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THE QUARTERBACK QUANDARY EVERYONE WANTS A 'FRANCHISE QB'--BUT THEY'RE HARD TO DRAFT, TOUGH TO TEACH AND EXPENSIVE TO KEEP

Aug. 01, 1996
Aug. 01, 1996

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Aug. 1, 1996

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THE QUARTERBACK QUANDARY EVERYONE WANTS A 'FRANCHISE QB'--BUT THEY'RE HARD TO DRAFT, TOUGH TO TEACH AND EXPENSIVE TO KEEP

It is remembered as the Quarterback Draft of 1983, or,
frequently, the Great Quarterback Draft of 1983. Never before
had so many snap-takers been snapped up so high, six going in
the first 27 picks. Never have so many first-rounders carried on
so well, with the Big Three of '83--John Elway, Jim Kelly and
Dan Marino--all still with their original NFL teams, guiding
those teams to a total of eight Super Bowls and being elected to
15 Pro Bowl squads. "That was a unique year," says Bill Tobin,
the Colts' director of football operations. "I don't see us
having another one like it in my lifetime."

This is an article from the Aug. 1, 1996 issue

Mark that draft with a finger, thumb through the rest of the
record book and get a sense of how times have changed. To begin
with, there have been six quarterbacks taken in the first round
in the past four drafts combined. Among the 23 post-1983
first-round QBs, only Dallas's Troy Aikman has made more than
one Pro Bowl (not including injury replacements), while
eight--Chuck Long, Kelly Stouffer, Timm Rosenbach, Andre Ware,
Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich, David Klingler, Tommy Maddox--have
made no mark at all. Of last season's starters, only five had
spent their entire NFL careers with one team and made even one
Pro Bowl, and three of them were from the '83 crop: Elway (the
No. 1 pick) of Denver, Kelly (14) of Buffalo and Marino (27) of
Miami. (The other two are Aikman and New England's Drew
Bledsoe.) In other words, there were more "franchise
quarterbacks" in that draft than in the 13 since.

But like a huge figure that casts an even huger shadow, the
Great Quarterback Draft only illuminates how vast the void is in
today's franchise-quarterback market. "Maybe the wrong people
are getting together genetically," muses Joe Mack, the Panthers'
assistant general manager. "Maybe there aren't enough big,
intelligent people having babies. Or maybe they're too smart to
play football. Maybe they're in stocks and bonds and becoming
lobbyists."

The notion that a struggling team will now readily identify the
top college quarterback, draft him high, train him on the job,
build a championship-caliber squad around him and hold on to him
for his entire career seems as passe as parachute pants. Aikman,
taken seven years ago, is the only draftee since '83 who has
followed that path smoothly. The great ones nowadays are harder
to come by, tougher to gauge, riskier to nurture and too costly
to keep. It has now become easier, smarter and safer for teams
to pick up a free-agent retread than waste a No. 1 choice and
gamble millions of dollars on a rawboned kid who may never
develop.

"There just hasn't been the list of four or five can't-miss guys
in the first round for a while," says Broncos offensive
coordinator and ex-quarterback Gary Kubiak, Denver's
eighth-round pick in '83. "To find that guy who can take a team
that has an early pick right into the playoffs--I don't think
you see that happening as much." When it comes to manning the
most pivotal position on the field, the NFL's personnel
pooh-bahs find themselves puzzled. Here's why.

--A diluted talent pool. When he was chosen No. 1 in the class
of '83 out of Stanford, Elway had options: pursue a career in
football or sign up as a full-time slugging outfielder in the
Yankees' farm system. That he chose the former (and used his
two-sport leverage to force the then Baltimore Colts to trade
his rights to Denver) was a sign of the economics of the time.
Baseball wasn't dishing out big bucks to those unproven at the
major league level and football was. But times have changed.

In 1994 Josh Booty, considered by many to be the best
quarterback prospect in the history of Louisiana, turned down a
free ride from LSU. Instead he accepted a $1.6 million signing
bonus to play third base in the Florida Marlins' minor league
system, a sum not far out of line with what top baseball
prospects are getting these days. "What I see is that the talent
at the college level is going into baseball," says Tom Braatz,
the Dolphins' director of scouting. "The money is better and
they don't have to get knocked around. It's pretty simple logic."

Even so, athletes who do choose to pitch footballs in college
should be better equipped than they used to be to jump to the
pros. Only a few schools are slaves to the option anymore, and
most college coaches spend their off-seasons at NFL clinics to
glean more-sophisticated passing systems. But that exposure to
high-tech schemes doesn't necessarily produce pro quarterbacks.
"Either they have the tools or they don't," says Colts
quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "I've never been a believer that just
because a guy comes out of a pro-style scheme, he's going to be
a good pro quarterback. If that was the case, you'd have a lot
of guys from Florida, Florida State, BYU and Stanford starting
in the league."

Indeed, with 30 teams now dipping into an increasingly shallow
talent pool, it's possible that more NFL coaches will be pulling
a reverse, stealing from the old college playbooks and even
utilizing the option, a la the Steelers with Kordell Stewart.
"You have to play the hand that's dealt," Saints VP of football
operations Bill Kuharich says. "Maybe you have to adapt, run
more and mix in some play action. Maybe you're not as wide open."

--No measuring stick. "There are more varied opinions when it
comes to quarterback than any other position," says Broncos
coach Mike Shanahan. That's due, in part, to an information
overload: Each G.M.'s wish list has become an idiosyncratic
jumble of priorities ranging from arm strength (enough to throw
the dig, the out, the comeback and, on one step without a
windup, the go) to nimbleness afoot (a sub-five-second 40 is a
must) to accuracy (connecting at least 90% of the time against
no D) to velocity (50 to 60 mph is good) to intelligence (a
minimum 19 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test). "Quarterback is a
unique position," says Lions director of player personnel Ron
Hughes. "A guy could be missing any one of those ingredients and
it would affect his play."

And high on every wish list are those ingredients even harder to
measure. "I think there are a lot of guys out there who have
strong arms and quick feet and fit the mold, but they don't have
that innate ability to focus on what they have to do when guys
are trying to kill them," says Jim Fassel, the Cardinals'
offensive coordinator. "Watch a tape and one scout will look at
the revolutions per second of the ball. That doesn't even matter
to me--it only tells me he throws a tight spiral. I'd rather put
the tape on and watch 20 third-and-five situations. When the
play isn't right and he still makes something out of it, fine."

"What makes a quarterback is less tangibles than intangibles,"
says Steelers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. "If it was just
throwing the ball the farthest, Dan McGwire would have been a
hero." The 6'8" McGwire was the 16th pick in '91 and started
just five games before being released by Seattle in '95. "The
leadership, the ability to respond when things aren't going good
and make plays under pressure--it's those things you can't
measure," says Randy Mueller, the Seahawks' vice president of
football operations. "McGwire got into situations like that and
it was the deer-in-the-headlights kind of stage fright."

--Fear of risk. There are two problems with taking a quarterback
No. 1: First, you have to pay him a lot, and second, you have to
play him a lot. With the salary cap placing a premium on
production per dollar and free agency looming just four years
away, the only way to maximize the value of the pick is to
force-feed him snaps and cross your fingers. "The thought now
is, if you draft a guy, you're going to end up getting him ready
over three or four seasons to play for somebody else," says
Falcons coach June Jones. "Unless you know he's going to be your
starter from Day One, it's hard to make yourself draft him."
Teams are also moving to lock up their blue-chip investments:
The last four first-round quarterbacks were signed for at least
seven years, at a total cost of $87.33 million.

Finding that balance between getting the most bang for your
draft buck and protecting your draft choice from getting
irreparably banged up becomes a team's toughest call. Last
season the Oilers handled it well, refusing to start Steve
McNair, their top pick, from Alcorn State, until they had been
eliminated from playoff contention. "We wanted Steve to come in
and adjust to NFL life," Houston coach Jeff Fisher says. "Sit in
on meetings. Have some success. Avoid being in a situation to
fail." The Panthers took the opposite approach with rookie Kerry
Collins, who gained valuable experience in 13 starts but who
also absorbed 24 sacks.

Some young quarterbacks are also just ready to play sooner than
others. For every Bledsoe who starts off well in New England
there is a Heath Shuler (page 36) who languishes in Washington
and a Trent Dilfer (page 39) who struggles in Tampa Bay. All are
No. 1's with a bullet--only it is being aimed at them by fed-up
fans anticipating instant results. "Any first-round choice has
expectations," Shanahan says. "It's a heavy burden to carry. And
quarterbacks get it even worse."

The burden is akin to more than learning a new language in a
matter of months. It's like mastering that language and
communicating clearly even as hopped-up behemoths attempt to
dismember you, then remaining confident in the face of the
saltiest criticism. That confidence is the key, and it's
something that Elway, Kelly, Marino, Todd Blackledge (the
seventh pick in '83), Tony Eason (15th) and Ken O'Brien (24th)
exhibited. "The guys from '83 all had a common thing: They were
mentally tough," says Larry Cook, a Patriots scout. "I think
that's probably the one reason that top-drafted guys fail. They
all have the arm, but because of the pressure put on them and
the scrutiny of the NFL on 16 Sundays, it's difficult. There's
not a lot of loyalty from pro fans. It's not, Come on, let's win
one for the school."

So it's not surprising that in April's draft, no quarterback was
chosen until the second round, when the Rams picked Michigan
State's Tony Banks No. 42. Nor is it surprising that of last
season's starting quarterbacks, 10 had been taken in the fourth
round or lower. The road to success is often best paved slowly,
with clipboard in hand. In 1992 the Bengals selected
run-and-shoot marksman Klingler from Houston with the sixth
choice in the draft. Less than three years and nearly 100 sacks
later, he was replaced by Jeff Blake (page 42), a sixth-round
pick in '92, who had been waived by the Jets. Blake suited up
for the AFC in the Pro Bowl last January.

--Too little time. The learning curve for an NFL quarterback has
never been steeper; the intensity of the media's eye never
greater; the defensive personnel never more intimidating. As a
result, trying to project how a 22-year-old QB will react when
thrown into the pro arena has never been more difficult. "There
are more multiple-receiver formations and more five- and six-
and seven-back defenses, and those were developed to stop the
guys from '83," Cook says. "Those guys got to develop with that
over four or five years. These kids, we're asking them to play
against defenses it took 10 years to devise."

Consequently the kids today require more nurturing than ever,
and good nurturing, according to Aikman, is hard to find. In his
seven years in Dallas he has played for three of the game's top
quarterbacks mentors: Jerry Rhome (who now tutors McNair), Norv
Turner and Ernie Zampese. "More than there not being talented
quarterbacks, I think the problem is that there are not enough
good young quarterbacks coaches in the league to develop them,"
Aikman says. "There have been quarterbacks come out who have had
outstanding college careers, and they never seem to grasp the
pro game. I think a lot of them have the ability but have never
been put in a position to achieve success."

After a successful rookie year in '93, Seattle's Rick Mirer has
labored. He has also, in three years, played for two different
quarterbacks coaches with two different systems. Steve Young,
the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX, was a bust with the Bucs before
booming under Bill Walsh's guidance with the 49ers; Brett Favre,
the '95 MVP, might still be a backup had he not joined Mike
Holmgren in Green Bay; and ex-Colt Jeff George, the draft's top
pick in 1990, has a new lease on life in Atlanta under Jones.

As an assistant with the Oilers in 1987 and '88, Jones saw
something special in Warren Moon and urged the team not to
unload him to the Raiders; and in Detroit in '89 and '90, Jones
helped develop a CFL refugee named Erik Kramer, who last season
threw 29 touchdown passes for the Bears. As long as a
quarterback is accurate and tough, Jones believes, he has a
chance to succeed. "You know how close [Kramer] was to not even
getting in the league?" Jones asks. "If we hadn't signed him,
he'd have been out. It's just that you've got to be able to spot
it, and then you've got to be willing to hang with what you know."

Then there's that other fit that must be right, between the
quarterback and the team's scheme. A QB's failure with one team
is often less a matter of ability than of adaptability.
Klingler's run-and-shoot background didn't take advantage of the
Bengals' deep speed at receiver; Blake's scrambling and strong
arm do. Says Cincinnati coach Dave Shula, "Sometimes you have a
vision of the classic quarterback, and you keep trying to fit
that mold, sort of putting a square peg into a round hole,
rather than trying to look for a different type of mold."

--The secondhand market. Because there seem to be fewer and
fewer budding franchise-caliber quarterbacks available in the
draft, and because discerning a collegian's innate gift for
guiding a pro team is a crapshoot anyway, and because spending
No. 1 money on a QB could well be a cap-consuming waste if a
rookie's talent winds up fitting neither the coaching staff nor
the system, there is a more sensible place to acquire the most
crucial player on an NFL team: from some other NFL team.

Of the 12 playoff quarterbacks last year, only four (including
'83 alums Marino and Kelly) were playing for the team that
drafted them. The other eight had been traded for or bought on
the free-agent market. They had already gained a grasp of the
pro game, taken their lumps and exposed their flaws and fine
points for all to see. "The second offensive system should fit
them better," Cook says. "After a few seasons in the league
people realize more what a guy can do and what he can't."

"Sometimes they just grow up," Seahawks player personnel
director Mike Allman says. "They bounce around. They watch. They
listen. They learn. Finally they say to themselves, 'I can do
this.' Then it's a matter of finding the right place to do it,
where the coach believes in them and they start believing in
themselves. Harbaugh is a perfect example of that."

Indeed, Harbaugh, reviled in Chicago, steered Indy to its first
playoff appearance since '87. Meanwhile, the teams quarterbacked
by the four most recent first-rounders went a combined 28-36.
And coaching security being the oxymoron that it is, a boss puts
himself at graver risk if he hands the reins to an unproven
commodity. Just ask Sam Wyche, formerly of Tampa Bay, who had to
play Dilfer after the Bucs traded Craig Erickson.

No, rarer and rarer is the quarterback who will begin his career
in one uniform, withstand the painful learning process in it and
then wear it all the way to Canton. The '83 draft, it seems,
prompted unreal notions of how many franchise quarterbacks would
follow. Such players, in fact, have always been rare--except for
that one year. "If you use that draft as the standard," Elway
says, "there's always going to be disappointment."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Favre (4), Atlanta's second-round pick in '91, floundered as a Falcon but has prospered as a Packer, throwing for 38 TDs and earning MVP honors last year. [Brett Favre in game] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Marino, the last QB picked in the first round of the famed '83 draft, has become the most prolific; but very few first-rounders have followed in his footsteps. [Dan Marino passing football]COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Carolina opted to put Collins, the Panthers' first-ever draft pick, through the school of hard knocks; he started 13 games but had 19 interceptions along the way. [Kerry Collins trying to pass football against San Francisco 49ers]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Aikman developed steadily into an All-Pro; Bledsoe (right) appeared to be on that same path after a promising second season but then slumped badly. [Troy Aikman] COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--Drew Bledsoe]COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Shunned in Chicago after seven mediocre seasons, Harbaugh emerged suddenly and surprisingly with the Colts last year, leading the NFL in passing efficiency. [Jim Harbaugh in game] COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [Rick Mirer]COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MANNIELLO/SPORTSCHROME Rather than letting McNair get snowed under in his rookie year, the Oilers played the former Alcorn State star sparingly, with an eye toward the future. [Steve McNair in game]

QUARTERBACK CENSUS

Some data on last season's 30 starting quarterbacks:

Where drafted

Round 1 Rounds 2-5 6-7 or undrafted
15 7 8

How acquired

Draft Trade Free agency/waivers
11 10 9

Years with '95 team

6 or more 3-5 1-2
5 9 16

NFL teams played for

One Two Three or more
11 14 5

Age

26 or under 27-32 33 or over
9 12 9

Pro Bowls

3 or more 1-2 None
6 7 17

THE COST OF A QUARTERBACK

In '93 Seattle signed its No. 1 pick, Rick Mirer (right), to a
three-year deal with a two-year club option. Below is a
breakdown of how much the club will have invested in Mirer by
the end of the '97 season, at which point he will be an
unrestricted free agent and could sign elsewhere.

Base salary
$9.33 million

Bonus
$3.35 million

Incentives
$3 million

Five-year total
$15.68 million