The long journey
Steve DeBerg's 17-year career was a tale of 'What could have been'
har·bin·ger n. One that indicates or foreshadows what is to come; a forerunner.
The exhibition season is under way and for the next few weeks the viewing public will be inundated with backups, scrubs and hangers-on looking to elude The Turk.
Which brings up the question: Who is the all-time journeyman under center?
We began with these parameters:
Minimum 100 games.
The criteria eliminated some of the best-known backups, like Don Strock (167 games, but played for only the Dolphins and Browns), Zeke Bratkowski (132 games, but played for three teams: Bears, Rams and Packers) and the immortal Guido Merkins (108 games, but again, played for only three teams: Oilers, Saints and Eagles). Even Earl Morrall was up for discussion, but although he played in 255 games for six teams in 21 years (and never more than six-plus years with any one team), alas, he was an All-Pro twice (1957 with the Steelers and in '68 with the Colts).
These are the guys who have been around the block, the ones who have been there, done that -- but not without failure. Or a rotating charge account with U-Haul. The best of this bunch, as Bill Walsh once lamented, is "just good enough to get you beat."
These are the all-time best journeyman quarterbacks. Mr. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow -- and turn out the lights when you leave, will ya? And Exhibits A, B and C are Steve DeBerg.
DeBerg's NFL career began in 1977, as a 10th-round draft pick of the Cowboys. Of course, Dallas already had Roger Staubach, so it's only fitting that our hero was cut at the end of training camp. But he latched on with the sad-sack 49ers, who went 2-14 in 1978 behind Scott Bull and DeBerg.
The next season -- Walsh's first in San Francisco -- should have been DeBerg's coming out party. During another 2-14 campaign he established an NFL record for most pass completions (347) and posted the first of his three 3,400-yard passing seasons. But a funny thing happened on the way to Canton; the Niners selected Joe Montana in the 1979 draft. Coincidentally, DeBerg and Montana were roomies during the future Hall of Famer's first two seasons.
DeBerg had one more season by the Bay before spending 1981-83 in Denver, which traded for John Elway after the '83 draft. Four seasons with Tampa Bay followed, when he shared snaps with Steve Young (1985-86) and Vinny Testaverde (1987), among others.
In 1988 DeBerg signed with Kansas City, where he had four consecutive seasons -- and two playoff berths -- with at least 2,900 yards passing, including 3,444 yards with 23 TDs and only four picks in 1990. That also was the year Jim Kelly led the NFL in passing, and his 101.2 rating is still among the best single-season performances ever, while Warren Moon passed for 4,689 yards, the sixth-highest total ever.
After wrapping up his 14th season in 1991, DeBerg, then 37, said his goal was to be the oldest player in the NFL. When Jets kicker Pat Leahy retired in January 1992, he was it.
DeBerg, nevertheless, was back in Tampa in 1992, standing on the sidelines as Testaverde struggled through his final season with the Bucs at 5-11. After playing in three games with Tampa Bay in '93, DeBerg joined the Dolphins. Dan Marino tore his Achilles' tendon in Game 5, and with third-year player Scott Mitchell and rookie Doug Pederson the only quarterbacks on the roster, Don Shula brought in the veteran QB.
Miami was 9-2 heading down the stretch, but an 0-5 swoon (including three losses by six or fewer points) sealed the team's postseason chances and DeBerg left the game just as he had entered -- "just good enough to get you beat."
DeBerg joined Dan Reeves' coaching staff with the Giants in 1995-96, and after Reeves was fired DeBerg retired to Tampa, Fla., quarterbacking a co-ed flag football team. Three years later, he was back in the NFL -- playing for Reeves' eventual NFC champion Falcons.
Five years after hangin' 'em up, DeBerg won the backup job to Chris Chandler after completing 10 of 14 passes for 129 yards in an exhibition against Cincinnati. On Oct. 25, 1998, DeBerg became the oldest starting quarterback in NFL history. The 44-year-old struggled through a 9-for-20 day in a 28-3 loss to the Jets.
DeBerg's statistics stack up among the all-time greats:
More passing yards (34,241) than Young (33,124), Troy Aikman (32,942) and Ken Anderson (32,838), the player whose game film Walsh used as a teaching guide for his famed West Coast offense.
Nonetheless, DeBerg never played more than 64 games with one team -- and that came in two stints, five seasons apart, with the Buccaneers (1984-87 and 1992-93). His longest continuous service with one team was a 57-game tenure in four seasons with the Chiefs.
When asked the last time a quarterback job was truly his, our all-time journeyman QB said: "Savanna High, really. That was my most secure year of all of them." Then again the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Bernie Miklasz said of our all-time journeyman QB, "You look up 'interception' in the football glossary book and you find Steve DeBerg's photo."
Still, he was too good to be a backup, yet no one thought he was good enough to be a starter for very long. But his legacy lives on; the Colts' Peyton Manning has studied films of DeBerg, a noted master of the play-action pass.
Staubach. Montana. Elway. Young. Marino. Steve DeBerg competed against all of them. As well as the likes of Mark Herrmann, Gary Kubiak, Jack Thompson, Steve Pelleur and Tony Graziani. And among the journeymen, DeBerg -- who started games for six different teams and a record 11 head coaches -- is our starter, win or lose.
George Blanda holds the mark for being the oldest player to appear in an NFL game. He was 48 when he made his final appearance for the Raiders in 1975. DeBerg turned 50 on Jan. 19. ... So whaddya say, Steve; one more go-round, for old time's sake?
B. Duane Cross is a senior producer for SI.com.