A Wing And a Prayer

Bad things are happening this season when quarterbacks, including the L.A. Rams' Jim Everett (above), drop back to pass
November 04, 1991

Today's NFL Quarterbacks—you call these guys helmsmen, field generals, architects of indomitable scoring drives? Deckhands on a tramp steamer, grunts, crane operators with wrecking balls would be more like it. Has there been a season in recent memory when, as a group, pro quarterbacks looked less, well...less professional?

At the midpoint of this season, through Sunday's games, touchdown passes are way down compared with last year. Scoring is off. Running the ball is up. Nervous, clueless quarterbacks throwing into triple coverage—that is way up. Halfway through last year, NFL teams had scored an average of 20 touchdowns, including 11 per club by way of the pass. At the same point this year they have averaged 16 TDs, with nine through the air. There have been 100 fewer touchdowns, 66 fewer scoring passes. In a game that measures change in inches and ounces, that's a remarkable drop.

And get this: Though the completion percentage for the league is up nearly 2%, total net passing yardage is down almost 1,700 yards. Only 11 regular quarterbacks have thrown for more touchdowns than interceptions. Airing it out—and then completing those bombs to men in friendly jerseys—is becoming a lost art.

One explanation may be that there just aren't enough good men for the job. "There are only about 10 NFL quarterbacks," says New England Patriots offensive coordinator Dick Coury. "There are a lot of good quarterbacks, but there's a big difference between being a good quarterback and being an NFL quarterback. An NFL quarterback is one who's good enough to win for you. He can win for you when the rest of your game isn't good enough. Today, it seems so many teams are trying to create situations in which they aren't asking the quarterback to win the game. Maybe that's because if you do ask him, he'll get you in trouble."

Here's trouble: People with names like Friesz, Goebel (Brad not George), Kemp, Tupa, O'Donnell and Wilhelm (Erik not Hoyt) have been taking a lot of snaps. Two of the most productive and pulse-quickening acts in the league, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, have been lost for the season with an elbow and a knee injury, respectively. Eight other starters have missed a total of 24 games because of injuries, including the Phoenix Cardinals' promising newcomer Timm Rosenbach, who's out for the year with torn knee ligaments, and Cunningham's backup, Jim McMahon, who sat out three weeks with a strained knee ligament. In addition, the Detroit Lions' Rodney Peete was sidelined for the rest of '91 when he tore an Achilles tendon on Sunday.

After McMahon went down, the Eagles had to turn their offense over to a rookie free agent, Goebel, who in his first start, against the hapless Tampa Bay Bucs on Oct. 6, completed 9 of 20 passes for 62 yards and threw two interceptions. The following week he was 12 of 22 for 106 yards and four interceptions in less than three quarters against the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles then gobbled up veteran backup Jeff Kemp—the same Jeff Kemp who 24 hours earlier had been placed on waivers by the Seattle Seahawks after getting intercepted three times against the Los Angeles Raiders. That performance gave Kemp 12 interceptions in the six games in which he replaced Seattle starter Dave Krieg, who was out with a broken thumb.

O.K., so a litany of quarterback injuries and the titanic struggles of their replacements are nothing new, but what about these beauties from Jim Everett, the high-profile QB of the Los Angeles Rams? He converted 7 of 16 passes for 83 yards against the New York Giants on Sept. 8, the next week he went 6 of 17 for 71 yards against the New Orleans Saints, and on Sunday he completed 9 of 27 for 92 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. And how did you like Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys getting sacked 11 times by Philadelphia? Or Dan Marino (page 38) of the Miami Dolphins getting sacked 15 times in the first half of the season, when he was pulled down only 15 times all last year?

Sacks are not usually the quarterback's fault, you say. Well then, how about interceptions? Two weeks ago Marino, a certain Hall of Famer, faced the Houston Oilers' Warren Moon, another sure Canton inductee, in what was supposed to be a big shootout, and in the first half they each threw three interceptions. The next night the Buffalo Bills' Jim Kelly, also Hall-bound, tossed three interceptions in the first half against the winless Cincinnati Bengals. Halloween was just around the corner that Monday night, but black magic aside, what is going on here?

Of the NFC's six top-rated passers at the midpoint of 1990, Montana and Cunningham are injured, Phil Simms of the Giants has lost his starting job, Chris Miller of the Falcons and Jim Harbaugh of the Chicago Bears have taken the art of inconsistent play to new heights, and Everett didn't complete a touchdown pass until L.A.'s sixth game. Speaking of players who seem to be out of it, Jay Schroeder of the Raiders, who was third in the AFC quarterback ratings halfway through '90, dropped 27 points in the ratings over the same span in '91. With the Raider running game out of sorts, he's a sitting duck for opposing defenses. What's more, Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason, whose strong arm has perennially lifted him high in the rankings, was rated last among AFC starters at this year's midpoint.

Two quarterbacks who two years ago looked to be stars of the future, Bubby Brister of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Don Majkowski of the Green Bay Packers, now appear to be has-beens. The onetime Majik Man pulled a mouse from his hat against Chicago two weeks ago, completing 3 of 16 passes for 32 yards before being lifted for Mike Tomczak. The Bucs (Vinny Testaverde or Chris Chandler?), Patriots (Tommy Hodson or Hugh Millen?) and Minnesota Vikings (Wade Wilson or Rich Gannon?) can't decide who their quarterback is, and John Friesz is the San Diego Chargers' sixth starting signal-caller since Dan Fouts retired after 1987.

So who's getting the job done? Kelly and Moon, to be sure. John Elway of the Denver Broncos, Bobby Hebert of the Saints and Mark Rypien of the Washington Redskins have done well enough, as have Steve Young in relief of Montana and Jeff Hostetler as Simms's replacement. Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns hasn't thrown an interception all season. Steve DeBerg, at 37, can still wing it for the Kansas City Chiefs. Even so, something seems to be holding most of these guys back from real glory. Other than Kelly and Moon, no signal-caller seems to be a formidable force every week.

Herewith are the reasons for the quarterbacking malaise:

•Superior defenses. In the mid-1980s pass-oriented offenses went wild, taking advantage of rules changes that benefited the passing game and of an influx of swift, glue-fingered wide receivers who simply had more speed and talent than the people lined up against them. The defenses have fought back. Linebackers like Pat Swilling of the Saints and Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs are often the best athletes on the field, and cornerbacks like Deion Sanders of the Falcons and Donnell Woolford of the Bears have raised the level of coverage.

Most of all, the defensive schemes have adapted to the passing attacks and become as complicated as anything the offense has to offer. "When I came into the league, there was a strong zone, a weak zone, a man-to-man with a free safety and a blitz," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "That's all there was for a quarterback to read. There weren't even five defensive backs on the field. The difference between playing quarterback now as compared to 30 years ago is the difference in riding a kiddie car and piloting a jet airplane."

Defenses are madly making situation substitutions, lining up in weird alignments and confusing the daylights out of quarterbacks. "Who did we play the other night that had a 2-5-4?" says Packer vice-president Tom Braatz. It was the New York Jets, but it probably could have been any team. Timing patterns have been disrupted almost out of existence by blitzes and by jams on receivers. Also, the old seven-step drop for quarterbacks is as quaint a notion as the cha-cha. It's run for your life on nearly every pass for many quarterbacks.

•Imitating the Super Bowl champs. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV with a ball-control, run-oriented attack. And, according to an unwritten NFL code, the rest of the league (except the Super Bowl runner-up) must strive to emulate the team that went all the way. "We're the biggest copycats in the world," says Coury. "The Giants ran the ball, ran the ball, ran the ball, played defense and tried to keep it close until the fourth quarter. That's really hurt the passing game. The thing is, most of us aren't the New York Giants."

•Fewer pass-interference calls. A 1988 rule change allows a pass defender incidental contact with a receiver as long as the defender is looking back for the ball. Receivers had perfected techniques for making a defender appear to be interfering when, in fact, the defender was playing within the old rules. That trick no longer works; defensive backs play tighter and penalty yardage is harder to get.

•Lousy backups. Despite all the injuries to starters, teams still aren't taking the time necessary to develop good backup quarterbacks. "The number one quarterback gets three quarters of the practice time, and everybody else gets the rest," says Miami receivers coach Larry Seiple. "The backup isn't 100 percent sure of things when he gets into the game, and I think that affects the entire team."

•Failure of recent high draft choices. The only rising star who has been drafted in the last five years is Aikman, the No. 1 pick in 1989. The highly touted gunslingers who have fired blanks include Testaverde, Kelly Stouffer, Steve Walsh, Billy Joe Tolliver and Andre Ware. And who knows if Rosenbach can come back from his knee injury to reach his potential, or if bonus baby Jeff George can survive behind the Indianapolis Colts' patchwork line?

Says Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, "In the NFC Central, you're talking about Harbaugh in Chicago, Testaverde-Chandler in Tampa, Peete in Detroit, Chris Gannon or whatever his name is up in Minnesota and Majkowski and Blair Kiel in Green Bay. Put that in perspective. You'd be starting an expansion team with any of those guys." Indeed, when the league adds two teams in 1994, somebody probably will.

•Coaches playing not to lose. Taking chances is not high on any NFL coach's list of favorite things to do. Why, that's how a man might get fired. It's far better to stay close until the waning seconds and then try to kick a field goal than it is to air it out early and risk dreaded turnovers. "With parity and the reduction of the number of great teams, everyone feels good enough to win most weeks," Coury says. "Coaches get conservative and try to give themselves a chance down the stretch. When you do that, you don't gamble on offense, you don't throw deep as much. You play field position."

O.K., does all this add up to bad quarterback play or circumstances beyond the quarterbacks' control? Probably some of each. Let's give Schroeder the last word. "Blame it on the quarterbacks," he says. "That's always the answer, anyway."

Consider it done, my friend.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSON PHOTOCHRIS COVATTA/ALLSPORT USAFriesz is the latest of a long line of quarterbacks to take a shot at leading the Chargers. PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSSchroeder, among AFC leaders in '90, has been held back in '91. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEAccording to one coach, the league has only about 10 NFL-caliber quarterbacks. Millen (7) and Goebel (8, below) are not among them. PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHAikman (8) is on the rise with the Cowboys, but Esiason is going down with the winless Bengals. PHOTOTIM DEFRISCO/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
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