Is it our imagination, or is the Quarterback talent drying up? Where's the great young talent? Where are the tough guys, the Dan Fouts, John Unitas, Joe Namath types, people who can hang in and win games with busted noses and cracked ribs? How many of today's quarterbacks will end up in the Hall of Fame?
Fifteen years ago, five future Hall of Famers were in the league, and three more should make it. Now? At the risk of passing premature judgment on the young, let's say three—Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino—will end up in Canton. Maybe four, if you include Jim Kelly, but he's 28 and has got to make his move. Three of the four—Elway, Marino and Kelly—are from the famous class of '83, in which six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, and all three became starters. (Ken O'Brien, Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason were the other three.) But what has happened since then?
In the five NFL drafts from 1984 to '88, 27 quarterbacks were picked in the first five rounds; the average for the three preceding five-year periods was 32.3. Counting supplemental drafts, eight quarterbacks from the 1984-88 era were first-rounders; the three previous five-year periods produced an average of 9.7 first-rounders. From the total number of quarterbacks who joined the NFL from 1984 to '88—that's counting free agents as well as draft choices—12 became starters, although some have since lost their jobs. Compare that with 22 starters from the period 1978 to '83, 17 from 1974 to '78 (which historians rate as another dry era for quarterbacks), and 23 from 1969 to '73.
O.K., some of the newer guys might still become starters, although the chances are slim for this year's rookie crop. Last spring's draft yielded a record low of two quarterbacks in the first five rounds, and both of them were third-rounders. One of them, Tom Tupa of the Cardinals, was selected as a combination quarterback-punter. Each five-year period has produced its share of stars, but let's look at what the drafts of the past half decade have given us:
•1984—five starters. Steve Young, Tampa Bay's No. 1 pick in the supplemental draft, is now the darling of the San Francisco Bay Area. Everyone is writing obits for Montana because he played one lousy game in last year's playoffs. But Montana had an outstanding regular season, and Niner coach Bill Walsh is not about to hand over the job to Young. Granted, he has talent, but Young has been on three teams in two leagues and has yet to prove he can really work a game. Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason is a competent starter; Washington's Jay Schroeder, a Pro Bowler in '86, lost his job to Doug Williams. Steve Pelluer had the Dallas job, lost it to Danny White, and now has it again, uh, maybe. Finally, Randy Wright was rushed into quick service in Green Bay and now is fighting off a mob led by former Raider Mark Wilson.
•1985—two starters. Bernie Kosar of Cleveland and Randall Cunningham of Philadelphia are both budding stars.
•1986—three starters. The jury's out on all of them: Jack Trudeau of Indianapolis, Jim Everett of the Rams and Chuck Long of Detroit.
•1987—two starters. Chris Miller may be all right if he survives playing for Atlanta. Ditto Vinny Testaverde in Tampa Bay, but here and there you hear whispers that the Bucs shouldn't have let Young go to make room for him.
•1988—zip. Out of all the colleges playing football—hundreds of programs, thousands of athletes—how come only two quarterbacks were drafted in the first five rounds? A cyclical thing, say the more optimistic scouts. Perhaps. But since 1983 I count only two quarterbacks, Kosar and Cunningham, who can quicken your pulse. So the question remains: Why not more?
"Teams have gone corporate," says former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. "You used to have half a dozen or so exceptional quarterbacks—Unitas, Bradshaw, Starr, Hadl, Jurgensen, Namath. If they played well, the team won. Today the primary job of a quarterback is not to win games; it's to make the right decisions and not lose them. Most clubs are no longer one-quarterback teams. It's like training two senior vice-presidents—and coaches will make a change quicker these days. It's like bringing a World B. Free off the bench. It's the only way some of these coaches can impact a team. It's easier than being a true quarterback coach, a teacher."
We put the question to a multitude of NFL people—past and present coaches, players, scouts and general managers: Are we in a down era for quarterbacks? Their answers fall into general groupings by profession. Retired quarterbacks and older vets agree that the modern group is missing something. Coaches, who have to coach their own quarterbacks and prepare for the other guys', do not agree for the most part. Hell, they say, there's plenty of talent around. What's more, the game's much more complicated now. Current quarterbacks generally agree with the coaches.
"Sonny Jurgensen was a great quarterback, a great passer," says Buffalo coach Marv Levy. "He looked at a strong zone, weak zone and man-to-man free safety. There isn't enough time for me to explain all the coverages there are now. And they limit a quarterback's ability to be as consistent as he once was. Even the good ones now aren't quite so consistent. If anything, there are more good arms. But they're going against more good defenders."
"Bart Starr and Bob Griese were great quarterbacks who won championships," says Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert. "But if you put them in one-on-one drills with Marino and Elway, they wouldn't even be on the same field. I'm not saying that in a negative way. I'm just talking about physical skills."
More good arms now? Better physical skills? I'm not so sure. Namath threw the ball as hard as anyone. Terry Bradshaw's passes looked as if they came out of a pipe. Bobby Douglass of the Bears was a flamethrower whom no one remembers, and James (Shack) Harris of the Bills and Rams could bring it as well as anyone. The game has always had major arms, and I think more of them might have been around in the old days. If so many great arms are coming out of college these days, why don't more quarterbacks get drafted higher?
The older scouts generally agree that today's quarterbacking talent is subpar, but for the life of them they don't know why. After all, more colleges are putting the ball in the air than in the past. "It's a real puzzler," says Charley Casserly, Washington's chief scout. "More colleges are going to drop-back passing, the veer and the wishbone have diminished over the last 10 years, and there are better passing coaches in the schools. Still, for five years the drafts have slid. We're getting kids who are smart and trained, but we're not getting as many big, strong, picture-type quarterbacks.
"Here's an off-the-wall theory: the influence of soccer on the youth of America. You find a lot of kids playing soccer, which means x amount are not playing football. There's a trickle-down effect. Some people might say that doesn't make any sense, but let them come up with a better reason."
"It's got to be the mommies' and daddies' fault," says Bengal coach Sam Wyche. "They have to put out kids with stronger arms."
"Maybe kids aren't getting enough Vitamin B," says Roger Staubach.
"Hey, look," says Casserly, "pull out some rosters from 10 or 15 years ago and see what there was around the league. Maybe the talent was the same. That's the only way to really find out."
So let's compare, team by team. We'll go back 15 years and hit all 26 teams. (The Buccaneers and Seahawks didn't exist in 1973.) The evaluations, you understand, are strictly personal.
COLTS: Bert Jones vs. Trudeau and Gary Hogeboom. Score one for '73.
Bills: Joe Ferguson vs. Kelly. Kelly wins, but it's close.
Bengals: Ken Anderson vs. Esiason. Anderson is a future Hall of Famer. He gets the nod.
Browns: Mike Phipps vs. Kosar. No contest. It's Kosar.
Broncos: Charley Johnson vs. Elway. Johnson was the first honest-to-good-ness quarterback that Denver had who knew how to move a team, but Elway has the edge.
Oilers: Dan Pastorini and Lynn Dickey vs. Warren Moon. Two beleaguered rookies against a competent vet. Moon wins, but Pastorini and Dickey certainly had the arms.
Chiefs: Len Dawson vs. Bill Kenney. Dawson, a Hall of Famer, is an easy choice.
Dolphins: Griese vs. Marino. Sorry, Bob.
Patriots: Jim Plunkett, age 25, with a whole rags-to-riches career in front of him, vs. Steve Grogan, backed up by an injured Eason. Many things to evaluate, past, future, entire career. Very difficult. Call it even.
Jets: Namath vs. O'Brien. Hall of Famer No. 2 wins it.
Raiders: Ken Stabler vs. a mob. The Snake in a walkover.
Steelers: Bradshaw vs. Bubby Brister and Blackledge. A laugher. Bradshaw has Hall of Fame written all over him.
Chargers: Fouts vs. Mark Malone and Babe Laufenberg. No contest. When Fouts, Bradshaw and Anderson are enshrined in Canton, that will be eight Hall of Famers from this era.
Halftime score: 1973 leads 7-5-1.
FALCONS: Bob Lee vs. Miller. Miller wins on potential.
Bears: Douglass and Gary Huff vs. Jim McMahon. Score one for '88.
Cowboys: Staubach vs. Pelluer and White. Yet another '73 Hall of Famer.
Lions: Bill Munson and Greg Landry vs. Long. Munson and Landry were two underrated and highly productive quarterbacks. Long isn't there yet. We'll go with '73.
Packers: Jerry Tagge and Scott Hunter vs. Wilson and Wright. This one goes to '88.
Rams: John Hadl vs. Everett. Hadl had one of his greatest years in leading Los Angeles to a 12-2 record. He also had a magnificent career. He wins.
Vikings: Fran Tarkenton vs. Wade Wilson and Tommy Kramer. Hall of Fame vs. two good quarterbacks. Tarkenton gets the nod.
Saints: Archie Manning vs. Hebert. A win for '73.
Giants: Norm Snead and Randy Johnson vs. Phil Simms. Simms is an old-style quarterback who would have been good in any era. No contest.
Eagles: Roman Gabriel vs. Cunningham. Gabriel had 23 TD passes and 12 interceptions in '73, exactly what Cunningham had last season. Gabriel wins on the strength of an entire career.
Cardinals: Jim Hart vs. Neil Lomax. People forget how good Hart's 18-year career was. He gets our vote.
49ers: John Brodie vs. Montana. A tough loss for John.
Redskins: Jurgensen, backed up by Billy Kilmer, vs. Williams and Schroeder. Jurgy is our fifth and last '73 Hall of Famer, and he gets a win here.
Final score: 15-10-1 in favor of the quarterbacks of '73.
We also compared this year's quarterbacks with their counterparts from 10 and 20 years ago, and the old-timers won by roughly the same margin. What does this prove? Only that in an era in which athletic performance is supposedly improving in all sports, quarterbacking at the professional level isn't as good as it used to be. Granted, the signal callers of 15 years ago didn't have to look at the changing spectrum of 3-4, 4-3, nickel, dime and seven-back defenses. But I can see Namath, who carved up Baltimore's rather simplistic strongside rotation zone in Super Bowl III, doing the same thing to today's nickel and dime backs, zipping them to death with his 15-yard squareouts.
Many coaches say the physical pressure on the modern quarterbacks—in particular, the swarms of mobile Lawrence Taylor-type linebackers coming at them off a variety of stunts—is unhinging a lot of them. But players like Namath and Jurgensen killed blitzes because they got the ball away so quickly, in much the same way that Kosar eats up the blitz nowadays.
One reason today's quarterbacks are seeing so many blitzes and stunts is that, thanks to the strangleholds offensive linemen are permitted, defenses are having a hard time getting the job done with three and even four down linemen. Moreover, colleges aren't producing great defensive linemen anymore. The talent there is even drier than at quarterback. Any scout will tell you that. The top quarterbacks of 20 years ago didn't worry about the blitzers. They were too concerned with the likes of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Richie (Tombstone) Jackson. Remember Tombstone? He had a head slap that split helmets. Talk about pressure.
Now the pressure is mental. A kid is two years out of college, has a million-dollar contract, and the fans, media and owners want to get him in there so he can start earning his paycheck. When he takes the snap, half the time he doesn't know what he's looking at. "He's thinking, Is it a nickel, is it a dime, two linebackers, three?" says Theismann. "Nowadays you need an accountant in the huddle with you, a 12th man just to inform the quarterback as to who the defense has on the field."
Something you never hear anymore is quarterbacks complaining that they don't get to call their own plays. Says Giants general manager George Young, "Hell, they're thankful that they don't have to. They have enough to worry about. But at one time all you heard was about how dehumanizing it was."
Maybe that's part of the problem—too many mechanical quarterbacks. Make the right read, find the right receiver, don't screw up, earn your million bucks. "Two years ago I was talking to Bobby Dodd, the old Georgia Tech coach," says the Redskins' offensive coordinator, Dan Henning. "I asked him what was the most important factor in offensive football today. He said, 'Make sure that before the quarterback kills the other team, he doesn't kill your team.' "
What are NFL teams looking for: take-charge leaders or nonscrewups? "Some guys can't handle the pressure, even though they have the physical skills," says Staubach. "The big money produces pressure to win right away. Maybe it has them a little shell-shocked. NFL quarterbacking is dealing with pressure on a consistent basis."
Staubach was the ultimate two-minute quarterback. Joe Kapp was tough; he would take on linebackers. Gabriel was indestructible. Tarkenton, Namath, Unitas, Bradshaw, Fouts—they all had their individual styles. Now, once you get past the top few, the quarterbacks tend to blur into a kind of gray competence.
People talk about the running quarterbacks, such as Cunningham, Elway and Young, as if they were a new breed. True, they get down the field more quickly than their predecessors did, but the NFL has always had great running quarterbacks. Remember Marlin (the Magician) Briscoe in Denver and Douglass with his ferocious gallops in Chicago? ("Six foot four, 225 pounds of quarterback or whatever you want to call him," was Frank Gifford's line about Douglass.) The league has always had great scramblers, too, instinctive escape artists like Tarkenton, and Griese in his younger years. You can go back as far as Frankie Albert in San Francisco. Watch some of those old films of Albert and you'll be amazed.
My god, that's 40 years ago! I can see the smirks, hear the polite tee-hees. Leave the poor old guy under the tree with his memories. It's just that something has gone out of the position—individuality, toughness, style, call it what you want. "I see burnout," says Theismann. "I don't think freshmen should play varsity football. I don't think college players should be in year-round programs. I played baseball at Notre Dame, and in the summer I unloaded boxes and delivered beer in Somerville, New Jersey. Football wasn't a 12-month operation. Everybody has to step away from the game and rejuvenate himself mentally and physically. Counting all the off-season workouts, by the time a kid is a senior in college he's probably done as much throwing as a third-or fourth-year pro used to do. An arm has only so many throws. I don't think you'll see many more 15-year vets."
Mike Hickey, the Jets' director of player personnel, agrees. He traces the problem back to the high school level. "Some of those programs are so intense that they won't even let kids participate in other sports," says Hickey. "We're losing the three-sport athlete. Today, a high school football coach might tell a kid, 'O.K., run track or play basketball, but you've got to make our drills, too.'
"You see guys who are one-dimensional—football, that's it. I prefer the players with the multisport background. This isn't true only at quarterback. Every position is like that. The talent has fallen off everywhere in the last five drafts. There's a real tunnel vision in the development of football players. You see kids that are weight-room strong, but they don't have natural tensile strength. So they get hurt."
"Scouts have known for some time that this is a down era in overall talent," says Dick Steinberg, the Patriots' top scout. "I have my own theory. We're between baby-boom eras. The whole population of young people is down. Resorts, the fast-food industry—they're having a real problem finding kids to hire. That 1983 draft is remembered as the greatest quarterback draft in history, but it was more than that. It was the greatest draft, period. In those days any major school that you went to, you'd find a prospect that excited you. No more."
We may never see another pool of football talent like the one in '83. In addition to the six first-round quarterbacks who became NFL starters, Hebert, who wasn't even drafted, and Laufenberg, a sixth-round choice who might win the San Diego job this year, entered the league that year. Eric Dickerson and Curt Warner came out in '83. So did Anthony Carter. The Bears laid the groundwork for their victory in Super Bowl XX by drafting seven players who would eventually start for them. Three of them, Jim Covert, Richard Dent and Dave Duerson, would make the Pro Bowl. The Giants landed four Super Bowl-team first-stringers. In addition to Marino, Miami got Mark Clayton and Reggie Roby. San Diego picked up nine first-stringers; Washington drafted Charles Mann and Darrell Green; Detroit got half a dozen starters; San Francisco selected Roger Craig. The list goes on. All told, 23 eventual Pro Bowl players came out of that single draft.
What's on the quarterback horizon? Optimists say the '89 draft will supply four or five good ones. Most scouts, however, think only UCLA's Troy Aikman is a bona fide prospect. Meanwhile, many proud names, including the Cowboys, Raiders and Steelers, are hunting for a quarterback. Let's face it. There simply isn't enough talent to go around.
"I'd say the NFL has an upper echelon of quarterbacks," says 13-year veteran Ron Jaworski, who now backs up Marino in Miami. "Maybe five or six. Then there are another 10 guys behind them who are good, solid people who may not win a lot of games for you, but won't lose a lot, either. After that there are guys starting around the league who don't deserve to be starters."