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SI FOR KIDS
NFL's shorter quarterbacks battle to prove they can play
Posted: Tuesday July 28, 1998 03:36 PM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
ATLANTA (CNN/SI) -- In Buffalo, Doug Flutie is trying, once again, to prove that little guys can play quarterback in the NFL.
And in Baltimore, the quarterbacking future of the Ravens may sit on Eric Zeier's shoulders. He's 6 feet tall.
There are at least six quarterbacks around the NFL in 1998 who are 6-feet or under -- and that's going by their official listed heights, something that's fudged regularly.
The new short corps is fronted by the Buffalo Bills' Flutie, a legitimate 5-foot-9. He's trying to make it in the NFL for the second time after becoming probably the best player the Canadian Football League has ever seen.
Flutie's lack of height has made him mostly unwanted in the NFL, but in the Canadian league, where the field is wider and a quarterback has more room to improvise, Flutie won six MVP titles. The former Heisman Trophy winner, behind 6-foot-3 Rob Johnson on the Bills' depth chart, still hears questions about his height almost daily.
"All I know," he said, "is that I played the game at my height all my life."
Short quarterbacks have never had an easy time of it. Thirty-six years ago, when the NFL was barely off the ground itself, height was a huge topic when it came to quarterbacks.
At the 1962 Pro Bowl, quarterback Y.A. Tittle, a 6-foot giant among his peers, and Eddie LeBaron, a 5-foot-9 scrambler with a quick release and a laser delivery, compared arms during an impromptu get-together before the game.
"My advantage, if I had any, was I released the ball higher than he did," said LeBaron, who made four Pro Bowls in a career that spanned 11 years with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins. "Tittle was a great quarterback, but he threw the ball sidearm. I came over the top and I got very, very few balls knocked down."
In fact, the history of the NFL is peppered with small quarterbacks who have played big.
There's Jack "Soapy" Shapiro (all 5-foot-1/2 of him), who starred for the Staten Island Stapletons in 1929. There was the King of Scramblers, Fran Tarkenton. Joe Theismann was barely 6-feet tall. Sonny Jurgensen was shorter than that. They've all proven that you don't need to be 6-foot-6 with a cannon of an arm to play quarterback.
But, as most scouts and general managers will tell you nowadays, that doesn't hurt.
"Obviously, if I have a choice, I want a bigger guy," said Ernie Accorsi, the vice president and general manager of the New York Giants. "When you're going to give up something like size, you're going to have to have other qualities."
The Bengals' Blake is the shortest quarterback currently listed as a starter in the NFL, and he's being pressed hard by O'Donnell in training camp. Blake made the Pro Bowl after the 1995 season, but that has not quelled the whispers about him being too short to make it.
"If you look at all the quarterbacks, everybody's within a foot of each other. Most of us are within, like, three inches," said Blake. "That doesn't make a difference when you're on the line of scrimmage. You don't throw over people most of the time, anyway. You throw in lanes."
One of the biggest raps against short quarterbacks, in fact, is that they can't see over the mass of bodies on the line. The average height for a defensive tackle in the NFL is better than 6-foot-3, while offensive guards average more than 6-foot-4. On the outside, things get even tougher. Tackles generally go 6-foot-5, tight ends 6-foot-6 and defensive ends around 6-foot-4.
Still, if the blocking holds up, there should be lanes to throw through. And, if the blocking breaks down, quarterbacks of any height are in trouble.
That's where scrambling comes in handy, something almost all the shorter QBs have relied on.
"LeBaron was a gnat. He could move all over the place. And Theismann, what people don't remember about him -- he was a great athlete, all-around," Accorsi said. "Tarkenton, he was miraculous. He was like Roger Staubach (6-foot-3), only he happened to be smaller. People remember him as a scrambler. [But] he was always looking to throw the ball downfield. He was a pinpoint passer and he could throw on the run."
Guys like LeBaron, who never ran for more than 190 yards in a season, had bigger guys to play against, too. Gino Marchetti was a defensive lineman who played most of his career with the Baltimore Colts. At 6-foot-4, Marchetti was known as Gino the Giant. The Los Angeles Rams had 6-foot-7 Lamar Lundy and 6-foot-5 Merlin Olsen.
Even back then, the bigger quarterbacks were considered the better quarterbacks -- guys like Tittle, Otto Graham (6-foot-1) and Bobby Layne (6-foot-1).
"There wasn't such a wide divergence," said LeBaron. "The big thing then, and I think still now, was the ability to move.
"If you have the ability to move and the intelligence to know how to read the defenses, you can find the lanes. Even the biggest guys can't throw over the top of a guy 6-10 coming in at you."
Still, scouts and teams nowadays start getting nervous about going with a quarterback under 6-foot-2, fearing all the usual -- batted down balls at the line of scrimmage, the inability to see defenses, maybe even that smaller guys would be more fragile or not as strong.
"I don't want to kid anybody," said Pat Haden, a 6-foot Rookie of the Year quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams in 1976. "You're better off being 6-3. It's not only the height thing. You can carry some more weight and take more punishment over the course of a year when you're bigger."
Accorsi, when he was with the Baltimore Colts, passed over a chance to draft Theismann because of his height. The Redskins finally drafted him in the fourth round in 1971, and he went on to throw 160 touchdown passes in a 15-year career.
The best of the smaller QBs was probably Tarkenton, who retired as the league's most prolific passer, with more than 47,000 yards in his career. Tarkenton was the consummate scrambler, running for more than 3,600 yards (and an average of 5.4 yards a carry) in his 18-year career with the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.
Tarkenton is officially listed at 6-foot in the NFL record books
"Fran was not big, but he was a great movement guy, with a very quick delivery, and smart," LeBaron said. "Balls didn't get knocked down because he had the ability to run around and find an open receiver. If you can make a guy miss a time or two, all sorts of options open up."
Baltimore Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda was a 5-foot-10 quarterback who was a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953. Now, he has the say on whether to go with big players -- his starter is 6-foot-3 veteran Jim Harbaugh -- or with smaller guys. Baltimore's backup is 6-foot Eric Zeier.
"It's a little tougher for the little guy," Marchibroda said. "What you have to remember is bigger usually means stronger, too. But we like our guy [Zeier]. He has a strong arm. He's going to be an outstanding quarterback."
The two top picks in this year's NFL draft were both quarterbacks, Peyton Manning of Tennessee and Ryan Leaf of Washington State. Both are around 6-foot-5. But guys like Flutie and Blake and Zeier -- and before them, LeBaron and Tarkenton and Theisman -- show that there is a place for the little guy behind center in the NFL."But I've often thought," Marchibroda said, "that I would have loved to have been a little bigger and played the position."
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