In 1955 the Pittsburgh Steelers selected a lightly scouted quarterback from the University of Louisville in the ninth round of the NFL draft. Fourth on the depth chart when camp opened, the guy was soon cut and he hitchhiked home. The next season, though, the Baltimore Colts picked him up, and he stuck with them for quite some time. You might have heard of him, fellow by the name of John Unitas.
Thirty-three years later, as many as 20 NFL scouts would show up at University of Houston games to watch quarterback Andre Ware during his junior season. The following winter, after he had led the Cougars to a 9-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy, Ware declared himself available for the draft, and dozens of scouts and pro coaches attended his pre-draft workouts. "Gentlemen," one of the league's preeminent offensive minds said to his colleagues at one of these sessions, "we are looking at the next great quarterback in the National Football League."
It didn't happen. This summer, after having been the seventh pick of that draft and having spent four seasons in and out of the Detroit Lions' lineup, Ware is struggling to make the Minnesota Viking roster as a backup.
When Unitas played for Louisville, NFL scouting was a raw, unsophisticated exercise that relied less on scientific appraisal than on intuition, luck and happenstance. For instance, in 1957 a New York Giant scout spent a fall Saturday at West Point's Michie Stadium, where an obscure Utah quarterback named Lee Grosscup had a fine afternoon against Army. In 1959 the Giants made Grosscup their No. 1 draft choice. He languished on their bench for nearly three seasons before drifting away to the nether regions of the AFL and then, in 1965, out of football altogether.
In the '90s, scouting has evolved into an industry, a major subsidiary of the NFL. Yet, when it comes to selecting quarterbacks, little has changed. The misses far outnumber the hits. This year the collective candlepower at the league's marquee position is dimmer than it has been in many a year.
For every Troy Aikman, there are five Dan McGwires, and among the quarterbacks who were picked high in recent drafts, there are more suspects than prospects. Petulant Jeff George talked his way out of Indianapolis and is now starting over in Atlanta. Timm Rosenbach was felled by injuries year after year before abruptly quitting the Arizona Cardinals, only to resurface a year later in the Canadian Football League. Todd Marinovich chose to surf in the nude rather than put in the necessary time to become the quarterback of the Los Angeles Raiders. Former top-10 selections Jim Everett (New Orleans Saints), Vinny Testaverde (Cleveland Browns) and Steve Walsh (Chicago Bears) are just hanging on to pro careers, instead of dominating the game as they did in college. David Klingler struggles to become a complete quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals after rewriting the college record book in the run-and-shoot.
We think we detect greatness in four picks from the last two drafts—Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer in '93, Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer this year—but recent history has taught us to be wary. At quarterback, a sure thing is anything but.
Mirer, with the Seattle Seahawks, and Bledsoe, with the New England Patriots, had fine rookie seasons—finishing with a combined 5,327 yards and 27 touchdowns—and their ascendancy can't come a moment too soon for the NFL. Aikman, who has led the Dallas Cowboys to two straight Super Bowl victories, is the only signal-caller in the league under 32 who is clearly Hall of Fame material. In fact, of the quarterbacks who have entered the league since 1987, Aikman remains the only one who has blossomed into a franchise player.
The NFL's star quarterbacks are old and brittle. At 38, Joe Montana of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to have only a year or two left before calling it quits. Warren Moon, at 37, will try to win it all in Minnesota after having failed for 10 years to reach the Super Bowl with the Houston Oilers. When the Giants cut 38-year-old fixture Phil Simms in June, the cries of protest left New York general manager George Young exasperated. "We've got to get somebody else ready to play," he says. "What do you want us to do, stuff Phil and keep wheeling him out there?"
Among the other aging candidates for induction in Canton, only 34-year-old John Elway of the Denver Broncos is physically sound. The Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, who turns 33 next month, is trying to rebound from a torn Achilles tendon, and the Buffalo Bills' Jim Kelly, 34, will attempt to play through tendinitis in his throwing shoulder.