I've never been a great fan of comparing eras while we're in the midst of a season, but it took an e-mail from a British connoisseur of American football, Simon Veness, to give me some serious thoughts about the standard of quarterbacking these days. He called it the "near barrel-scraping state."
I always hear extreme views such as these, but it got me thinking. Was it really better in the old days ... at least the days of 20 years ago?
I go through this drill every now and then, comparing quarterbacks two decades apart, and usually it's pretty close, with the older vintage generally establishing an edge. So I did it again and the results were startling.
Yes, the position used to be better. A lot better. Yes, there are a lot of pretenders vying for starting positions now. Are you hearing the ravings of just another old duffer, waving his cane at the TV set and hollering for days gone by? Well, let's go through a comparison of QBs on each team in the NFL, 20 years apart. Players on expansion teams that didn't exist then will not be included, obviously.
Buffalo BillsJim Kelly vs. Trent Edwards
Edge: 1988. An easy one. This was a Kelly on the rise, poised to lead his team to four straight Super Bowls.
Miami DolphinsDan Marino vs. Chad Pennington
Edge: 1988. Another cinch. Danny was in the midst of a Hall of Fame career.
New England PatriotsSteve Grogan vs. Matt Cassel
Edge: 1988. Maybe this is unfair, since the job belongs to Tom Brady. But he's not playing, is he? And we are talking about the game as it unfolds in front of us right now. Cassel has a future, but Grogan was a great competitor, dearly loved by New England fans for many years.
New York Jets Ken O'Brien vs. Brett Favre
Edge: 2008. It would be embarrassing to say O'Brien, a strong-armed thrower with the lowest interception rate in the NFL, was better than the Favre, who will be 39 in a couple of weeks. Let's celebrate the overall achievement. Besides, the modern era needs a win real bad at this point.
Cincinnati BengalsBoomer Esiason vs. Carson Palmer
Edge: 1988. A tough call. Boomer was at the top of his game, as the Bengals' Super Bowl QB of '88. He threw 28 TDs that season, 14 picks. He was gutsy and exciting. Palmer's game seems to have gone south, but let's face it, he's got a much sadder cast of characters to work with than Boomer did. Maybe if we look at the overall record of production, we'd have a different call, but we're concentrating on the seasons mentioned.
Cleveland BrownsBernie Kosar vs. Derek Anderson, with Brady Quinn on hold
Edge: 1988. Bernie called his own game, as many of them did in those days. He was smart and effective, with a goofy throwing motion, but a persistent habit of completing his passes. I don't know what's happened to Anderson. He started off with a nice new contract and tremendous upside, but it seems to have fallen apart. And he's a few interceptions away from getting benched.
Houston Oilers/Tennessee TitansWarren Moon vs. Kerry Collins
Edge: 1988. Moon was 31 early in the '88 season, at his first outpost on the way to a brilliant Hall of Fame career. Collins is a competent game manager, rushed into emergency service in relief of Vince Young.
Indianapolis ColtsChris Chandler vs. Peyton Manning
Edge: 2008. Peyton calls his own plays and would have fit in beautifully in any time period. One of the few potential Hall of Famers of our era.
Pittsburgh SteelersBubby Brister vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Edge: 2008. Tremendous talent and courage, that's Ben. An easy choice, no matter what kind of shape his shoulder is in.
Denver BroncosJohn Elway vs. Jay Cutler
Edge: 1988. Still another Hall of Famer, with more to come. Elway was in his sixth year, still wild, a little out of control, too many picks, etc., but he had a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks. Cutler is having a Pro Bowl year. It's a show horse against a wild stallion.
Kansas City ChiefsSteve DeBerg vs. Damon Huard
Edge: 1988. The Chiefs were terrible then, terrible now, but at least DeBerg, 35 and originally trained by Bill Walsh, knew how to work a game. Huard will be better than the guy he relieved, Tyler Thigpen, which is really damning by faint praise.
Oakland RaidersJay Schroeder/ Steve Beuerlein vs. JaMarcus Russell
Edge: 2008. This is a strange comparison. Schroeder and Russell... two big throwers, not blessed by great accuracy. Beuerlein was a rookie who started half the games. I'm trying to be fair here, and reward Russell on potential.
Schroeder came to the Raiders when they were in L.A., the result of a trade with Washington that cost the team a future all-pro, tackle Jim Lachey, and a bunch of draft choices. And he bombed. He was awful in 1988 , his five-year stint later relieved by one fine season (1990). He had had one Pro Bowl year for the Redskins, and he is famous for being benched before the '88 Super Bowl for Doug Williams, who became the MVP. But he had enough 300-plus yardage games to keep people interested. Beuerlein looked like the careful QB's you see today.
San Diego ChargersMark Malone vs. Philip Rivers
Edge: 2008. The season prior marked the end of Dan Fouts' 15-year run. It would be four more years before the Chargers would have a winning season. Rivers is one of today's brighter young prospects.
AFC CONSENSUS: 8-5 in favor of 1988.
Dallas CowboysSteve Pelluer vs. Tony Romo
Edge: 2008. No contest. Interim QB vs. super star.
New York Giants Phil Simms vs. Eli Manning
Edge: 1988. Simms was 33 and between Super Bowl seasons. More accurate than Eli, who can get wild in spots, sharper on his reads, although slowly but surely, Eli is learning how to play in the NFL.
Philadelphia EaglesRandall Cunningham vs. Donovan McNabb
Edge: 2008. McNabb is back in his seat near the top of the league. Tremendous courage and accurate when he has time. Cunningham was an exciting, long striding galloper in the Vince Young mold.
Washington RedskinsDoug Williams/Mark Rypien vs. Jason Campbell
Edge: EVEN. Williams was a great long ball thrower who had accuracy problems. Rypien was in his rookie season of a highly productive career. The jury's still out on Campbell, so call it even.
Chicago BearsJim McMahon vs. Kyle Orton
Edge: 1988. McMahon was one of the stars of the game, also one of its leading personalities. You hear that, men of the 2008 era? Personality! Yes, they had it then. And they called their plays, too.
Detroit LionsRusty Hilger vs. Jon Kitna
Edge: 2008. Is everyone aware of what a fair shake I'm trying to give to the moderns? Hilger was just OK, Kitna at least is a battler.
Green Bay PackersDon Majkowski vs. Aaron Rodgers
Edge: 1988. The Majik Man got hurt a few years later and the Brett Favre era was born. Majik could do a lot of things, though. Made it exciting, a good active guy, and people forget how good he was. Rodgers will be good, I feel, but he's not there yet.
Minnesota VikingsWade Wilson vs. Gus Frerotte
Edge: 1988. Wilson was accurate and smart. Very good, running the show. Frerotte came in to alleviate the Tarvaris Jackson disaster. Wilson was 29, Frerotte is 37.
Atlanta FalconsChris Miller vs. Matt Ryan
Edge: 1988. Miller had talent but his career was cut short by head injuries. This was his second year, Ryan's first.
New Orleans SaintsBobby Hebert vs. Drew Brees
Edge: 2008. Hebert, the Saints' Cajun kid, brought them into the playoffs for the first time, but on sheer talent, he wasn't in Brees' class.
Tampa Bay BucsVinny Testaverde vs. Brian Griese
Edge: 1988. This was Vinny's third year of a career that has washed up onto the very shores of today... well, at least last year, but I have a feeling that we have not seen the last of him. Griese is another early-season switcheroo, this time for Jeff Garcia.
Arizona CardinalsNeil Lomax vs. Kurt Warner
Edge: 1988. Can you remember what promise Lomax showed, only to have to retire at 29 with an arthritic hip? He had a brilliant nine-year run, with two Pro Bowls. If this were the Warner of the Greatest Show days in St. Louis, I'd pick him in a minute, but many things, most notably the hand injury, have toned down his game.
L.A./St. Louis Rams Jim Everett vs. Trent Green
Edge: 1988. Everett could fling it. He had many big-number afternoons. And oh my, are the Rams ever asking for it, putting 38-year old Green, with his history of concussions, behind that line. I felt sorry for Marc Bulger, a guy who showed real talent at one time, getting benched. Now, maybe he's better off.
San Francisco 49ersJoe Montana vs. J.T. O'Sullivan
Edge: 1988. Montana was backed up by Steve Young, don't forget. Two Hall of Famers, and if you want to see what an accurate QB really looks like, find some footage of the Niners in that era. They'd snap the ball off in 1.5 seconds, and it looked as if it were attached to the receiver by a wire. No hesitation on the pattern, no adjustment. It was zzzzip! And a quick slant to Jerry Rice would break for 50.
Seattle SeahawksDave Krieg vs. Matt Hasselbeck
Edge: 1988. Very sorry, but I'm a Krieg man. The way he worked a game, that meticulous style of his, the accuracy ... people forget how accurate he was. I don't forget. I don't forget anything, actually.
NFC CONSENSUS: 10-4-1 in favor of 1988.
OVERALL CONSENSUS: 18-9-1 for 1988.
And they didn't have coaches in the press box pumping information into their headsets every second. Most of them called their own game, although the era was going through a change. One could say techniques were better in those days, and that might explain the discrepancy, but I think that one big factor was that they were more free to run their own show. Things were more spontaneous. The game, I believe, and that includes the quarterback position, is overcoached these days.
Or maybe there's a simpler explanation. Maybe they were just better then, more competitive, tougher. Ah, no, scratch that one. Now I just sound old. There are plenty of tough guys now ... Kitna, Garcia, McNabb. There are no tougher warriors than those three. But here's the thing that strikes me just as a fan.
Almost every quarterback seemed to have his own personality then, his own way of doing things. Sure, you have some great individuals now, but you also have a great grey mass in the middle that was lacking then. Throw the checkdown, don't gamble, don't take a chance, we can always punt and get a new set of downs. Yeah, but you might be down by seven when it comes along.
What I saw toward the end of the Jets-Chargers Monday nighter got me as depressed as anything I'd seen this year. Favre, trying to lead a catch-up offense, throwing nothing but little in-cuts out of an empty backfield set, dink, dink, dink. And San Diego sitting there and letting them take it, keeping the gains minimal, which seemed to suit the Jets just fine. Play after play like that, down the field.
When I die and go to Hell, that's what football will look like. With the Devil booking all bets.