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In 1975, when the New Orleans Saints prepared a game plan, their quarterback, Archie Manning, had to know approximately 30 pass plays. In '85 the Giants mapped out weekly strategy that required quarterback Phil Simms to draw on about 40 pass plays. In '95, in preparation for a matchup with the expansion Carolina Panthers, the Redskins handed second-year passers Frerotte and Shuler a game plan with 144 pass plays.
Granted, in many cases, those 144 included minute variations of other Redskins plays, but as Walsh says, "That's far too many to have precise execution." If 56 pass plays are enough for Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway—the count in the team's game plan for the Bucs last month—shouldn't that be enough for Frerotte and Shuler?
Thick playbooks can lead to uncertainty when the quarterback steps behind center, because he is thinking too much about the many nuances of the called play and how they match up against the defensive set in front of him. "I wasn't a Number 1 pick because I could go to a chalkboard and explain what was happening," says Bledsoe. "I was a Number 1 pick because I had a strong arm and good natural instincts. Sometimes when you're trying to learn so much, you stray from that."
Even for one such as Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who in '95 was the NFL's Player of the Year in only his fifth season in the league, the pro game did not come easily. "My first couple of years in Green Bay I realized I was doing the hardest thing in sports," he says. "We had 16 quarterback meetings a week. Learning our offense—any pro offense, really—is harder than learning chemistry or calculus."
One more thing: The high turnover rate among coaches and other rapid changes in offensive philosophy can further impede a struggling quarterback's development.
Obsessed with getting to the quarterback, defensive coordinators over the last five years began blitzing numerous players from the same area of the field, often dropping linemen into coverage. The zone blitz is the NFL's latest fad, and it's designed to confuse the offense and hurry the passer. For example, rushing five players from one side can create a five-on-three blocking mismatch and collapse the pocket before the quarterback can exploit a defensive end trying to cover a fullback.
"I've seen [Minnesota Vikings quarterback] Warren Moon struggle against the zone blitz," says Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson. "If a veteran struggles with it, you know the young quarterbacks will."
Dilfer and Shuler look particularly confused and display the telltale sign of an inability to handle pressure: happy feet. This nervous dance in the pocket can lead to poor mechanics and, as a result, a poor throw. The best way to overcome happy feet is with extensive study and practice, but Wyche isn't convinced that Dilfer is dedicated enough to beat the syndrome. "He thinks he gives the game a lot of time," Wyche says, "but he never gave the game the time other quarterbacks I've had gave it."