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The Toughest Job In Sports As rookies Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf are about to find out, an NFL quarterback must withstand unparalleled pressure--a fact most of their young predecessors in the 1990s learned the hard way

Aug. 17, 1998
Aug. 17, 1998

Table of Contents
Aug. 17, 1998

Baseball
NFL Preview 1998

The Toughest Job In Sports As rookies Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf are about to find out, an NFL quarterback must withstand unparalleled pressure--a fact most of their young predecessors in the 1990s learned the hard way

Peyton Manning. Ryan Leaf. Leaf. Manning. Manning. Leaf. Manning
is more polished. Leaf throws a better deep ball. Leaf is built
like a tree trunk. Manning is the ultimate student of the game.
Manning is now. Leaf is the future.

This is an article from the Aug. 17, 1998 issue

As Bill Polian lay in his bed a week or so before April's NFL
draft, sleep was fleeting. "The football demons kept waking me
up," says Polian, who last December became president of the
Indianapolis Colts and had the first pick in the draft. "They
came jumping out at the oddest times." They were telling Polian
that, based on recent drafts, there was a better than 50-50
chance he would pick a quarterback who would fall flat on his
face as a pro.

Although he favored Tennessee's Manning over Washington State's
Leaf, Polian had trouble putting this baby to bed. He had
watched tape of each of Manning's 1,505 passes for the Vols as
well as Leaf's 880 for the Cougars. Then twice more he watched
every pass that Manning and Leaf threw during the 1997 season,
charting on separate legal pads each player's success or failure
in making tough throws, long throws, throws on the move. He
asked new Colts coach Jim Mora to look twice at every pass that
Leaf and Manning threw in college. Quarterbacks coach Bruce
Arians viewed every pass four times; other staffers watched
three times each.

Polian paid quarterback guru Bill Walsh $5,000 to analyze tape
of both quarterbacks. He grilled former NFL quarterback Phil
Simms and Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer, both of whom had
studied Leaf and Manning. Polian was so meticulous in putting
the two players through separate workouts in early April that he
even noted how accurately each of them could throw a long pass
without striding (Leaf 60 yards, Manning 58, by the way). All
told, Polian had spent about 14 hours a day over a 28-day span
studying Leaf and Manning. "Did we overanalyze?" he says.
"Absolutely."

Finally, on April 18, Polian took Manning. His reasons: Manning
had more experience (45 college starts to 24 for Leaf), a
stronger work ethic, an NFL-quality arm and better preparation
for handling the scrutiny every top pick faces. But Polian's
work didn't stop with the selection of a quarterback. This
season Polian will act as a gatekeeper for all of the
personal-appearance inquiries that the team receives for
Manning, and he assigned one club employee to handle all
internal autograph requests.

Deep down, Polian is secure in his choice, happy that the Colts
have their quarterback of the future. But he realizes he can't
control what happens to Manning from here on out. "History tells
us that sometimes fate intervenes," Polian says, "and you're
going to make the wrong decision half the time."

In 1948 Chicago Bears coach George Halas traded disappointing
rookie Bobby Layne, who eventually became one of the NFL's top
quarterbacks with the Detroit Lions. In the late '50s the
Pittsburgh Steelers gave up on young signal-callers John Unitas
and Jack Kemp, and kept, among others, Vic Eaton and Jack
Scarbath. Warren Moon wasn't among the 334 players selected in
the '78 draft. The following year Joe Montana was a third-round
pick. In '83 the Lions felt so good about incumbent Eric Hipple
that they passed on Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. In '91 at least 10
teams had Browning Nagle rated higher than Brett Favre.

Of the 10 quarterbacks who have been selected among the top 10
picks in the regular or supplemental draft during the 1990s,
only the New England Patriots' Drew Bledsoe has performed at a
Pro Bowl-caliber level. Seven have struggled mightily (Dave
Brown, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, Trent Dilfer, Kerry Collins) or
been abject failures (Andre Ware, David Klingler); Steve McNair
was mediocre last season, his first as a starter, and for all
the passing yards he has amassed in his eight seasons, Jeff
George has never won a playoff game or been to a Pro Bowl.

In the only other recent draft (1993) in which quarterbacks were
selected 1-2, the Pats guessed right in taking Bledsoe out of
Washington State; he has thrown 108 touchdown passes, been to
three Pro Bowls and helped New England get to Super Bowl XXXI.
Picking second, the Seattle Seahawks took Mirer, who it turns
out was woefully unprepared coming out of Notre Dame. When a guy
is a 54% passer as a senior with marvelous protection, as Mirer
was, shouldn't that have sent up a red flag? "It should have,"
one former Seattle assistant says. "He wasn't ready for a
sophisticated pro offense, and he was very predictable in where
he'd throw." The Seahawks gave up on Mirer after four seasons
and traded him to Chicago; he's now fighting for a roster spot
with the Bears.

Twelve of the 30 projected starting quarterbacks this fall were
selected in the third round or later, and two more were undrafted
free agents. The quest for a quarterback who may one day lead a
team to a Super Bowl is getting more and more like the lottery:
Take your best shot, then cross your fingers.

"The first pro football game I ever saw was in 1953," says Ron
Wolf, executive vice president and general manager of the Green
Bay Packers. "Two good franchises, Baltimore and Chicago. You
know who the quarterbacks were? Freddy Enke and Steve Romanik.
The point is, the more things change, the more they stay the
same. We're all still looking for quarterbacks. Everyone wants
to apply science to this, but it's more seat-of-the-pants than
science. I don't care how sophisticated it gets. It's still
humans scouting humans."

Why is it so hard to unearth a good quarterback? Let's start with
this premise: Quarterback is the most complex position in sports.
Comparatively, a pitcher has to be precise in his pitch location
and outwit the hitter; a point guard must direct his teammates
and adjust on the fly to make a play work; a hockey goalie must
be athletic and fearless. A quarterback has to be able to do and
be all of those things.

"I'd say quarterback's the toughest position," says Phoenix Suns
coach Danny Ainge, a former all-state high school quarterback,
major league shortstop and All-Star NBA guard. "A quarterback has
to be a leader, have good vision, be physically and mentally
tough and be athletic. He has to be able to read defenses and
figure out what the other team's giving him."

"Every fall Sunday, you're the nerve center for a city, a county,
a state, a region," says Boomer Esiason, who played quarterback
for 14 NFL seasons before retiring last January. "You step behind
center, and millions of people watch to see what you'll do next.
The pressure kills some guys. There's no other job like it in
sports."

That said, there are some reasons Brian Griese, drafted 91st by
the Denver Broncos last spring, might have a better chance at NFL
success than Leaf, drafted second by the San Diego Chargers. The
son of former Miami Dolphins star Bob Griese, Brian is playing
for a rock-solid organization, and before he'll begin vying for a
starting job, he'll have at least 12 months to pick the brains of
quarterback-friendly coach Mike Shanahan and future Hall of Famer
John Elway. On the other hand, Leaf will start immediately for
the Chargers, who are expected to struggle under unproven coach
Kevin Gilbride.

As difficult as it has always been to find and develop top
quarterbacks, a number of factors make that task even tougher
today.

Instant fame. When Jerry Rhome was an All-America quarterback at
Tulsa in 1964, he was stopped on campus one day in December by a
guy who said, "You got rooked." Rhome looked puzzled. The guy
said, "You didn't win the Heisman Trophy! You finished second!
You got robbed!" Now the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator,
Rhome laughs at the memory. "That's how much the game has
changed--I had no idea I was second for the Heisman until this guy
told me," he says. "And when I was drafted [in the 13th round by
the Dallas Cowboys], I didn't get a call or watch it on TV. I
read it in the paper."

Last off-season, in between reading and hearing how great he was,
Leaf was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, threw out
the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners' game and a San Diego
Padres' game, worked youth football camps in Montana and
California and played in several celebrity golf tournaments.

Defensive athleticism. "From when I played to now," says Rhome, a
pro from 1965 to '72, "the size and athleticism of the
quarterback has improved but not drastically. Meanwhile the size
and athleticism of the people chasing him has gotten much
greater." Thirty years ago the best Miami pass rushers ran the
40-yard dash in about 5.1 seconds, chasing quarterbacks who ran
about a 5.1 too. The Dolphins who will chase Manning in Game 1
next month, Derrick Rodgers and Jason Taylor, both run sub-4.7s.
Manning runs 4.9 on a fast day.

Outrageous contracts. Contracts are now jammed with clauses that
force coaches to make career decisions on quarterbacks too
early. Bledsoe, Collins and Shuler had clauses that allowed them
to become restricted free agents after their third year. Imagine
if Simms had had such a stipulation in his contract. He didn't
blossom until his fifth season, and you can imagine how many
Super Bowls the Scott Brunner-led New York Giants would have
reached.

Overburdened offenses. But the biggest reason is how much more
complicated offensive systems have become. Thank Bill Walsh's
hiring as the 49ers coach in 1978 for that. "The size of
offensive playbooks has probably doubled since then," says Mike
Lombardi, a former NFL scout who worked for Walsh in the
mid-'80s. "Bill started doing so many more things, and then
defenses adapted, and then offenses adapted again." The
encyclopedic playbooks can impede a quarterback's progress and,
worse yet, obscure his talent. Washington Redskins coach Norv
Turner says when a quarterback hears the name of a play, it's
vital that the play appear in his mind as a Polaroid picture; he
must have instant recollection of how the play should unfold. So
what if a game plan features 120 or so plays?

"For six months after I was drafted, I had everybody telling me
how great I was," says Dilfer, taken with the sixth pick of the
1994 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Then I get to Tampa and
realize two things: Man, the Bucs have been losing for a long
time, and, wow, this offense is complicated! How am I going to
learn this in time to play?" He didn't. In his first two seasons,
Dilfer threw five touchdown passes and 24 interceptions.

Perhaps no one has asked more of his quarterbacks than Sam
Wyche, who as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and the Bucs
between 1984 and '95 liked the hurry-up offense and gave his
passers the freedom to call a lot of audibles. To allow the
quarterback to communicate with the rest of the offense at the
line of scrimmage, Wyche came up with a complicated series of
code words. For example, the Bengals had a running play called
61. As they prepared for one game, Wyche announced that Esiason
would yell, "Mantle!" to signify the play. When Esiason asked
why Mantle, Wyche said everyone knew that Mickey Mantle had hit
61 home runs in a season. "No," Esiason said. "That was Roger
Maris." No matter, Wyche said, the Cincinnati players had never
heard of Maris, but they all knew Mantle. So Mantle translated
into 61.

As coach of the Bucs, Wyche became more and more worried that
opposing defenses might decipher his quarterback's audibles and
snap counts, so he set up an even more elaborate system. One
week, an audible was real only if it was preceded by specific
terms relating to Elvis Presley. In other words, the audible was
on if Dilfer went to the line and yelled, "Graceland!
Graceland!" Or "Sideburns! Sideburns!" Or "Memphis! Memphis!"
One week, the snap count was based on the number of syllables in
an NBA center's name. If Dilfer yelled, "Ewing! Ewing!" the snap
was on two; if he barked, "Olajuwon! Olajuwon!" it was on four.

"There was a genius to what Sam was doing," Dilfer says, "but
when so many code words and basic things were changed every week,
I found myself trying to learn terminology for hours and hours,
not working on my fundamentals. I got the rap of being lazy, but
just ask my wife: I was up late, cramming every week."

Dilfer has collected himself under the steadier hands of coach
Tony Dungy and offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Last year,
helped by a terrific running game, Dilfer threw 21 touchdown
passes and 11 interceptions. It looks as if the Bucs may have
made the right choice four years ago after all.

But Polian is right: Sometimes fate does intervene. In 1991,
Green Bay executive vice president of football operations Tom
Braatz traded the eighth pick in the draft to the Philadelphia
Eagles for first-round picks in '91 and '92. Braatz was thinking
quarterback. He liked Klingler, who was due to come out of the
University of Houston in '92, and with two first-round draft
picks as trading chips, he figured he might be able to move up
and get Klingler.

Also on draft day 1991, New York Jets scout Ron Wolf was pushing
hard to get his team to draft an undisciplined, injury-plagued
quarterback from Southern Mississippi named Brett Favre. Wolf
had watched Favre's workout at Southern Miss a few weeks
earlier--run by San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike
Holmgren--but hadn't been very impressed. Wolf was particularly
turned off by Favre's cockiness. In his scouting report to the
49ers, Holmgren wrote, "This young man has all the tools to be
not only a starting quarterback but a very good starting
quarterback. However, he has to display the maturity a
quarterback needs.... He also throws every ball like he's going
to kill somebody."

Sensing that the group of talent evaluators was disappointed,
Southern Miss's pro football liaison, Thames Coleman, sidled up
to Wolf and said, "You have to watch his film as a junior to see
this guy at his best." Wolf did and was impressed, especially by
Favre's athleticism, decision making on the run and accuracy.
When he returned to New York, Wolf told Jets general manager Dick
Steinberg, "Favre's the best player in the draft, and you know we
need a quarterback."

One problem: Because they had taken Syracuse wideout Rob Moore
in the first round of the previous summer's supplemental draft,
the Jets didn't have a first-round pick. They figured Favre
wouldn't be on the board when their turn came in the second
round, the 34th choice overall. When Favre was still available
late in the first round, the Jets tried to move up. They called
the Los Angeles Raiders, but Al Davis wanted to hold on to the
24th pick, because he had his heart set on another quarterback,
Todd Marinovich. They called the Houston Oilers, who had the
first selection of the second round, but they were set on taking
safety Mike Dumas. The Cleveland Browns turned down a trade
offer and chose guard Ed King. The Broncos did the same and went
for tight end Reggie Johnson. The Atlanta Falcons, picking 33rd,
wouldn't deal either, because they too wanted Favre, and they
took him. "We were crushed," Wolf recalls. On the rebound the
Jets reached for Louisville's Nagle.

Then fate entered the picture in the fall of 1991. The Falcons
were fed up with Favre, who was spending most of his rookie year
partying. Klingler was enjoying a senior season in which he
would throw 29 touchdown passes, and the Packers eyed him
covetously. But on Nov. 20, with Green Bay in the midst of a
4-12 season, Braatz was fired. Wolf was hired shortly
thereafter, and on Dec. 3 he met the Packers' board of directors
for the first time. He faced a firing line of questions about
the future of the team, including his opinion about incumbent
quarterback Don Majkowski. "Our quarterback of the future is
named Brett Favre," Wolf told the group. "We'll trade for him
this off-season no matter what it takes." When Wolf hired
Holmgren as the Packers' coach the following month, Holmgren
readily agreed. On Feb. 10, 1992, Green Bay acquired Favre from
the Falcons for a first-round pick in that year's draft.

Fate. Last season Favre became the first player to win three
consecutive league MVPs. The Falcons used the Favre draft pick on
a running back named Tony Smith, who was out of the NFL after
three forgettable seasons. As for Klingler, who was taken by the
Bengals with the sixth pick in '92, he has thrown 16 touchdown
passes and 22 interceptions in six seasons with the Bengals and
the Raiders. Still on the move, he signed in July with, of all
clubs, the Packers and is trying to win a job as Favre's backup.

On one hot morning in June, Manning looked up from his breakfast,
through eyes that didn't have one bloodshot line even though he
had been studying the Colts' playbook, which is as thick as the
Manhattan Yellow Pages. "A lot of quarterbacks get picked high,
get thrown to the wolves early and never overcome it," he said.
"My goals are to never make the same mistake twice and to work.
Michael Jordan says you have to work harder in the pros than in
college. I will." And the pressure? Manning says he doesn't think
it will phase him. "Chuck Noll said pressure is something you
feel only when you don't know what you're doing. I'll know."

At a Colts minicamp practice, Manning threw incomplete to a back
who was wide open on a flare pattern. He slapped his hands
angrily. When the coaches graded the practice, that misfire was
Manning's only physical error. Afterward he asked Arians to work
with him on the pattern. They ran the play 35 times. "I am
coaching a piranha," Arians says. "He eats everything you give
him, and then he wants more."

The quarterbacks coach recounted a call he had received a few
weeks earlier from his star pupil. While studying film at home in
New Orleans, Manning had already watched the tendencies of the
Colts' first opponent, the Dolphins. Now he was working on the
Patriots, who showed several zone-blitz looks. "On this one,"
Manning said, describing what he was seeing to Arians, "should I
slide right and make the sight adjustment to the left? And who's
the hot receiver?" Arians was amazed. This was stuff the Colts
would install four days before the game. Manning wanted the
answer now.

"The great ones have spontaneity, intuitiveness, inventiveness,"
says Walsh. "They're intelligent. They know they need to know
everything. Peyton Manning could be that player. He's further
along than any college quarterback I've seen in years. Maybe
ever."

Recently all of this optimism was relayed to Jimmy Johnson, whose
Dolphins will oppose Manning in his NFL debut. Johnson has heard
it all before, about David Klingler, Rick Mirer and Heath Shuler
and all the other saviors who preceded Manning. "We'll welcome
him to the NFL," Johnson said. "I imagine he'll see a few things
he hasn't seen before."

In the 1990s, that's usually how it all starts to unravel.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Why NFL Quarterback Is the Toughest Job in Sports Boom or Bust Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf Can They Beat the Odds? [Brett Favre]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Ryan Leaf studying the Chargers' playbook during training camp. [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDY LYONS/ALLSPORT FALL GUY The Bucs' Dilfer was viewed as a savior when he arrived in 1994, but he's only now getting his feet on the ground. [Trent Dilfer in game]COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/ALLSPORT A REACH With the Seahawks in 1993, Mirer set NFL rookie records for passing yards, completions and attempts, but his career quickly went downhill from there. [Rick Mirer and others in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER ABOUT-FACE Klingler threw more touchdown passes during his senior year at Houston than he has in his six seasons in the NFL. [David Klingler in game]COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY SAME OLD STORY Hoping for a fresh start with the Saints in 1997, Shuler threw two touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. [Heath Shuler and others in game]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Glimpse of the future? Manning's first attempt in a preseason game was a 48-yard touchdown strike. [Peyton Manning in game]COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER PICTURE PERFECT Turner expects Frerotte (12) and Hostetler to visualize every play. [Gus Frerotte, Norv Turner and Jeff Hostetler]COLOR PHOTO: MIKE DEHOOG/TDP HEAD OF THE CLASS Bledsoe is the one quarterback among top 10 draftees in the 1990s who has lived up to expectations. [Drew Bledsoe in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH CHARGED UP Leaf showed poise while completing 14 of 20 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in his preseason debut. [Ryan Leaf]

Jack Right, Slot Scat ...

To get an idea of what an NFL quarterback must learn, SI sat in
on a meeting at a Redskins minicamp in June. On this day, during
a 45-minute classroom session for Washington's four
signal-callers, the Skins were installing a portion of their
passing offense. Quarterbacks coach Mike Martz sat at a
conference table quizzing Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler, Trent
Green and Brad Otton. Here's one exchange that occurred during
the meeting.

Martz: "Jack Right, Slot Scat Right, 370 Pump F-Shoot Swing.
Jeff, what have we got?"

Hostetler (without hesitation): "Three pump to the zero. Check
the shoot if you've got man."

Martz: "Right. If you've got cloud cover, give a shoulder flinch
to the three pump. And all those coverages that are wall
coverages, you have a chance at the hot on those--especially when
they get into the zone dogs."

Before a quarterback can even start using his athleticism, he
must learn his team's language. "I tell young quarterbacks,
'Guys, this is a foreign language, and if you don't master it,
you'll struggle every day you're here,'" says Redskins coach Norv
Turner.

On this play Jack is the formation; the fullback lines up on the
tight end, or strong, side, while the two wide receivers line up
on the weak side. Right is the side on which the tight end lines
up. Scat Right is the blocking scheme; in this case, each
blocker takes the man closest to him, with the uncovered lineman
or back picking up any blitzers. The number--370--tells each
receiver the pattern to run. The Redskins have nine pass routes,
and each is assigned a number from one to nine. On this play,
the tight end will fake a 3 route (a square out) and run a deep
pattern. The closest receiver to the tight end, the slot
receiver to his left, gets the next number, the 7, which is a
15-yard corner route. The third receiver, the outside man, runs
a 0, which is a crossing route. F-Shoot is the fullback's
assignment, a safety-valve route in the flat. Swing is the
pattern for the tailback.

In his answer Hostetler tells Martz that in the defense he
expects on this play, he'll fake to the tight end, scan to his
second receiver but hope to throw to the deep man--unless the
secondary goes to a cloud coverage, in which the cornerback
plays tight man-to-man and gets help from a safety as needed.

Martz cautions that if the defense comes with a zone
blitz--linemen dropping into coverage, linebackers or defensive
backs blitzing--Hostetler should look for the hot receiver, in
this case the tailback.

That's one play down, 120 or so to go. --P.K.

"Everyone wants to apply science to this, but it's more
seat-of-the-pants than science" says the Packers' Wolf.
"I am coaching a piranha," Arians says of Manning. "He eats
everything you give him, and then he wants more."
Encyclopedic playbooks can impede progress of a young
quarterback and, worse yet, obscure his talent.
"You step behind center and millions watch to see what you'll do
next," says Esiason. "The pressure kills some guys."