In his second game as a pro last season, Don Meredith, the brilliant young quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, snapped out a signal call in the huddle, then trotted out confidently to line up behind his center. As he set himself, the New York Giant defense changed radically, and Meredith found his huddle call suddenly worthless. He stared vacantly at the new Giant defensive alignment for a moment, then said, "Oh, hell!" and called time out.
He had an answer to the new defense, though he had forgotten it. All pro quarterbacks are armed with a small arsenal of automatics—signals to be called at the line of scrimmage to adjust to a change in defense. They are, of course, expected to use them instantly, rapidly calculating what the new defense is, what its weakness is and what play would best exploit it. The difficulty of learning to call automatics correctly is one reason why it takes a young quarterback several years to grow truly proficient at his trade.
Understandably, the best quarterbacks in the league at calling automatics are the oldest. Bobby Layne of the Pittsburgh Steelers is a genius at it; Charlie Conerly of the New York Giants and John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts are almost in a class with Layne, and Norman Van Brocklin led the Eagles to a championship last year because, among other things, he could shift faster than the defenses.
His replacement this year is Sonny Jurgensen, shown running at left, who spent three years learning the technique from Van Brocklin. "Sonny will be all right," Van Brocklin said when he retired to coach the Minnesota Vikings. "He's got the arm and he's had time to learn the rest."
"I learned a lot just watching Van," Jurgensen says. "We used to call the same plays in scrimmage, into the same defense. They'd work for him, not for me. The guys blocked as hard for me and the receivers ran their routes as well, but the defense would knock down my pass. Dutch finally taught me not to watch the receiver. You got to watch the defenders. Maybe you watch a linebacker commit himself, then you know when the receiver will break open and you can throw at the right time."
Jurgensen's sudden maturity as a quarterback has made the Eagles one of the favorites in the East this year; the slower but just as sure maturing of Bart Starr, now in his sixth year, makes Green Bay the favorite in the West.
Starr did not take over as Green Bay quarterback on a full-time basis until the close of last season. "It takes a long time to become oriented," Starr says. "It takes years before you can recognize and diagnose a defense almost instantly. And it takes nearly that much time before you know your receivers intimately. Anything I can say about the importance of knowing every move a receiver makes would be an understatement."
Starr is a very bright football player who learns quickly; there were some stories that he was a Phi Beta Kappa at Alabama, but they are not true. "My wife says I would have been if we'd got married sooner," Starr says.
Another of the emerging quarterbacks of 1961 is Meredith, who as a sophomore is not forgetting his automatics as he did last year. Unlike Jurgensen and Starr, Meredith was from the start expected to be one of the authentic leaders of the game. Vince Lombardi, the Packer coach, and Van Brocklin, then with the Eagles, both said Meredith would reach the stature of a Unitas or a Layne before his playing days were over. Meredith still has much to learn, and since the talent-poor Cowboys will have to use him most of the time this year, he should learn quickly.
Most surprising of the big crop of new quarterbacks is Bill Kilmer, the San Francisco 49er, who may be the first player since Bob Waterfield in 1945 to take over as a championship quarterback while still a rookie. Waterfield led the old Cleveland Rams to a championship, and Kilmer, if he fulfills his early promise, could do the same for San Francisco. His, however, is a special situation; as a former UCLA single-wing tailback who ran and/or passed starting from five yards behind his line, he fits in perfectly with Red Hickey's shotgun offense, a short punt formation that places the quarterback five yards behind the center. Kilmer does not throw as well as his contemporaries in the league, but in the wide-spread attack of the shotgun, and with the threat of a run to open up the defense, he throws well enough.
Of course, in the American Football League, all of the passers are still learning their own personnel as well as the enemy defenses. Most accomplished so far are veterans Jack Kemp of the San Diego Chargers, who spent three years in the NFL, and George Blanda, the signal-caller for the Houston Oilers, now in his 12th year of pro ball.