Favre is a throwback to what great quarterbacks used to be
Here's a fogeyish thing to do. It's the sporting equivalent of babbling about those days when we all had to walk five miles to school through the snow, uphill, both ways.
Still, here goes: Bob Griese wore glasses in Miami; Steve Grogan ran around like mad in New England; Richard Todd was getting booed in New York; Joe Ferguson was more Buffalo than the wings; Bert Jones had this amazing arm in Baltimore; Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw used to hold his index finger on the point of the ball when he threw; Dan Pastorini loved to throw deep in Houston; Brian Sipe was my hero in Cleveland even though his passes wobbled in the wind (even when the wind was behind him); Kenny Anderson never seemed to miss a pass in Cincinnati; Dan Fouts piloted Air Coryell in San Diego -- I loved the way he shuffled back into the pocket; Craig Morton was ancient in Denver; Jim Zorn used to duck under and spin away from defenders like Shaggy and Scooby Doo running from ghosts; Kenny Stabler was the Snake in Oakland; Steve Fuller was boring in Kansas City.
That would be a list of every starting quarterback in the AFC in 1979. I was 12 then and didn't have to look up any of them. Twenty-nine years later and their names all come back as easily as the number nine multiplication table. I could do the NFC real quick too, if you want. I'm guessing that you don't want that.*
*Ron Jaworski, Roger Staubach, Joe Theismann, Phil Simms, Jim Hart ... OK, I'll stop now.
Now, as I mentioned, there is nothing that sounds more grumpy-old-man than rambling on and on about how quarterbacks used to be better. But that's not what I'm saying -- I doubt very seriously that quarterbacks used to be better. I just think they used to be more famous, more easily remembered, more beloved, more representative of their cities. Archie Manning didn't just play in New Orleans, he WAS New Orleans to those of us who lived in faraway places, he was Mardi Gras and jazz and the Bayou. Steve Bartkowski didn't just play for Atlanta, this big guy with the Polish name like my own who grew up in Des Moines and played baseball and football at Cal inexplicably represented the American South to me. The only two things I knew about Tampa was that DisneyWorld was there and that Doug Williams was the quarterback, and only one of those two things turned out to be correct.
That has changed, I think. There are only a handful of quarterbacks these days who pierce the imagination -- and with Tom Brady going down in New England and Peyton Manning looking just a wee ancient in Indianapolis, it's more like a carpool. You have Eli Manning in New York, of course, though you get the sense that some Giants fans are waiting impatiently for the statute of limitations on the Super Bowl miracle to end so they can start booing again.* You have Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, though he has not started every game in a season since 2003.
*In New York, the booing statute of limitations usually expires after nine months or consecutive ugly interceptions. This is a little bit different from Philadelphia, where by law booing can commence immediately upon the first incomplete pass.
You have Tony Romo in Dallas, though he might want to win a playoff game at some point. You have Drew, Matt, Carson, Jay, Rivers, Roethlisberger -- good quarterbacks all, but they're probably not sweeping the nation.
Finally, there's Brett Favre. He is the last quarterback standing, the one guy out there who inspires some of the feelings of those old-time quarterbacks. This is in part because he IS an old-time quarterback; the guy was flinging passes in the NFL before the Soviet Union collapsed. But there's something else here too, something about the way Favre still plays the game, something in the way he flings footballs into double coverage, the way he seems indestructible, the way he throws TERRIBLE interceptions but then comes back and throws absurd touchdown passes.
That's the way it used to be. It's stunning to go back 30 and 40 years and look at the statistics of the quarterback heroes. In 1979, Terry Bradshaw threw 25 interceptions, and he didn't even lead the NFL in that category (that would be my hero Brian Sipe with 26). The only guy to throw 25 or more interceptions in the last seven years ... yeah, that would be Brett Favre in 2005 when he threw 29 of them.
In 1979 Grogan led the NFL in touchdown passes, but he completed only 48.7 percent of his passes. You know how unthinkable it would be now to have an every week starting quarterback who completed fewer than half his passes? And he wasn't the only one. Williams completed 41.8 percent of his passes that year (a quarterback should be able to hit that many passes at night with the lights out) and took Tampa Bay to the NFC Championship Game.
In 1979 quarterbacks threw deep. The yards per completion numbers were significantly higher then (12.7 yards) than now (11.3). That meant quarterbacks dropped back deeper, got sacked more, and they turned the ball over like crazy. That's probably why America loves Favre so much, he's the last of the throw-hicans, he's up at the top of nearly every quarterback category, good and bad, most touchdowns, most interceptions, third most fumbles, seventh-most sacked, he's been thrilling fans and driving them crazy for 17 years now.
That's what it used to mean to be a quarterback. That changed. Coaches took over the game. Geniuses started calling plays. Everyone started demanding more prudent football. Defenses got more sophisticated and specialized. Sackers got bigger and stronger and faster and more dangerous. Quarterbacks were told to "manage" the game rather than "win" the game. Passer rating became the in statistic.* Fantasy football became the rage so that now every David Garrard interception in Jacksonville infuriates some doctor in Ann Arbor, some insurance person in Toledo and some farmer in Kansas and some home builder in Orange County.
*Is there any statistic in any other sport quite like passer rating? Nobody even knows what's in it, much less how to figure it out, and yet that's the way so many judge quarterbacks. It's one of those revolutionary statistics that not only measures quarterbacks, it has actually changed the way people play quarterback. Passer rating demands safe play. It incorporates completion percentage, yards per attempt (not per completion), touchdowns passes per attempt and interceptions. So the rating rewards quarterbacks who complete a lot of their passes and have receivers who can run after the catch. It's no wonder Steve Young has the highest passer rating ever.
And with all that, the quarterback persona has been stripped bare. I have little doubt that quarterbacks are not so different now, that Drew Brees is better than Archie Manning, that Aaron Rodgers can win more games than Lynn Dickey and that Kyle Orton hears the same Chicago boos that Bob Avellini and Vince Evans once heard. But there's still something about the older guys.
"You know what's beautiful about the being an old quarterback?" Roman Gabriel once asked. Gabriel's a wonderful guy, he was the NFL MVP in 1969 and the comeback player of the year in 1973. He threw 200 touchdown passes, 150 interceptions, completed about 53 percent of his passes and fumbled 105 times in his career. Those were great numbers long ago.
"What's the beautiful thing about being an old quarterback?" I asked back.
"You get better every year," he said.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of Joe's Blog at joeposnanski.com.