Can this be the same Vinny Testaverde who won the 1986 Heisman Trophy while at the University of Miami and signed a six-year, $8.2 million contract after being selected first in the NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? With one week to go in the regular season. Testaverde is the 14th-rated quarterback in the 14-team NFC. In a 10-7 overtime loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday, he threw his 32nd interception of the year to tie Fran Tarkenton's conference record for most interceptions in a season. His lone touchdown pass was only his 10th of the year.
Everyone has a theory about Testaverde's shortcomings: He's not bright enough to be an NFL quarterback; he's too stubborn; he lacks a quarterback coach; he's colorblind (which he is) and can't tell the good guys from the bad; he has tunnel vision. The most charitable explanation is that Testaverde is learning his position while playing for a team that's callow (the Bucs' average age: 25) and crummy (4-11).
No one questions Testaverde's arm. This is his first season as a full-time starter, and he has thrown for more yards (3,051) than either Terry Bradshaw or John Elway did in his first year. What's more, he has had four 300-yard games. But Testaverde's knack for throwing his team into reverse has cast doubt on his capacity to decipher NFL defenses. Cornerbacks and safeties say that he's as easy to read as a children's book.
In analyzing his troubles, Testaverde says, "For some reason I'm still throwing it into coverage, out of being stubborn or young or not experienced yet."
Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins, who thinks that Testaverde moves out of the pocket too quickly when he feels pressure, thereby forcing himself to throw on the run or off his back foot, has taken charge of his education. When Marc Trestman, who was the Bucs' quarterback coach last season, left for the Cleveland Browns, Perkins decided to give himself the job. However, Perkins is also a Tampa Bay vice-president and the offensive coordinator, and some observers wonder whether Testaverde is receiving as much instruction as he needs. "If you bought a $2 million home, wouldn't you hire a gardener to take care of the property?" says one of Testaverde's former coaches.
But Perkins believes the 6'5", 215-pound Testaverde will someday be one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, and his outspoken faith in Testaverde is important; Bucs fans have been on Testaverde's case since opening day, when he threw five interceptions in a 41-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. As he left the field that day, some spectators who remembered his five interceptions against Penn State in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl chanted, "Penn State! Penn State!"
To some extent, Testaverde's ills began during that loss to the Nittany Lions, when Testaverde could not overcome a tenacious Penn State defense. That left some questioning whether Testaverde had the smarts to handle NFL defenses. And questioning Testaverde's intelligence remains a popular pastime. Even Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association, has got into the act. During a commercial break on the Dec. 4 NFL Live!, owners of satellite dishes overheard Upshaw repeat an apocryphal tale about Testaverde's alleged dim-wittedness. Testaverde may be quiet, aloof and unanalytical, but he's no fool. "He's got outstanding football understanding," says Trestman.
Testaverde's teammates remain solidly behind him. "He's making progress," says wideout Bruce Hill. "Nobody throws the ball in the deep seam better than he does."
Nevertheless, the abuse has shaken Testaverde. "It's still fun to be me," he says. "It's not fun to be me as a football player. What would really please me is to go out and play great. That would shut everybody up."