John Unitas, who has played a little quarterback, opened the season on the bench for the first time in 12 years when the Baltimore Colts beat the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago and he was still there when the Colts won again last week, beating Atlanta. Johnny U. is 35, and his right elbow, chronically sore for three years, hurt too badly for him to throw the ball; fortunately the Colts had 34-year-old Earl Morrall to fill in and do an excellent job.
Bart Starr, the only quarterback considered the equal of Unitas, shrugged off his 34 years to complete 14 of 18 passes while Green Bay defeated Philadelphia in its opener. Don Meredith, who is 30 and has moved into stardom in the last two years, did even better, hitting 16 of 19 in leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 59-13 whomping of the Detroit Lions; last weekend he guided the Cowboys to their second straight victory. And 34-year-old Sonny Jurgensen, the fourth of the super quarterbacks, completed 14 of 21 passes for four touchdowns to upset Chicago for the Washington Redskins.
Aside from their obvious excellence, the one thing the four have in common is their age. Each is 30 or over; within the next five years it is almost certain that at least three of them will find that life on the shady side of 35 is more comfortable if spent in the stands. Only Charlie Conerly and Y. A. Tittle, in recent years, have played past 35 with any degree of competence.
It is no coincidence that the big four are all plus 30. The apprenticeship for a quarterback in the National Football League is long, hard and often cruel. Not many athletes have either the mental or physical toughness to survive it, and only a few ever graduate to super-stardom. The others, because of injury, a psychological fatigue that magnifies the terrors of the job or an innate inability to cope with its mental demands, become journeymen, capable of an occasional brilliant game but unable to sustain a championship level for an entire season.
Behind the big four in the National Football League today stand a number of quarterbacks, all of whom, at one time or another, have indicated great potential. Some are only a step away, while a few are just beginning their arduous schooling. Among those who have completed their apprenticeship and are on the verge of breaking into the top echelon, Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams seems most likely to take the final step. He is 28, has been with the Rams since 1962 and, most important, has had the opportunity of playing instead of sitting on the bench.
"He has attained a certain majesty," said Bernie Casey, the fine Ram receiver, after Gabriel put the team into the playoffs last year. "It rubs off on all of us."
Gabriel's problems in his first four years were inconsistency and a curious reluctance to release the ball quickly, but suddenly he began to read defenses surely. Where he had been hesitant throwing the ball into confusing coverage, he became decisive. He has always had the arm and at 6'4" and 230 he is the biggest quarterback in the league, probably the only one strong enough to break away from a tackier, stiff-arm a linebacker and still get the pass away. Since 1965, when he replaced the injured Bill Munson in midseason, Gabriel has won 24 of the 35 games he has started. In two climactic games at the close of the 1967 season he may have taken the step from continued star to superstar: against Baltimore and Green Bay he ignored the pressure to complete 38 of 58 passes for six touchdowns and 479 yards. Neither Unitas nor Starr (his opposing quarterbacks) could be expected to improve on that.
Gabriel has had the advantage of playing with one of the best teams in football. Another outstanding 28-year-old has not been as lucky. Fran Tarkenton, the 6', 190-pound scrambler for the New York Giants, began his career with the Minnesota Vikings in the same year the team was formed, an enormous handicap for even a seasoned quarterback. Despite this, he has compiled a better career record than Gabriel.
At Minnesota, Tarkenton spent much of his time bouncing from sideline to sideline in search of receivers and he developed a healthy distaste for nonexistent protective pockets. He proved that he could throw with surprising accuracy while dodging tackles, a not inconsiderable talent. Unfortunately for Tarkenton, he left the Vikings last year for the Giants, where he was still forced to scramble. Norman Van Brocklin, then the Viking coach following a career spent as an extremely immobile quarterback, lived uncomfortably with Tarkenton. "With the Peach," he once said sourly, "a coach has to come up with a good third-and-40 offense."
Allie Sherman of the Giants has accepted Tarkenton's tendency to roam. He has designed part of the Giant offense to take advantage of it, and Tarkenton may have his best years ahead as the Giants continue to improve. No scrambler has ever won an NFL championship. If Fran's legs retain their spring into his 30s, he may be the first of a new breed.
Just a few completions behind Gabriel and Tarkenton are a cluster of quarterbacks who have the promise but, in most cases, have lacked the opportunity to achieve superstar status. Three of them—Gary Cuozzo of Minnesota, Bill Munson of Detroit and Bill Kilmer of New Orleans—have spent most of their time understudying other quarterbacks who possessed either superior talent or who were preferred by their coaches. Cuozzo was No. 2 behind John Unitas on the Colts before he asked to be traded rather than remain on the bench.
"I learned a lot just from watching Johnny," Cuozzo said some time ago. "But I thought I was ready to start and I had no chance with Baltimore."
Cuozzo got a chance to start with the Saints, but he is a classical drop-back quarterback who needs a pocket to throw from, and the Saints had a few holes in their pockets. By midseason of 1967 Coach Tom Fears had decided to go with Kilmer who is a strong runner. The decision may have saved Cuozzo's life. He was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, only to be sidelined by an injury during the preseason and see Joe Kapp, a 30-year-old quarterback who has spent most of his career in the Canadian League, take over. Cuozzo, almost a carbon copy of Unitas in his drop-back, set and pass, could still hit the top. He is only 26 and he has the arm and the mind, plus adequate size—6'1", 195. He is in the same plight as Detroit's 27-year-old Munson, who also must shake the No. 2 personality.
Munson. unlike Cuozzo, has demonstrated that he is capable of handling the burdens of a starting quarterback. In his first year with the Los Angeles Rams, 1964, he took over as first-string quarterback and held that job until the middle of the 1965 season, when a knee injury opened the door for Roman Gabriel. During the next two seasons Munson stewed on the bench.
"When George Allen took over two years ago," Munson said before the Lions lost to Dallas in the season opener, "he told me that he was going to give me and Gabriel the same shot at quarterback. Then I played maybe two quarters in the whole exhibition season. He said he was bringing me along slow, but I think that was a little too slow."
Gabriel was Allen's quarterback from the beginning, although some members of the Los Angeles press and a considerable number of fans questioned the coach's judgment.
"The first year I sat on the bench was torture," Munson said. "Toward the end of the season I had colitis and, sitting on the bench, I was tense and tied up. The next year I was resigned to it, but I told Mr. Reeves [Dan Reeves, owner of the Rams] that I was going to play out my option so that I could move to a club where I could start."
Both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions wanted the Ram quarterback, but Munson, despite the added lure of possible Super Bowl money with Green Bay, opted for Detroit. "At Green Bay I would have had the same thing," he said. "I couldn't expect to replace Bart Starr."
At Detroit the starting job was waiting for him. "We tried to get him for three years," says Russ Thomas, the Detroit general manager. "He's a natural No. 1. We knew it. In this game if you don't have a quarterback—even if you have everything else—it's like trying to run a bank without money."
Munson completed 19 of 22 passes as the Lions beat Baltimore in a preseason game, but an operation to remove a growth from his leg kept him from working on his timing. Then he suffered a pulled muscle in his chest, which prevented him from starting the Dallas game on opening day.
But last week against Chicago, Munson did exactly what Detroit hoped he could, completing 15 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns as the Lions crushed the Bears 42-0. In every way he looked like the money in Detroit's bank.
Bill Kilmer, at 29, may have been given his opportunity too late and with too weak a team. Kilmer was the big gun in the San Francisco shotgun attack a few years ago, then suffered a severe ankle injury in an auto accident and hardly played at all until he was picked up by New Orleans in the expansion draft of 1967.
"Kilmer is a great competitor," says Fears, the Saints coach. "He's not a picture passer but he makes things happen. He moves the ball." He runs well enough and his wobbly passes hit the mark, but Kilmer has too much to prove with a team that won't give him a chance to prove it. Like all good quarterbacks, he has confidence. He threw well during preseason games. "This year I feel the job is mine," he says. "As a result, I think I'll take more chances." After a mediocre first game Kilmer was almost inconsolable. "The offense let the defense down, and I was to blame," he said. Last week Kilmer could smile again as he led the Saints to a 37-17 victory over Washington, passing for 183 yards and two touchdowns.
Probably farthest removed from the quarterback throne room are five very young starters: Jim Hart, 24, of St. Louis; Randy Johnson, 24, of Atlanta; Jack Concannon, 25, of Chicago; Kent Nix, 23, of Pittsburgh; and Don Meredith's understudy, 25-year-old Craig Morton.
Two of them (Concannon and Nix) got starting jobs after being traded. Nix, who has run the Steeler offense since the third game of 1967, speaks for both when he says, "I'm glad I was traded by the Packers. A quarterback should play when he is young. The most important thing I learned last year was to recognize defenses. Now I can anticipate, but I still need better anticipation on first and third downs and I have to learn to throw the ball harder. My ball kinda sails out."
Concannon throws the ball hard enough, but, like most young quarterbacks, he has trouble with the delicate timing of short, square-out passes. He is a big man, like Gabriel, and a good runner. In his opening game he ran and wound up with a broken nose for his trouble, and last week against Detroit he couldn't do anything right. A year ago, when George Halas was still coaching the team, he watched Concannon in practice and said, "This boy will make it. I think he has the tools, and we'll teach him to stay in the pocket." If he learns the lesson and improves his short passing game, he is on the way.
Randy Johnson, like Tarkenton, began his pro career on an expansion team, but unlike Tarkenton, he does not have enough agility to scramble out of danger. As a result he has taken a fearful beating in his first two seasons, and while he is learning in a pressure cooker, he may be taking too much heat. The Atlanta Falcons have not improved much this year, and a third year of unremitting punishment could set Johnson back beyond repair. Norm Snead, the ill-fated quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, had the same experience in his early days with the Washington Redskins and only recently regained the poise and confidence of a first-rate quarterback.
Jim Hart, the youngster who was thrown into the lineup at St. Louis when the army called up Charley Johnson, has had moments of competence, but he threw 30 interceptions in his first year and three in the first game of this season under grievous pressure from the Los Angeles Rams. Like most young men, he has a tendency to force a pass or throw into too tight coverage instead of holding the ball. It is unfair to dismiss him on his performance so far; he needs the seasoning and intuition that comes only with time.
By the time Craig Morton, the Dallas No. 2, gets his chance at running the club, he should have all the seasoning he needs. He is in the fortunate position of playing for a high-scoring team behind a 30-year-old quarterback who often needs a rest. Morton played most of the second half in the Cowboys' first game, completing nine of 17 passes, one for a touchdown. When Don Meredith is having an off day, the Dallas fans have already begun to chant "We want Morton! We want Morton!" and some day they will get him.
But that day, for Morton and for most of the NFL's young generals, lies a few years in the future.