We put the question to a multitude of NFL people—past and present coaches, players, scouts and general managers: Are we in a down era for quarterbacks? Their answers fall into general groupings by profession. Retired quarterbacks and older vets agree that the modern group is missing something. Coaches, who have to coach their own quarterbacks and prepare for the other guys', do not agree for the most part. Hell, they say, there's plenty of talent around. What's more, the game's much more complicated now. Current quarterbacks generally agree with the coaches.
"Sonny Jurgensen was a great quarterback, a great passer," says Buffalo coach Marv Levy. "He looked at a strong zone, weak zone and man-to-man free safety. There isn't enough time for me to explain all the coverages there are now. And they limit a quarterback's ability to be as consistent as he once was. Even the good ones now aren't quite so consistent. If anything, there are more good arms. But they're going against more good defenders."
"Bart Starr and Bob Griese were great quarterbacks who won championships," says Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert. "But if you put them in one-on-one drills with Marino and Elway, they wouldn't even be on the same field. I'm not saying that in a negative way. I'm just talking about physical skills."
More good arms now? Better physical skills? I'm not so sure. Namath threw the ball as hard as anyone. Terry Bradshaw's passes looked as if they came out of a pipe. Bobby Douglass of the Bears was a flamethrower whom no one remembers, and James (Shack) Harris of the Bills and Rams could bring it as well as anyone. The game has always had major arms, and I think more of them might have been around in the old days. If so many great arms are coming out of college these days, why don't more quarterbacks get drafted higher?
The older scouts generally agree that today's quarterbacking talent is subpar, but for the life of them they don't know why. After all, more colleges are putting the ball in the air than in the past. "It's a real puzzler," says Charley Casserly, Washington's chief scout. "More colleges are going to drop-back passing, the veer and the wishbone have diminished over the last 10 years, and there are better passing coaches in the schools. Still, for five years the drafts have slid. We're getting kids who are smart and trained, but we're not getting as many big, strong, picture-type quarterbacks.
"Here's an off-the-wall theory: the influence of soccer on the youth of America. You find a lot of kids playing soccer, which means x amount are not playing football. There's a trickle-down effect. Some people might say that doesn't make any sense, but let them come up with a better reason."
"It's got to be the mommies' and daddies' fault," says Bengal coach Sam Wyche. "They have to put out kids with stronger arms."
"Maybe kids aren't getting enough Vitamin B," says Roger Staubach.
"Hey, look," says Casserly, "pull out some rosters from 10 or 15 years ago and see what there was around the league. Maybe the talent was the same. That's the only way to really find out."
So let's compare, team by team. We'll go back 15 years and hit all 26 teams. (The Buccaneers and Seahawks didn't exist in 1973.) The evaluations, you understand, are strictly personal.