Oral history of the 1971 NFL draft: The original Year of the Quarterback
Believe it or not, the top of the NFL draft wasn’t always owned by quarterbacks, even though that era now seems like ancient history. But long before the 1983, 1999 and 2004 draft classes were celebrated for the supply of arms they gifted the league, the NFL’s 1971 draft was the one to famously blaze that QB trail, billed as “The Year of the Quarterback” in the months leading up to the draft. Not only did quarterbacks get picked 1-2-3 for the first time in history, but the opening 99 selections that year included six passers who went on to have long and accomplished NFL careers.
Stanford’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jim Plunkett led off the parade of high-profile QBs, going first overall to a Boston Patriots franchise that was still several months shy of being renamed the New England Patriots. Then came southern cultural icon Archie Manning of Ole Miss at No. 2 to the New Orleans Saints, followed by a surprise of sorts at No. 3, with the Houston Oilers selecting small-school standout Dan Pastorini of little-known Santa Clara University.
It was an unprecedented opening run, but the bounty of quarterback riches didn’t dry up there. Though no passers were taken in the remainder of the first or entire second round, the third round saw future NFL stars Lynn Dickey (56th overall, to those very same Oilers) and Kenny Anderson (67th to Cincinnati) enter the league. And the fourth round gave the NFL its first glimpse of Joe Theismann, the talkative former Notre Dame standout who went to the Miami Dolphins at No. 99.
Theismann took a three-year detour through the Canadian Football League before making his NFL debut in 1974, but he and Plunkett would eventually earn Super Bowl rings as starting quarterbacks, starting a pair of Super Bowls each. As for Anderson, one of the most accurate passers in the game’s history, he spent all 16 of his NFL seasons in Cincinnati and started in the Bengals’ narrow loss to San Francisco in Super Bowl XVI.
All told, the six quarterbacks who endured from the Class of ’71 played in 992 games in the NFL, throwing for 156,626 yards and 930 touchdowns (and those stats include playoff appearances). The injured Pastorini was actually replaced in the lineup by Plunkett early on for the 1980 Raiders, who went on to claim the first of two Super Bowl titles in a four-year span thanks in part to Plunkett’s stellar play. Pastorini earned a ring as well for being on the 1980 Raiders, but he was much better known as the guy who had quarterbacked Houston to the AFC title game the previous two years, in 1978 and 1979.
Manning and Dickey posted long, productive careers, but were largely saddled with losing teams around them, enduring a near annual string of frustration. Manning was in the NFL from 1971 to ’85 and never once played on a team that finished with a winning record. Dickey’s career lasted for the same 15 years as Manning’s, although he missed two full seasons due to injury. Only once was he a starter for a team that finished north of .500, for the 5-3-1 Packers in 1982, who made the playoffs in that strike-abbreviated season.
Forty-five years after it unfolded, largely without fanfare, here’s a retrospective of that 1971 quarterback-driven draft, through the eyes and words of all six of those well-known quarterbacks, from the No. 1 pick, Plunkett to No. 99, Theismann.
Take everything you know about today’s months-long buildup to the NFL draft, and its over-the-top dissection of prospects and throw it out the window. There was no such thing 45 years ago. There was no Indianapolis scouting combine. No pro-day workouts. No Wunderlich test. No ubiquitous draft experts with their non-stop mocks. No private workouts or each team being allowed to have up to 30 prospects visit their headquarters. Players didn’t attend the draft, nor would they have even been welcomed. And, of course, in those pre-ESPN days, the proceedings weren’t televised.
The 17-round draft in 1971 was held at the Belmont Plaza hotel in New York City, on Jan. 28-29, less than two weeks after the Baltimore Colts outlasted the Dallas Cowboys 16–13 in Super Bowl V in Miami. Information about what was about to unfold was scarce, and the top prospects didn’t have a lot of time, and couldn’t do very much, to really change the NFL’s opinion of them in the weeks leading up to the picking.
About mid-way through the third round I got up and said, look, if somebody calls me, I’m going down to play basketball, just come get me. —Joe Theismann
Archie Manning, Mississippi: I always kid about it when people ask how my draft day experience went. What was it like? Friends of my kids ask sometimes, ‘did you go to New York?’ I say, well, the first thing you don’t understand is it was in late January. I didn’t take a visit. I didn’t have a pro day. You had nothing. We played Auburn in the Gator Bowl on January 2. I leave the next day and go to the Hula Bowl [an all-star game] in Hawaii. I came back, took exams, and then Olivia and I got married on the 21st of January during semester break. We go on a little honeymoon—in those days the hot spot was Acapulco, or as my father-in-law called it, Acapoco—and we come back on the 27th of January. The draft was the 28th.
Joe Theismann, Notre Dame: I remember that day like it was yesterday, I remember anticipating that I would be a higher round draft pick and I sat in [Notre Dame SID] Roger Valdiserri’s office and waited to hear. The first round went by and O.K., I understood when I saw those guys go 1-2-3. Then I figured maybe somebody would take me in the second round, and the second round goes by. Then the third round is going by, and about mid-way through the third round I got up and said, look, if somebody calls me, I’m going down to play basketball, just come get me. I just got up and left his office and went downstairs and starting playing basketball.
Jim Plunkett, Stanford: I knew I was going to be one of the top quarterback picks, but I didn’t know I was going to be No. 1. But also, there just wasn’t the kind of hoopla there is today. I can’t even remember exactly where I was and who called me when I got the news. I believe I was at Stanford, but I can’t remember if it was the Patriots owner Billy Sullivan or the NFL commissioner [Pete Rozelle] who told me I was going to be drafted No. 1 by the Patriots. I was in such a fog and having so much fun enjoying my life and my career. I was just really on a frickin’ high to tell you the truth.
Manning: We get back the night before the draft and we’re busy moving into our little apartment in Oxford. You know, you didn’t live together or anything like that in those days, so we’re literally scrubbing floors and so forth that night, and I get a call from the Ole Miss sports information director. He says, here’s the deal: [No. 1] New England’s been calling, [No. 2] New Orleans has been calling and [No. 3] Houston has been calling, and one of them is going to pick you in the morning. Why don’t you come on over to the athletic department before the draft starts at 9:00 a.m. [CT], because I told all three of those teams you’d be here.
Ken Anderson, Augustana College: When you’re a Division III player, you don’t have high aspirations of where you’re going to go in the draft. I was ecstatic that I was a third-round draft choice. I felt very confident that I was going to get a shot with some team, but I thought it’d be maybe as a free agent after the draft. I just remember that we had a bunch of friends over to the apartment, off campus, on the day of the draft. We went up and got a quarter-barrel of beer and I couldn’t afford it, but the guy who owned the place knew I was going to play pro football and he gave it to me on credit.
Lynn Dickey, Kansas State: That particular day my hometown of Osawatomie, Kansas, had scheduled Lynn Dickey Day. We had to go to the high school that afternoon and they were going to give a plaque to the all-around athlete of the year, and they were going to re-name the football stadium Lynn Dickey Field, which they did. That evening there was a banquet for 700-800 people. I remember I had to borrow a sport coat just to go to the banquet.
Theismann: I had been playing basketball for maybe an hour and someone came down and said the Miami Dolphins have drafted you in the fourth round. I can’t tell you I was elated. I can’t tell you I was running around going, oh, how wonderful. I was disappointed that I was a fourth-round pick. People led you on to a degree, saying, if you’re around we’re going to take you early. But the Dolphins made me feel good. They made me feel wanted. Coach [Don] Shula was great about it.
Manning: On the day of the draft, I went over to the athletic department. And at 9:15 a.m., the Saints called and I talked to the owner, John Mecom Jr., then I talked to Vic Schwenk, the GM, and then he puts me on the phone with J.D. Roberts, the head coach. And those were like 15-second conversations, just welcome to the Saints and we’re glad to have you. So I hung up and the AP came in and took a picture of me sitting downstairs in the athletic department building. By 10:00 a.m., I was in class. So that was my draft day.
Anderson: It was mid-afternoon when [Bengals quarterbacks coach] Bill Walsh called me and told me Cincinnati had drafted me. I was thrilled. When I was at the North-South game in Miami, I got to bring my Augustana helmet and uniform down there with me. And we had gold helmets, kind of like Notre Dame. I still think a lot of guys thought I was the backup quarterback from Notre Dame, because they never would have known where Augustana was.
Pastorini, who was waiting by the phone out west in Santa Clara, had slightly more entertaining draft-day memories than any of his peers. His celebration of the big news actually pre-dated the big news. Then again, Pastorini never needed much of an excuse to have a good time.
Dan Pastorini, Santa Clara University: It was funny, because we had a phone in our room, in our little apartment off campus, which was for upperclassmen. We were all sitting there waiting, staring at the phone. But we had partied the night before and we had a pile of beer cans in one corner of the room. We had a pretty big stack of beer cans going by the time the phone rang. The party was the night before, but it was still going on I think when I got the news.
Dickey: That’s Dan. He’s always been a character. He’s a dandy. We were together for five years in Houston and I want to say he went through close to 13 to 15 cars. We’d come out after a game, and he’d be over there mumbling and griping and yelling that someone had keyed his car. And I said why don’t you try not putting Dante -- No. 7 on your tags? But Dan has a death wish from my viewpoint. He just had a thrill for speed. If he got in a golf cart, he had one goal: How fast will this thing go?
Pastorini: [Oilers head coach] Ed Hughes called me early that morning and said, ‘Dan Pastorini, this is Ed Hughes. You’re the first draft choice of the Houston Oilers.’ That was that. I hung up and then all hell broke loose with my friends. I do know we continued the party, but I can’t give you all the facts. Because it could have been that I was drafted [under the influence].
Dickey: I got word maybe 3:30, 4 p.m that I was going to Houston. Dan and I had been roommates at the Senior Bowl that month, and I knew Dan had already gone to the Oilers, and I thought, how weird. They didn’t have a second-round pick, and with their first two picks they took two quarterbacks? I was like, wait a second, they’ve already taken Dan. It just made no sense to me, but back then a lot of things the Oilers did didn’t make any sense.
Pastorini: When they drafted Lynn, it was kind of a strange feeling going into Houston. Them drafting me first made me feel like they had confidence in me and I’d get all the chances in the world to eventually be the leader of the team. But they drafted Lynn as kind of an insurance policy.
In terms of draft-day disappointment, none of the quarterbacks could match Theismann’s experience. He finished second behind Plunkett in the Heisman race in the 1970 season, and yet there he sat as team after team that had told him they were interested in him took pass after pass. There was no televised green room torture for sliding prospects in those days, but Theismann died his own version of a slow death on the Notre Dame campus, waiting for a phone that refused to ring.
Theismann: The only thing I really knew was which teams had contacted me and said they were interested in drafting me. Dallas and Philadelphia said they were interested. I had teams say hey, if you’re around in the first round, we’re going to look at you. You didn’t sit down and meet with the coaches and the GMs face to face at a combine. You didn’t really have any way to showcase your skills other than what people saw on film when you were in college. That was it.
Gil Brandt, longtime Dallas Cowboys personnel executive: The big thing we were concerned with about Joe was his height. I think he was just under 6-foot. He wasn’t real big. I looked back through our files the other day, to see how we had ranked the top quarterbacks. We had Manning first, and he was the youngest and most athletic of the top guys. We had Plunkett next, and he was a year and a half older than the other guys, because he redshirted at Stanford. And we had Pastorini ranked third. But it was so different back then than it is today. The NFL went from underkill to overkill with the draft. Very few people had any real information out there about the players.
Plunkett: People ask sometimes whether I took the Wunderlich test before the draft. I didn’t take any test. I took my time. That’s what I took. There was no Wunderlich. The only test New England thoroughly did on me was an eye test, because of my mother being blind and my father was [partially] blind. So I had every eye test in the world given to me before they drafted me. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to go blind in two years.
Ken Herock, who in 1970-71 was an Oakland Raiders scout: That was actually my first year of scouting, after I got done playing in 1969. In those days, we only had two scouts, myself and Ron Wolf. Period. We had two scouts. Can you believe that?
I remember seeing Manning a little bit before the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. The only consensus we had was that Plunkett was the best of them. We were on the West Coast and we had seen more of him.
Plunkett: I knew the NFL had some interest in me, though, because a year earlier, after my junior year—and I was a redshirt guy my sophomore year—I was contacted by Baltimore wanting to know if I was going to enter the draft then. Very few people know that, but that’s exactly what happened. I told them no, I was going to return to Stanford for my senior year.
Manning: Everybody knew Jim [Plunkett] was more of a pro-style quarterback who had played in a pro-style offense at Stanford. But heck, I had no idea what style Dan [Pastorini] played. I didn’t know where the hell Santa Clara was. It could have been in Egypt as far as I knew. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Dan before the draft.
Pastorini: I knew who the hell Archie Manning was because he had a hell of a game against Alabama that year, and it was one of the greatest performances I had ever seen by a quarterback in my life. So I knew a lot more about Archie than he knew about me. I was just the small-school guy. In those all-star games I played, none of the guys had ever heard of me.
Meanwhile, Brandt recalls thinking he had a nice little secret brewing in Illinois that draft. And this was back in the days when you could find honest-to-goodness sleepers. He had scouted Anderson in the fall of 1970, at tiny Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and Anderson looked like a keeper the Cowboys might just be interested in.
Brandt: Nobody had been up there to scout Anderson until I sent [former Purdue head coach] Jack Mollenkopf up there to watch him play. We worked him out, and he was really good. I said, Jack, whatever you do, don’t say anything to anybody about this guy. This will be a guy we’ll be able to steal. Well, what happened is the coach at Augustana contacted the North-South Shrine Game in Miami, trying to get Anderson in the game. He said Mollenkopf and Brandt were here and they really liked this guy. So my secret was out. That tells you a little bit about how we did it in those days.
Herock: I remember thinking, gosh, there’s a lot of good quarterbacks in this draft. I can still remember seeing Archie Manning play that season against Mississippi State. I knew he was great and he’d be a good player, but we just weren’t as sophisticated. We never even timed the guys. The schools used to pull out a sheet of paper and say here are the [40-yard dash] times of all our players.
Manning: I don’t think we knew much of anything before the draft. It just wasn’t like it is today, built up into a big status thing if you go No. 1, like when Peyton and Eli were drafted first. I don’t ever remember even thinking about that. But I do remember before our senior year somebody kind of wrote that it was the Year of the Quarterback.
Pastorini: There are so still so many people who will tell you 1983 was the Year of the Quarterback, but 1971 was the original Year of the Quarterback. That’s how they were referring to it in the headlines back then.
Perhaps the first time the Class of ’71 quarterback crop got such a lofty billing came when Sport magazine flew Plunkett, Manning, Theismann and Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern to Chicago for a cover photo shoot at Soldier Field in the late spring of 1970. The issue ran in October 1970, with the heading ‘Year of the College Quarterback.’ Kern was largely a rushing threat for the Buckeyes, and wound up being drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the 10th round in 1971, who turned him into a defensive back. Manning recalls that Chicago trip as the first time he met Plunkett and Theismann, who remain life-long friends.
Manning: Good ol’ Sport magazine. They took us out to Soldier Field for pictures in our uniform, so now we’re in the locker room getting dressed to go home, and Joe says, ‘Hey, let’s swap jerseys.’ I don’t know what the hell I wanted with a No. 7 Notre Dame jersey. Anyway, when my mother died in the last couple days of 1999, my sister and I went back and started cleaning up her house, and my mother was kind of a pack rat. And wouldn’t you know, I find this No. 7 Notre Dame jersey. I’m talking to Joe at some point after that, and I say you won’t believe this, but I found your old No. 7 Notre Dame jersey. And Joe says ‘I want that jersey!’ And I said, no, you can’t have it. Typical Joe. So funny.
Plunkett: I still have that Sport magazine with the four of us on the cover. Those are the guys I know and those are the quarterbacks I watched back then. I remember some of our guys at Stanford in my junior and senior year, they went down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and they said in all the bars they went to everybody was singing The Ballad of Archie Manning. So they got beat up quite a bit when they were down there defending me and pulling for me.
Pastorini: I remember an article that ran before the draft, and in it Gil Brandt said he didn’t think I’d make it as a quarterback, but he thought I’d be a good tight end in the NFL. That kind of stoked my fire. Gil and I are good friends, and I still bring that up when I see him: Still think I can make it as a tight end, Gil?
Brandt: That’s right, I remember saying that about [Pastorini]. That was 45 years ago, and yet players still remember that kind of stuff. I got that one wrong.
Every quarterback except for Theismann spent at least their first five NFL seasons with the teams that drafted them. But Theismann’s contract negotiations with Miami grew complicated over the specifics of his meager $35,000 signing bonus, and that’s how the future Washington franchise quarterback started his professional career by playing three seasons for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. To this day, Theismann can still sound agonized by the surprising turn of events. But all of the ’71 quarterbacks have stories from their first contract negotiation.
“The only regret I really have is that I disappointed Don Shula, but we’re O.K. now.” —Joe Theismann
Theismann: I flew down to Miami and did the post-draft press conference, and Don [Shula] thought I was signed, sealed and delivered after I met with [owner] Joe Robbie. And because [Dolphins GM] Joe Thomas was in the hospital having heart surgery, I negotiated my contract directly with Mr. Robbie. He sat me down and said ‘what do you want?’ And you’ll love these numbers, I said I want a three-year deal for $35,000 [the first year], $45,000 and $55,000, and I want a $35,000 signing bonus. He said fine, and I remember thinking I had read the book on negotiations and it doesn’t go this simple, or so I thought.
Manning: I signed for five years, for a total of $410,000, and here’s the way it broke down: salaries of $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000, but the only thing guaranteed was the $160,000 bonus. I think that was largest bonus ever at the time. We did that deal down at training camp in Hattiesburg at the Holiday Inn. We wanted an insurance policy with double indemnity, and the Saints said no, we’ve gone far enough. But we finally flipped a coin with them for it, and I won and got double indemnity.
Theismann: I wanted my bonus broken down over three years for tax purposes, but they had me paying the whole thing back if I didn’t show up in year three. I didn’t have an agent, which was a very tactical mistake with my first contract, and I let my emotions get involved in the negotiations. So I’m on the phone at that point calling the Argonauts saying are you still interested? They said yes, and I flew up there and met with Mr. [John] Bassett [Sr.]. He said, here’s the contract, sign it tonight. If you leave the country and don’t sign it, it’s off the table, we’re done. So I signed it and flew back to South Bend.
Pastorini: I had my brother in law who was an attorney as my agent, and that was a big mistake on my part. I had an opportunity to sign with IMG and stupidly Ididn’t do it. My first contract was for $250,000 for six years. I made $25,000 my first year and then it went up $5,000 a year, and got a signing bonus of $100,000. It was a sucky contract. And I didn’t even have anything in there to pay me extra for handling all the punting for the Oilers, which I did for about five seasons.
Dickey: I got third-round money. I signed a three-year deal for $20,000, $25,000 and $30,000, with a $30,000 signing bonus. I remember thinking my father worked on the Missouri-Pacific railroad for 40-something years and the most he ever made in a year was like $9,000. So I’m thinking they’re paying me $20,000? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s unbelievable.
Anderson: Mike Brown with the Bengals offered me a three-year contact for $18,000, $20,000 and $22,000, with a $7,500 signing bonus. I remember saying I’m O.K. with the $18,000, because I had a teaching job lined up if I wasn’t playing football and that was for $5,000. But for some reason we wanted $10,000 to sign. Mike pulled a check out of his pocket to me for $7,500 and said this is what you’re going to get. And I said fine, where do we sign? It took five minutes.
Theismann: After I signed with Toronto, I asked Mr. Bassett to not announce anything until I had a chance to call Coach Shula. So I fly back to South Bend and 6:00 the next morning I get a call from [Notre Dame head coach] Ara Parseghian, who says, ‘What in heaven’s name have you done?’ I said I signed with the Argonauts. He said, well Shula’s hopping mad and he’s on his way to South Bend right now. And Don flew up and read me the riot act. The only regret I really have is that I disappointed Don Shula, but we’re O.K. now. What’s funny is, 11 years later I beat him in the Super Bowl with Washington. So if he did want to hate me, he had much more reason to hate me for that.
Of the six notable quarterbacks in the 1971 draft, they all endured tough early journeys in the NFL, with one exception. Plunkett, Manning and Pastorini all got beat up behind horrible offensive lines, taking a pounding as young quarterbacks on bad teams. Dickey missed an entire season due to injury in Houston, and didn’t become a fulltime starter until he was traded to Green Bay in 1976. Plunkett got dealt to San Francisco that same year, and was cut by the woeful 49ers two years later. Theismann had his three-year stay in the CFL, and was little more than a punt returner in Washington when he reached the NFL in 1974, sitting behind Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen until he won the starting job in 1978.
Only Anderson, who had the good fortune to be coached early by Bill Walsh and Paul Brown, had a long and productive one-team career in Cincinnati. Eventually, Plunkett won two Super Bowl rings with the Raiders, Theismann rose to the ranks of stardom and went 1 for 2 in Super Bowls in Washington, and Pastorini enjoyed success in the late ‘70s with the Bum Phillips-coached, Earl Campbell-led Oilers. Manning and Dickey continued to toil for losing teams in New Orleans and Green Bay, but both of them were well-respected players who were in the NFL for 15 years. And now these six men are linked in draft history as one of the best quarterback classes ever, and make up an under-appreciated slice of the game’s lore.
We were fortunate enough to win some world championships, and we were lucky enough to eventually find the right teams. It just took most of us awhile. —Joe Theismann
Theismann: If you look at the different journeys that most of us took, there wasn’t much early success. Some of those guys like Manning and Plunkett and Pastorini got killed in those first few seasons. But when you start talking about the ’71 draft, and you look at those guys in our group, we did pretty well. We were fortunate enough to win some world championships, and we were lucky enough to eventually find the right teams. It just took most of us awhile.
Plunkett: I would say we all paid more than our dues in getting to where we got. We got hurt, we bounced back, we got hurt again and bounced back again. I’m sure we all faced early on our career being booed and having the fans want somebody else in there. Except for maybe Kenny, he got in a situation where they were pretty solid throughout his career in Cincinnati. But the rest of us got roughed up a bit, I guarantee you that.
Dickey: As the years have gone on, you realize you’ve got to be really lucky, and be in the right place at the right time with the right people around you. People think a quarterback can do it all, but oh, really? Ask Cam Newton about that. When you’re Superman and a guy’s hitting you right under the chin every time you let go of the ball, you don’t look so good.
Anderson: No question about it, had I not been with Paul Brown and Bill Walsh, I would probably have been teaching school in Chicago by the fall. I was very lucky. But when you think back about that draft, it was an amazing era, with some great quarterbacks.
Theismann: I’m very proud of all the guys who were part of that draft. People talk about the ’83 draft or the ’99 draft being rich with quarterbacks, but when it comes to our draft class, I always chuckle and say we’re sort of ‘The Forgotten Six.’ ”