We also compared this year's quarterbacks with their counterparts from 10 and 20 years ago, and the old-timers won by roughly the same margin. What does this prove? Only that in an era in which athletic performance is supposedly improving in all sports, quarterbacking at the professional level isn't as good as it used to be. Granted, the signal callers of 15 years ago didn't have to look at the changing spectrum of 3-4, 4-3, nickel, dime and seven-back defenses. But I can see Namath, who carved up Baltimore's rather simplistic strongside rotation zone in Super Bowl III, doing the same thing to today's nickel and dime backs, zipping them to death with his 15-yard squareouts.
Many coaches say the physical pressure on the modern quarterbacks—in particular, the swarms of mobile Lawrence Taylor-type linebackers coming at them off a variety of stunts—is unhinging a lot of them. But players like Namath and Jurgensen killed blitzes because they got the ball away so quickly, in much the same way that Kosar eats up the blitz nowadays.
One reason today's quarterbacks are seeing so many blitzes and stunts is that, thanks to the strangleholds offensive linemen are permitted, defenses are having a hard time getting the job done with three and even four down linemen. Moreover, colleges aren't producing great defensive linemen anymore. The talent there is even drier than at quarterback. Any scout will tell you that. The top quarterbacks of 20 years ago didn't worry about the blitzers. They were too concerned with the likes of Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Richie (Tombstone) Jackson. Remember Tombstone? He had a head slap that split helmets. Talk about pressure.
Now the pressure is mental. A kid is two years out of college, has a million-dollar contract, and the fans, media and owners want to get him in there so he can start earning his paycheck. When he takes the snap, half the time he doesn't know what he's looking at. "He's thinking, Is it a nickel, is it a dime, two linebackers, three?" says Theismann. "Nowadays you need an accountant in the huddle with you, a 12th man just to inform the quarterback as to who the defense has on the field."
Something you never hear anymore is quarterbacks complaining that they don't get to call their own plays. Says Giants general manager George Young, "Hell, they're thankful that they don't have to. They have enough to worry about. But at one time all you heard was about how dehumanizing it was."
Maybe that's part of the problem—too many mechanical quarterbacks. Make the right read, find the right receiver, don't screw up, earn your million bucks. "Two years ago I was talking to Bobby Dodd, the old Georgia Tech coach," says the Redskins' offensive coordinator, Dan Henning. "I asked him what was the most important factor in offensive football today. He said, 'Make sure that before the quarterback kills the other team, he doesn't kill your team.' "
What are NFL teams looking for: take-charge leaders or nonscrewups? "Some guys can't handle the pressure, even though they have the physical skills," says Staubach. "The big money produces pressure to win right away. Maybe it has them a little shell-shocked. NFL quarterbacking is dealing with pressure on a consistent basis."
Staubach was the ultimate two-minute quarterback. Joe Kapp was tough; he would take on linebackers. Gabriel was indestructible. Tarkenton, Namath, Unitas, Bradshaw, Fouts—they all had their individual styles. Now, once you get past the top few, the quarterbacks tend to blur into a kind of gray competence.
People talk about the running quarterbacks, such as Cunningham, Elway and Young, as if they were a new breed. True, they get down the field more quickly than their predecessors did, but the NFL has always had great running quarterbacks. Remember Marlin (the Magician) Briscoe in Denver and Douglass with his ferocious gallops in Chicago? ("Six foot four, 225 pounds of quarterback or whatever you want to call him," was Frank Gifford's line about Douglass.) The league has always had great scramblers, too, instinctive escape artists like Tarkenton, and Griese in his younger years. You can go back as far as Frankie Albert in San Francisco. Watch some of those old films of Albert and you'll be amazed.
My god, that's 40 years ago! I can see the smirks, hear the polite tee-hees. Leave the poor old guy under the tree with his memories. It's just that something has gone out of the position—individuality, toughness, style, call it what you want. "I see burnout," says Theismann. "I don't think freshmen should play varsity football. I don't think college players should be in year-round programs. I played baseball at Notre Dame, and in the summer I unloaded boxes and delivered beer in Somerville, New Jersey. Football wasn't a 12-month operation. Everybody has to step away from the game and rejuvenate himself mentally and physically. Counting all the off-season workouts, by the time a kid is a senior in college he's probably done as much throwing as a third-or fourth-year pro used to do. An arm has only so many throws. I don't think you'll see many more 15-year vets."