The NFL is in quarterback-development hell. And that has never
been more apparent than in recent weeks, with the Seattle
Seahawks' public dangling of Rick Mirer in trade talks with the
Atlanta Falcons and the public flogging of Trent Dilfer by the
fans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Mirer is a quiet Midwesterner, a high school coach's son from
Indiana who played at run-oriented Notre Dame. Dilfer is a
talkative Californian who came up throwing on nearly every down
in his record-setting career at Fresno State. But as pros they
have much in common. At week's end they were ranked 30th (Mirer)
and 31st (Dilfer) among the 32 quarterbacks who have played
enough to qualify for the passer ratings this season. In
lopsided Week 5 losses, they combined for no touchdowns and six
interceptions. Their play typifies an alarming trend over the
last four years: Highly drafted, highly paid quarterbacks are
flopping big time in the NFL.
It was going so badly for Mirer that when SI went to press on
Monday the Seahawks were trying to trade him to the Falcons for
suspended malcontent Jeff George. It was a historic trade
possibility in that two such high draft choices--George went No.
1 in 1990, Mirer was the second player selected in '93--have
never been traded for each other straight up. Seattle coaches
have been disappointed in Mirer's on-field decisions and overall
performance under pressure. Their frustration came to a head in
the 31-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 29, when Mirer
was 10 of 30 with four interceptions. After five games, in which
he had thrown one touchdown pass and nine interceptions, Mirer
was benched in favor of journeyman John Friesz. On Sunday, in a
22-15 win over the Miami Dolphins, Friesz threw touchdown passes
of 80, 65 and 51 yards, all of them longer than any Mirer has
thrown in four years.
Likewise Dilfer, the sixth overall pick in 1994, hasn't lived up
to his draft-day billing as a franchise savior. His transition
to the NFL has been grueling; he threw five touchdown passes on
one glorious college afternoon, but five games into his third
NFL season he has all of six TD throws--plus 34 interceptions,
including 10 in '96.
During the NFL season, Thursdays and Fridays are teaching days,
yet Dilfer says, "When I get under the center on Sunday, I still
feel like it's Thursday or Friday. This isn't a game of
Einsteins, but you can't play it well if you're thinking more
than reacting." Knowing that first-year Tampa Bay coach Tony
Dungy's plan is to stick with Dilfer for the entire season, in
three home games Bucs fans have lustily booed the man with the
35.6 quarterback rating.
Life couldn't be tougher for the player the NFL needs most: the
gifted young quarterback. It seems a reasonable expectation that
in years three, four and five of their careers, the brightest
quarterback prospects should begin paying dividends. But almost
without exception, the current crop isn't. Six quarterbacks were
chosen among the top-10 players in the 1992, '93 and '94
drafts, and every one of them--Dilfer, Mirer, Drew Bledsoe, Dave
Brown (a '92 supplemental draft pick), David Klingler and Heath
Shuler--is struggling to fulfill draft-day expectations.
By the end of this season, NFL teams will have invested $68.5
million in the Struggling Six, but what kind of return are they
getting on their investments? At 23, Bledsoe, the No. 1 pick in
the '93 draft, was the youngest player to throw for 10,000
yards, and he has looked spectacular at times for the New
England Patriots. But accuracy remains a problem. Brown, in his
second year as a full-time starter for the New York Giants,
directs an offense that at week's end ranked 29th in scoring.
With 31 interceptions in 39 career games, he has been prone to
throw to the wrong team. After four seasons the Cincinnati
Bengals could not re-sign Klingler, the sixth player picked in
'92, whom they planned to use to back up waiver-wire acquisition
Jeff Blake. Klingler is now the Oakland Raiders' third-string
passer. After 13 starts by Shuler, the third pick in '94, the
Washington Redskins opted to play Gus Frerotte, a seventh-round
pick in the same draft.
"The bottom line?" says former Tampa Bay coach Sam Wyche. "God
didn't make 30 great quarterbacks for one era, at one time."
According to San Francisco 49ers offensive guru Bill Walsh,
quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft face near
insurmountable hurdles early in their careers. "They're drafted
not to manage teams but to carry them," he says. "Pass
protection is abandoned to flood the field with receivers. And
when the quarterback struggles, the media and fans are so
demanding that the player gets devoured, the carcass is thrown
away, and the teams find them another victim to chew on."
Here are four reasons why the brightest pro quarterback
prospects fall to earth with such a thud.
In 1975, when the New Orleans Saints prepared a game plan, their
quarterback, Archie Manning, had to know approximately 30 pass
plays. In '85 the Giants mapped out weekly strategy that
required quarterback Phil Simms to draw on about 40 pass plays.
In '95, in preparation for a matchup with the expansion Carolina
Panthers, the Redskins handed second-year passers Frerotte and
Shuler a game plan with 144 pass plays.
Granted, in many cases, those 144 included minute variations of
other Redskins plays, but as Walsh says, "That's far too many to
have precise execution." If 56 pass plays are enough for Denver
Broncos quarterback John Elway--the count in the team's game
plan for the Bucs last month--shouldn't that be enough for
Frerotte and Shuler?
Thick playbooks can lead to uncertainty when the quarterback
steps behind center, because he is thinking too much about the
many nuances of the called play and how they match up against
the defensive set in front of him. "I wasn't a Number 1 pick
because I could go to a chalkboard and explain what was
happening," says Bledsoe. "I was a Number 1 pick because I had a
strong arm and good natural instincts. Sometimes when you're
trying to learn so much, you stray from that."
Even for one such as Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who in '95
was the NFL's Player of the Year in only his fifth season in the
league, the pro game did not come easily. "My first couple of
years in Green Bay I realized I was doing the hardest thing in
sports," he says. "We had 16 quarterback meetings a week.
Learning our offense--any pro offense, really--is harder than
learning chemistry or calculus."
One more thing: The high turnover rate among coaches and other
rapid changes in offensive philosophy can further impede a
struggling quarterback's development.
Obsessed with getting to the quarterback, defensive coordinators
over the last five years began blitzing numerous players from
the same area of the field, often dropping linemen into
coverage. The zone blitz is the NFL's latest fad, and it's
designed to confuse the offense and hurry the passer. For
example, rushing five players from one side can create a
five-on-three blocking mismatch and collapse the pocket before
the quarterback can exploit a defensive end trying to cover a
"I've seen [Minnesota Vikings quarterback] Warren Moon struggle
against the zone blitz," says Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
"If a veteran struggles with it, you know the young quarterbacks
Dilfer and Shuler look particularly confused and display the
telltale sign of an inability to handle pressure: happy feet.
This nervous dance in the pocket can lead to poor mechanics and,
as a result, a poor throw. The best way to overcome happy feet
is with extensive study and practice, but Wyche isn't convinced
that Dilfer is dedicated enough to beat the syndrome. "He thinks
he gives the game a lot of time," Wyche says, "but he never gave
the game the time other quarterbacks I've had gave it."
In a classic example of zone-blitz terrorism, during its 27-23
victory over Tampa Bay this season, Denver rushed five players
from Dilfer's right and he hurried a throw to the left. Safety
Tyrone Braxton intercepted and ran 69 yards for a score. "In
college," Dilfer says, "you knew where the pressure would come
from. Now you have no idea."
Since he came into the league Mirer has been sacked a
league-high 130 times. (In their 20-year history the Seahawks
haven't had one offensive lineman good enough to go to the Pro
Bowl.) And when he wasn't getting sacked, Mirer often had to
hurry his throws. Last year he threw an AFC-high 20
interceptions. In five starts this year his completion rate
dropped to a career-low 50.7%. At a time when a 56.9% completion
rate is the league average, the Struggling Six have a combined
career mark of 53.5%.
THE SAVIOR FACTOR
Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Bledsoe was that he was
viewed as a legend in the making before he deserved to be called
even a good NFL quarterback. In 1994, at 22 and in only his
second year as a pro, he threw for a league-high 4,555 yards--a
huge number, but a misleading one. Bledsoe also threw an
NFL-record 691 passes that season and had more interceptions
(27) than touchdown passes (25). He tied for 19th in the NFL in
average yards per pass attempt (6.59) and 20th in quarterback
Regardless, the Patriots finished with their best record (10-6)
in eight years, expectations for the team and the quarterback
rocketed, and the pressure on Bledsoe mounted when New England
gave him a contract extension worth $42.5 million. "When I got
the new contract," he says, "maybe there was a sense of, O.K.,
now I'm making as much as 15 players, so I better produce like
He's not alone. In his first four seasons with the Giants, Brown
threw 23 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions and had a 14-17
record as a starter. Yet when he became a free agent after last
season, New York re-signed him to a four-year, $13 million deal.
Then when the Giants started the 1996 season 0-3, critics laid
the blame largely on Brown.
"You want to say the pressure's not going to affect you," says
Dilfer, who got an eight-year, $16.5 million contract as a
rookie. "The problem is, you can't escape the constant
expectations and pressures of everybody thinking just because
you're a quarterback and because you're a high draft pick that
you can come in and save a franchise. I can't. I'm not good
enough. I've been humbled by that."
Some quarterbacks play against midlevel college competition and
still succeed in the NFL, as Stan Humphries did in starring at
Northeast Louisiana and then leading the San Diego Chargers to
Super Bowl XXIX. Others, like Dilfer, can't handle the blitz,
are not accurate passers and don't have a commanding presence.
Maybe Dilfer, like Klingler, was simply overrated by pro scouts
and isn't good enough to play in the NFL.
Or maybe pro teams can no longer afford to give these players
the time they need to develop into starting players. "With the
salary cap and free agency, you can't treat quarterbacks with
kid gloves anymore," says Randy Mueller, Seattle's vice
president of football operations. "They have to produce the
first three or four years. You've got to see what you've got
That seems to be the prevailing attitude, but it's also a lot of
bunk. If a club truly wants to develop a player for the long
term at one of the toughest positions in sports--and that player
is signed for four or more years, as these quarterbacks are--why
throw him to the wolves before he's ready? If it takes two or
three years of intense study to learn how to play quarterback in
the NFL, why risk ruining a player's career by running him onto
the field to get hammered?
The Houston Oilers saw what happened when the Bengals did that
to Klingler, who was rushed into action and had his confidence
shattered. So last year, after they drafted Steve McNair of
Alcorn State with the third overall pick, the Oilers gave him a
seven-year, $28.4 million contract, and new coach Jeff Fisher
told him he wouldn't play much--if at all--in his first two
seasons. McNair would spend that time learning from veteran
Chris Chandler and one of the best quarterback tutors in the
business, assistant coach Jerry Rhome. In 1995 McNair appeared
in four games, starting two, and threw 80 passes. He has taken
only 11 snaps in '96.
"We didn't want to put Steve in a position to fail," Fisher
says. "Many people feel the best way for a young quarterback to
get experience is by playing him. We disagree. The experience
Steve gets by watching Chris have success is more important.
Confidence is the key to having success."
Even when a team doesn't have a high pick to spend on a
quarterback, this conservative approach can pay off. As
offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 1993, Mike Shanahan
pushed for the club to draft Elvis Grbac in the eighth round.
Grbac did not play as a rookie and threw only 50 passes in his
second season. But with Steve Young sidelined at times in 1995
and '96, Grbac has led the 49ers to a 5-2 record, including a
three-TD-pass day against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday (page
82). A potential free agent after the season, Grbac could become
a starter for another team in '97.
Of the Struggling Six, only Bledsoe looks like a keeper for the
next decade. Unfortunately for Bledsoe, as he goes, so go the
Patriots. He played poorly in New England's first two games this
season, both losses. Now the Patriots have won three straight,
and on Sunday he threw for 310 yards and four TDs in a 46-38 win
over the Baltimore Ravens. Mirer has a tendency to lock in on
one receiver, which was never more evident than in the
four-interception game against the Packers. In Atlanta he would
be learning his third system in four seasons, and even a former
booster questions his ability. "I'm disappointed Rick hasn't
flourished," says Walsh. Dilfer and Brown have badly flawed
mechanics. Shuler must prove to skeptical coaches that he can
remain cool under pressure. Klingler, who excelled in the spread
formations and quick-strike mentality of the run-and-shoot in
college, never adapted to the more complex pro-style sets, but
will probably get another chance in the NFL. A quarterback with
a gun for an arm usually does. If and when that happens, he
would be wise to heed this piece of advice: "In this league,"
says the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman, "the game is played from
the shoulders up."
None of the six teams that spent a top-10 draft pick on a
quarterback in 1992, '93 or '94 has a .500 record since making
Team (QB) Before Draft* Since Draft
Giants (Brown) 33-15, .687 33-46, .418
Patriots (Bledsoe) 9-39, .188 24-29, .453
Seahawks (Mirer) 18-30, .375 22-32, .407
Bucs (Dilfer) 13-35, .271 13-24, .351
Redskins (Shuler) 27-21, .563 13-24, .351
Bengals (Klingler) 20-28, .417 19-50, .275
TOTALS 120-168, .417 124-205, .377
*Three-year record before being drafted.
Cincinnati, Seattle and Washington spent a combined $42 million
to sign David Klingler, Rick Mirer and Heath Shuler,
respectively, but their backup quarterbacks have put up better
numbers. Here's how Jeff Blake (Bengals), John Friesz (Seahawks)
and Gus Frerotte (Redskins) have fared as a group compared with
the high-priced trio.
Quarterbacks TDs-INTs TDs-INTs +/- QB Rating
Blake-Friesz-Frerotte 106-85 +21 74.0
Klingler-Mirer-Shuler 66-93 -27 64.0