The last time a homegrown quarterback was drafted by and started
for the Cardinals was early in 1992, when Timm Rosenbach got the
call. Since then the position has been a revolving door--Chris
Chandler, Steve Beuerlein, Dave Krieg, Boomer Esiason, a
procession of recycled signal-callers. High hopes, followed by
same old, same old.

Thus the state of Arizona was in a frenzy when the Cardinals
made Jake (the Snake) Plummer of Arizona State their
second-round choice last spring. A light at the end of the
tunnel at last.

Not so fast. The kid will be brought along, but first there's
the matter of winning games--right now. Free agency has made
everyone impatient, and coach Vince Tobin, working on the second
season of a five-year contract, says, "I'm not interested in
building for the future. This is a win-now league. If you say
the future, you'll always be in the future."

Which is why 28-year-old Kent Graham will start the season as
the Cardinals' quarterback, with practically the whole state
rooting for something bad to happen so that Jake the Snake gets
a chance.

It's nothing new for Graham, who's been an underdog his whole
college and professional career. One of the top quarterback
prospects in the country when he came out of Wheaton (Ill.)
North High, the big, strong kid had a cannon for an arm. But he
was Tony Rice's backup at Notre Dame, and then he played behind
Greg Frey at Ohio State until he beat Frey out as a senior. In
1994 he lost a preseason shoot-out to Dave Brown for the Giants'
starting job, then was a backup to Scott Mitchell in Detroit and
to Boomer Esiason last year in Arizona until he took over in the
fourth game. Even then, he lost the job five games later when he
hurt his knee. How much of this could he take?

"I never lost faith in myself," Graham says. "I figured if I
kept working, kept improving, my shot would come." He is a
pleasant guy, and huge (6'5", 246 pounds), with one of the
lowest salaries of any NFL regular starting quarterback: $650,000.

He has had his supporters through the years. There were those
around New York who felt that his tight spirals would be just
the thing for cutting through the nasty winds at Giants Stadium,
but the club had committed $4.6 million to Brown. No contest.

Graham has worked on his delivery, cutting down the velocity and
adding touch when he's had to, and that's what Tobin says he
likes about him. "He's got all the immeasurables, including
touch," the coach says. "There's an awful lot of upside there.
His problem is, he just hasn't played that much. What's he
started, 22 games since high school? This is the first time
since then that he went into training camp as the No. 1

And what is Tobin's evaluation of Plummer? Guarded but still
leaving the door open. "He looked good in minicamp," he says.
"There was an excellent presence about him, he threw the ball
well. But nothing was live, and it's easy to go to the second
and third receiver when the bullets aren't flying."

When the Cardinals were clicking last year, it was usually
because they were putting up big numbers through the air.
Esiason hit the Redskins for 522 yards, three touchdowns and a
victory in overtime. When Graham produced three wins in a
five-game stretch, he had days like his 366-yard, four-touchdown
performance against the Rams. That's what Tobin remembers.

The running game is deceptive. LeShon Johnson, now a backup,
broke loose for 214 yards against New Orleans, but Arizona also
had five sub-60-yard rushing games. The defense isn't good
enough to keep the team out of shoot-outs, which is why Graham
figures so heavily. Big man, big arm, small paycheck.

"If I prove myself," he says, "the big money will come."


COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Rob Moore, who had 58 receptions and averaged 17.5 yards per catch last year, is the Cardinal who is most capable of stretching a defense.

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