"I think the NFL's in trouble," says Sid Gillman, who is considered the father of the modern passing game. At 82, Gillman, a former San Diego Charger and Houston Oiler coach, still analyzes tapes of quarterbacks for coaching friends from his La Costa, Calif., home. "You've got two more teams coming in next year, which means you'll need 30 quarterbacks," he says. "Sixty, really, because so many of the starters get hurt. Where's the NFL going to get these guys?"
Even Gillman would have to admit that this isn't the first time the league has suffered lean times at quarterback. While six of the 26 starting quarterbacks from 25 years ago went on to the Hall of Fame—Bart Starr, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Len Dawson and Bob Griese—the NFL's overall completion percentage was eight points higher in 1993 than in '68 (57.9 to 49.9). What's more, on average in '93, each team threw two more touchdown passes than interceptions; in '68, teams averaged two more interceptions than TD passes. If today's quarterbacks are uninspiring, compare them to this list of '68 starters: Pete Beathard, Marlin Briscoe, Jack Concannon, Dan Darragh, Randy Johnson, Tom Sherman, Dick Shiner and John Stofa.
Yet the league's current quarterback woes run far deeper than a mere cyclical ebb in talent. Consider:
•In this era of free agency, teams are less likely to be patient with quarterbacks who are having difficulty mastering an offense. The logic is simple: Why work hard to develop a young quarterback, as Miami did with Marino understudy Scott Mitchell, if he's going to end up as the starting quarterback for someone else? (The Lions signed Mitchell as a free agent in March.)
•Losing begets losers. Bad teams get the first crack at the best quarterbacks coming out of college, but those teams now tend to change coaches—and thus offensive systems—more often than most people change their oil. So a talented prospect may learn little about his position.
•Other sports are pilfering top prospects. Bill Walsh, the former 49er coach, who is currently the coach at Stanford, says Josh Booty, a recent graduate of Evangel Christian High in Shreveport, La., is the best teenage quarterback he has ever seen. Booty will be in the Florida Instructional League this fall, polishing his shortstop skills, instead of playing football at LSU. "I love baseball," Booty says from the heart. His head told him something about career longevity. "It seems like NFL quarterbacks only play about half the season anymore because the game's so violent."
•The science of scouting has progressed to where everything from body fat to reflexes are measured with precision. However, assessing the intangibles needed to become a successful pro quarterback remains a dicey undertaking.
Obviously a pro quarterback must have size, mobility and arm strength, as well as a solid supporting cast and good coaching. Far more important and far more difficult to measure are such factors as intelligence, mental toughness, durability, high pain tolerance and, above all, leadership.
Aikman, Elway, Kelly, Montana and Simms demonstrated all these characteristics early on. Why scouts do not scrutinize leadership ability as carefully as they do arm strength is a mystery even to some in the league. "As pro football people," says Bronco personnel boss Bob Ferguson, "we put so much emphasis on finding the right guy, on finding the Holy Grail, that we sometimes end up reaching for a quarterback, because everyone knows you're not going anywhere without a good quarterback."
Yet the personality of a quarterback grows in importance as the demands of the position increase. "When I played [quarterback in the AFL in the '60s]," says Seahawk coach Tom Flores, "the media and the public pressure weren't there. You just went out and played football. Today, when you're a first-round quarterback, you have to walk on water. You have to be a savior. The pace of the game is incredible, and the complexity is mind-boggling. The desire to succeed has to burn inside of you."