On the other hand, the decisions to go with O'Donnell, Nagle and Marinovich seemed predestined. The Steelers got an extended look at O'Donnell last year when Brister missed eight games with a sprained right knee, and then O'Donnell won the starting job in training camp. The Jets, who were convinced they weren't going to win a championship with Ken O'Brien calling signals, lowballed him in contract talks during the summer and then started Nagle while O'Brien held out for half of the preseason. Marinovich got his first start in the final game of the '91 regular season when Jay Schroeder was sidelined with two sprained ankles. The Raiders kept Marinovich in the lineup for their wildcard playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, even though the erratic Schroeder could have played. Schroeder started the first two games of this season, both defeats, before getting the hook.
O'Donnell, for one, is no stranger to the quick study. In his last 12 seasons of football—four at Madison (N.J.) High, five at Maryland and three with the Steelers—he has played in the systems of 10 different coaches or offensive coordinators. Bobby Ross, O'Donnell's first coach at Maryland and now the coach of the Chargers, says he became sold on O'Donnell while watching him play high school basketball as a 6'3" center. "I remember thinking, This kid just will not be denied," says Ross. "What a competitor."
After leading Pittsburgh to its first 3-0 start since 1982, O'Donnell had his first bad outing of the season on Sunday, completing 16 of 41 passes against Green Bay. Seven of his throws were dropped, but he was wild and high and ineffective on third-down plays. At this stage O'Donnell, a third-round draft choice in 1990, looks like a tough, durable and unselfish player, one who can excel in coordinator Ron Erhardt's offense, which puts running and ball control ahead of passing.
That's fine with O'Donnell, who early on learned that the team was more important than the individual. The youngest of nine children, he had four brothers who played college football before him. His father, Jack, was so interested in his career that he attended every one of Neil's college games, whether Neil played or not. But in August, Jack had a massive stroke that paralyzed his left side. Now Neil feels a sense of urgency about succeeding in the NFL that he didn't feel before.
"I've learned you should live every day as if it's your last," he says. "I've learned so much about this game and about all the so-called pressure in it. There's no pressure. I see my dad in a hospital bed for almost two months, and my job is playing football. My job is fun. I laugh in the huddle now. I try to keep everybody loose. The best therapy for my dad is for me to continue to play and play well."
No one in this group of quarterbacks has more fun playing the game than Nagle. A second-round selection in the '91 draft, Nagle and Jet defensive coordinator Pete Carroll liked to run complicated patterns and throw bombs to each other after practice last season—like two kids playing in the street. Nagle's a strong, frisky pup, just 24, with a big-time arm that was developed at Louisville under former Baltimore Colt and University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger.
"You can hear his ball humming on its way past you," says Atlanta Falcon safety Scott Case, who witnessed Nagle's remarkable NFL debut as a starter—a 366-yard passing day in the season opener. The Falcons won 37-21, but they were impressed with Nagle's size (6'3", 225 pounds) and toughness. "A couple of times I hit him, and it was like banging headfirst into a tree with roots six feet deep," says Atlanta defensive end Tim Green. "I know he felt the pressure, but he didn't blink."
Nagle needs better touch on his short passes, and he has to rein in his youthful impatience while maintaining the aggressiveness a top quarterback must have. It'll be hard, with New York off to an 0-4 start. Still, he can't keep making the kind of mistake he made against Pittsburgh in Week 2, when, with the Jets trailing 17-10, he forced a pass into triple coverage for a crucial interception. "Boom!" he says. "I wanted to make something happen now!" Most kids do.
Maybe none more so than Marinovich, a California quarterback if there ever was one. When he got word that he was starting the Sept. 20 game against the Cleveland Browns, he said, "I'm stoked." And the day before the game he went surfing in the Pacific. At 23 he has the quiet cockiness coaches like to see in quarterbacks.
But the Raiders, 0-2 with Marinovich as the starter after Monday night's 27-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, also would like to see the 6'4", 215-pound passer become more disciplined and hang in the pocket longer. "You can't be hesitant, you can't worry about the blocking, you just have to go with it," says Marinovich, who left Southern Cal after his sophomore season and nevertheless was L.A.'s first-round draft pick in '91. "I feel so much more comfortable this year than when I got in last year. When I come up to the line, I know what to expect now."