Remember when even the NFL’s worst quarterbacks were stars? When on any given Sunday, on any given team, you’d see a guy behind center you trusted, looked up to, and rooted for the previous week – no matter the numbers?
Certainly many of yesteryear’s QBs lacked a rocket arm, had questionable footwork, and struggled to fill out their jerseys. They often threw more picks than touchdowns and tossed as many wounded ducks as frozen ropes. But still, they had the requisite John Wayne gait, Mellencamp mop, and loads of bravado. Average Joe owned the huddle with as much gumption as Joe Cool.
Unfortunately today’s NFL prefers potential over personality, cannons over catapults, and statistics over leaders. Perception is nine-tenths of the law and there’s no place for quarterback dweebs anymore. In fact, you only have to glance down the list of starters for 2010-11 to see that there are two kinds of signal-callers today: the elite, qualified by their numbers, and the prospects, qualified mostly by their appearance. On the one hand there’s Brady, Romo, The Mannings, Rivers, Brees, Roethlisberger and of course Favre – some of the all-time gunslingers, shootn’ up endzones and corralling touchdowns. On the other, there’s a roll call of players that will someday, maybe, be good.
But there’s nothing in between. Quarterback heroes are hard to come by.
When I started watching pro football as a kid in the early Eighties, it really felt like every quarterback was a superstar, regardless of their pedigree. This may have been caused by my miniature second grade stature, but they were much larger than life – even on TV. Every one of them had the aura of a leader, could zing the ball over oncoming pass rushers, and withstand a hit to the chops. Every one of them galvanized their team against the odds, knew which play to call and marched to the line of scrimmage with the same look of invincibility. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
The truth is, guys like Dave Krieg, Bobby Hebert, Neil Lomax, Steve Grogan, Jim Everett and Ken O’Brien probably didn’t do all those things on a regular basis. They probably threw as many interceptions as completions, now that I think about it. Okay sure, they were probably closer to being the Jay Cutlers of the era -good, but not quite great. Mark Malone, anyone? (60 touchdowns, 81 interceptions for his career).
Still, I can’t help but think there was real consistency to those old quarterbacks. A persistence. Yes, they were more Workin’ Day and Night than Thriller, but that’s what endeared us to them. They were just always there – starting. It was their names – not the name of some multi-millionaire rookie hovering over their shoulder – that always flashed up onscreen in those budget yellow titles. They labored through three-win seasons, took the hits to their much smaller, uncut, Goose-from-Top Gun bodies. And yet, they always bounced back up. These men may not have been franchise quarterbacks as we consider them today, but media and fans alike never screamed for their heads with nearly the same ferociously that they do today. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
More than two-thirds of today’s pro QBs, by contrast, are either a work in progress, wet behind the ears or a flat-out gamble. Think about it: is your team’s current quarterback a lock to finish the 2010-11 season? If you’re a Colts, Giants, Saints, Chargers, Cowboys, Patriots, Texans or Packers fan you probably answered yes. The rest of you, like me – a Miami Dolphins fan with some reservations – probably don’t have a clue how the playbook will, well, play out. It’s just a strange era.
So why is today’s NFL rife with newcomers at the game’s most important position? My first thought is that a few teams have a PR unit bucking for more SportsCenter’s highlights. Quarterback controversies are all the rage in Bristol.
But seriously, contracts in 2010 are a different ball game to 1982, and that’s clearly a chief source of the problem. Owners are watching first-stringers like hawks, pouncing on any opportunity to test out their prized draft pick instead. Consider Joe Flacco, the Ravens would-be saviour; yes, Flacco is a good QB. Big. Strong. Can whip up a small tornado with his spiral. But did anyone foresee this dude stepping into the starting role so soon and succeeding? Not even Romo or Rodgers were expressed to the top of the depth chart in their first year. (Granted Baltimore’s existing depth was rather shallow). Or how about Josh Freeman suddenly owning the Bucs gig? Was Jeff Garcia really that bad? Just another case of a team void of a genuine play-caller forced to rush in a young guy with no business as a starter so early in his career.
Now, I’m not saying these gifted athletes aren’t up to the challenge, nor should they be underestimated. Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez are prime examples of the youth movement at its best. But just because Ryan looked like Tom Brady in his first season, or because Stafford showed the guts of a young John Elway in his, does the entire league need to lean on their potential stars so early, instead of their savvy veterans? Did we learn nothing from the JaMarcus Russell debacle?
Meanwhile, how many accomplished, quality QBs are riding the pine this season, simply because of Gen Y love? Well, there’s Pennington, Bulger, Anderson, Collins, Hill, Carr, Vick, Feeley, Boller, O’Sullivan, Wallace and Redman to name just a few. Of course, a couple of these players would start under a different employer – one not obsessed with grooming the next Big Ben. (Not that his career is a model for success!).
Experience isn’t much of a merit badge these days. We know that. It’s not even as useful as knot-tying or hiking. No. it’s all about arm strength and freakish height folks. Anyone under 6’6 need not apply, unless their name is Brees or they relish holding a clipboard.
It might just be nostalgia, but I miss that quarterbacks were once stars by virtue of hours clocked, not pre-draft hype. They were classically skilled but not powerful. Confident, yet grizzled. A little rough around the edges with a noodle arm and flat ass. But every team had their guy, didn’t they? Average or not, short or stout, he started and usually finished. He just played football, come sleet or snow. And that’s why he always seemed so heroic.
At least, that’s how I remember it.