutes after we'd completed an on-camera conversation that would air on NFL Network. "It's like a prom date -- you want to go with the girl who wants you. The fact that they traded up to get me was huge. It's cool to hear the excitement in people's voices, and to see their eyes light up when you walk into the building."
Of course, it's entirely possible that the "excitement" in Keim's voice -- at least at the start of his call to Rosen -- was closer to hyperventilation. By Friday, he and Bidwill could laugh about the cell-phone fiasco that added stress to their evening, with the Cardinals' owner offering a pretty amusing theory as to what had gone wrong.
"At first we thought the phone was off," Bidwill said as he stood in a corridor outside of the auditorium where Rosen had met the media a few minutes earlier. "But then we figured, 'He's at AT&T Stadium, and he must have Verizon... it was apparently AT&T blocking Verizon calls.' "
Alas, the hypothesis was debunked about half an hour later by Williams, who laughed and said, "Josh actually has a Sprint phone."
In reality, the Cardinals' pursuit of Rosen was a marathon. "I remember going to UCLA in the fall of 2015," Keim recalls. "I was there to scout a defensive tackle [Kenny Clark], and I ran into [then offensive coordinator] Noel Mazzone, who's an old friend of mine. He said, 'Hey, listen, I don't have anybody on offense, but in three years you're gonna come back for this kid we've got throwing the football, because he's gonna be the first overall pick in the draft. He's that special.' Then I saw him practice and watched him throw, and it was as pretty as it gets."
There was a lot of ugliness in the pre-draft process when it came to Rosen's image, both in terms of public perception and the actual assessments of various powerbrokers for numerous quarterback-hungry NFL teams. Keim, Wilks and Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, however, never bought into the stigma, especially when it came to the talk that Rosen didn't love football.
"Anytime it comes to board work during these visits, I tend to do pretty well," Rosen said Friday. "I know a lot of football, and some coaches may underestimate that... I felt like Mike and I really clicked."
On Friday, McCoy certainly sounded like a man ready to give the rookie a crash course in advanced offensive strategy.
"You love his football intelligence," McCoy said. "You sit down and you talk to him and watch film, and he knows the game -- and he's been well-coached all the way through. We're gonna challenge him, and throw a lot at him, and give him a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage. We might send him up there with three play options and trust him to call the right one. It's exciting."
Rosen probably could have done without the added excitement of Thursday's phone mix-up, especially given the stressful stretch that preceded it. After the Browns selected Mayfield first overall, Rosen, who has family members in the New York City area, watched in dismay as both the Giants and Jets passed on his services. The Giants went with Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, while the Jets -- who were extremely high on Rosen, and would have taken him had Darnold been off the board -- pretty much broke his heart.
"That one really stung," Rosen recalled Friday. "I was angry, and as these picks were rolling by, I honestly thought I was gonna get taken by a team I didn't want to go to, and I was gonna have to fake a smile."
After the Bills traded up to select Allen, Rosen was briefly cheered up by a text from the man who experienced the most infamous green-room free fall in draft history: Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers, another Athletes First client who has become friendly with Rosen during the past several months.
Said Williams: "He basically told Josh, 'Hang in there, put on a good face, and remember this -- and use it to your advantage.' It was really cool."
For the most part, however, Rosen was a mess.
"He was very quiet, and very stressed," said Rosen's mother, Liz Lippincott. "I was sitting next to him, and I was grabbing his thigh to try to soothe him. He just sat there with his phone on the table, but he couldn't really deal with it."
Then, suddenly, Rosen felt a couple of vigorous taps on his shoulder: Williams, standing behind him, was handing Rosen his phone, telling him, "The Cardinals are on the line."
Rosen, relieved and emotionally drained, slumped his head all the way to the surface of the table in front of him, placing a finger in one ear so that he could hear amid the noisy green room.
At that point, Rosen recalled, "All those ugly emotions went out the window, and I got really, really happy. And I realized, 'The Cardinals are a really good football team, and they want me. It's pretty cool.'
"And now I'm gonna work as hard as they can to show them they made the right decision."