What has happened to NFL quarterbacks? Why aren't they as good
as they were 20 years ago? They are as good, you say? Puh-leeze!
Sure, you've got Dan Marino, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Troy
Aikman and John Elway, as well as a few guys who got hot for a
season, such as Chris Chandler, Randall Cunningham, Doug Flutie
and Vinny Testaverde. But if you look past that group, all you
see is a gray mass of multimillionaires. Some teams can't even
decide who their starters are. Twenty years ago a team was
defined by its quarterback. He had identity, a personality.
"They were men in those days," says former New York Giant Phil
Simms, who does his quarterbacking for CBS now.
Let's go down the line, team by team, 1978 versus 1998, and see
which year had the better quarterbacks. I give '78 a 15-10-3
edge (chart), and while you can argue about some of my choices,
I think I was pretty kind in my evaluations of some of the men
who lined up under center in '98.
"When you look at that roster of quarterbacks 20 years ago, you
get excited," says Simms. "That was just a tremendous group of
real tough guys, people who were consistent week after week, who
could kill you downfield. Real throwers. Quarterbacks were always
looking to hurt you downfield. Now what do you get? Five
receivers into the pattern, you dump it off in the flat for two
yards, and the guy runs for three more. Oh, boy, a five-yard
"Take a guy like [Dan] Pastorini. A tremendous thrower. Put him
in the right offense with the right coaching nowadays and he'd
just kill people. The guys of 20 years ago could play in the
offenses of the '90s, but a lot of the quarterbacks now couldn't
play then. Why? Because they can't go downfield. They're not
Go by the playbook. Take what the defense gives you. Run the
horizontal offense. Don't make mistakes.
"What's lost today is personality," Simms adds. "It's lost in
the system. This is all the quarterbacks hear: 'Let the system
work for you.' I watched [Terry] Bradshaw and [Roger] Staubach;
they were always talking to their players. Now no one talks.
They just stand around waiting for the play to come in."
"Offenses have been made too complicated," says Mike Giddings,
director of Pro Scout Inc., a scouting service that is used by 13
teams. "The quarterback has too many reads. His spontaneity is
being taken away. The playbook is just too damn thick."
San Francisco 49ers general manager Bill Walsh, who was never
accused of having a slender playbook when he coached the Niners
to three Super Bowl victories, points to another problem: lack of
continuity on a team. In the past, he says, "the quarterback and
his receivers were together longer. Offensive lines were together
longer. Now, with free agency, that's impossible."
Free agency has brought wealth undreamed of by those poor slobs
who took their lumps 20 years ago. Mediocrity is being rewarded
like never before. Kerry Collins bombs out with the Carolina
Panthers, quarterbacks the New Orleans Saints to a 2-5 finish
and cashes in with a four-year, $16.9 million package from the
Giants. Rich Gannon, a part-time starter with the Kansas City
Chiefs, collects $16 million over four years from the Oakland
Raiders. Trent Green goes from the Washington Redskins to the
St. Louis Rams for a four-year, $16.5 million deal, and the guy
whose job he took in D.C., Gus Frerotte, gets a three-year, $3
million package to be a backup with the Detroit Lions. Even
quarterbacks who have done little more than carry the clipboard
are seeing seven figures. Doug Pederson goes from the Green Bay
Packers to the Philadelphia Eagles for $4.5 million over three
years, and Stoney Case, who watched Jake Plummer do his thing
for the Arizona Cardinals, signs a two-year, $2 million contract
with the Indianapolis Colts to watch Peyton Manning. Can you
find a potential Hall of Famer in the bunch?
"I never dreamed of that kind of money," says Ron Jaworski, one
of our crop from '78 and a Super Bowl signal-caller for the
Eagles. "What kills me about these guys now is their lack of
fundamentals in game conditions. That's why I think the guys
were better 20 years ago. I'm talking about the little things,
stepping away from the center, dropping back into the pocket,
setting and throwing. It's just not there.
"I watch guys warming up, and they all can throw and their
fundamentals look good, and then they get in the game and fall
apart. I watch a guy like Tony Banks of St. Louis warm up and I
go, Wow! Then in the game he's a different person. Where's the
guy I saw warming up?"
Jaworski agrees with Simms that the vertical passing game, the
opportunity to throw deep on almost every pass play, is a rarity
nowadays. "I worked with Sid Gillman in Philly," Jaws says. "I
was taught to attack the whole field. I've talked to guys now
who tell me that all their reads are just in one area. Sid would
cry if he heard that. Quick hitches, slants, the long-handoff
passing game--there's just too much of that."
Part of the problem is the quarterback rating system, to which
many contracts are tied. The ratings place a lopsided premium on
completion percentage. Complete enough dinks and your rating
will be O.K. Average quarterbacks, such as Gannon, Green and the
Chicago Bears' Erik Kramer, all carried numbers in the low 80s
in 1998. How good is that? Well, better than the lifetime
ratings of Hall of Famers John Unitas, Joe Namath, Sammy Baugh,
Sid Luckman, Bobby Layne, Y.A. Tittle and Norm Van Brocklin.
"The quarterbacks in the old days were bold," Simms says. "They
went downfield. Now there's such negativity, the fear of the
interception. A guy comes off the field and says, 'Well, at
least I didn't throw an interception.' But he didn't complete
any downfield, either.
"Scheme, system, horizontal passing, and so the defense says,
'O.K., you wanna be cute? We'll be cute, too,' and they come up
with the zone blitz and all that exotic stuff. Now people
apologize for the quarterbacks because they say the defenses are
so complicated. Twenty years ago there wasn't all this
take-what-the-defense-gives-you. It was attack. Make them take
what you give them. And teams had the guys to do it."
The quarterbacks were simply better, too.
A True Quarterback Rating
How do the quarterbacks of today stack up against those of 20
years ago? Dr. Z gives the edge to the 1978 group, by a 15-10-3
count. His criteria: personality, impact on the game, boldness
in throwing down the field and ability to remain the starter for
the entire season.
TEAM 1978 STARTER 1998 STARTER EDGE
Cardinals Jim Hart Jake Plummer Hart
Cowboys Roger Staubach Troy Aikman Staubach
Eagles Ron Jaworski Bobby Hoying/Koy Detmer Jaworski
Giants Joe Pisarcik Danny Kanell/Kent Graham Kanell/Graham
Redskins Joe Theismann Gus Frerotte/Trent Green Theismann
Bears Bob Avellini Erik Kramer Kramer
Bucs Doug Williams Trent Dilfer Williams
Lions Gary Danielson Charlie Batch Danielson
Packers David Whitehurst Brett Favre Favre
Vikings Fran Tarkenton Brad Johnson/ Tarkenton
Falcons Steve Bartkowski Chris Chandler Chandler
49ers Steve DeBerg Steve Young Young
Rams Pat Haden Tony Banks Even
Saints Archie Manning Billy Joe Tolliver/ Manning
TEAM 1978 STARTER 1998 STARTER EDGE
Bills Joe Ferguson Doug Flutie Even
Colts Bert Jones/ Peyton Manning Even
Dolphins Bob Griese Dan Marino Marino
Jets Matt Robinson/ Vinny Testaverde Testaverde
Patriots Steve Grogan Drew Bledsoe Grogan
Bengals Ken Anderson Neil O'Donnell/Jeff Blake Anderson
Browns/ Brian Sipe Jim Harbaugh Sipe
Oilers Dan Pastorini Steve McNair McNair
Steelers Terry Bradshaw Kordell Stewart Bradshaw
Broncos Craig Morton John Elway Elway
Chargers Dan Fouts Ryan Leaf/Craig Whelihan Fouts
Chiefs Mike Livingston Elvis Grbac/Rich Gannon Grbac/Gannon
Raiders Ken Stabler Jeff George/Donald Hollas Stabler
Seahawks Jim Zorn Warren Moon/Jon Kitna Zorn