Is it our imagination, or is the Quarterback talent drying up? Where's the great young talent? Where are the tough guys, the Dan Fouts, John Unitas, Joe Namath types, people who can hang in and win games with busted noses and cracked ribs? How many of today's quarterbacks will end up in the Hall of Fame?
Fifteen years ago, five future Hall of Famers were in the league, and three more should make it. Now? At the risk of passing premature judgment on the young, let's say three—Joe Montana, John Elway and Dan Marino—will end up in Canton. Maybe four, if you include Jim Kelly, but he's 28 and has got to make his move. Three of the four—Elway, Marino and Kelly—are from the famous class of '83, in which six quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, and all three became starters. (Ken O'Brien, Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason were the other three.) But what has happened since then?
In the five NFL drafts from 1984 to '88, 27 quarterbacks were picked in the first five rounds; the average for the three preceding five-year periods was 32.3. Counting supplemental drafts, eight quarterbacks from the 1984-88 era were first-rounders; the three previous five-year periods produced an average of 9.7 first-rounders. From the total number of quarterbacks who joined the NFL from 1984 to '88—that's counting free agents as well as draft choices—12 became starters, although some have since lost their jobs. Compare that with 22 starters from the period 1978 to '83, 17 from 1974 to '78 (which historians rate as another dry era for quarterbacks), and 23 from 1969 to '73.
O.K., some of the newer guys might still become starters, although the chances are slim for this year's rookie crop. Last spring's draft yielded a record low of two quarterbacks in the first five rounds, and both of them were third-rounders. One of them, Tom Tupa of the Cardinals, was selected as a combination quarterback-punter. Each five-year period has produced its share of stars, but let's look at what the drafts of the past half decade have given us:
•1984—five starters. Steve Young, Tampa Bay's No. 1 pick in the supplemental draft, is now the darling of the San Francisco Bay Area. Everyone is writing obits for Montana because he played one lousy game in last year's playoffs. But Montana had an outstanding regular season, and Niner coach Bill Walsh is not about to hand over the job to Young. Granted, he has talent, but Young has been on three teams in two leagues and has yet to prove he can really work a game. Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason is a competent starter; Washington's Jay Schroeder, a Pro Bowler in '86, lost his job to Doug Williams. Steve Pelluer had the Dallas job, lost it to Danny White, and now has it again, uh, maybe. Finally, Randy Wright was rushed into quick service in Green Bay and now is fighting off a mob led by former Raider Mark Wilson.
•1985—two starters. Bernie Kosar of Cleveland and Randall Cunningham of Philadelphia are both budding stars.
•1986—three starters. The jury's out on all of them: Jack Trudeau of Indianapolis, Jim Everett of the Rams and Chuck Long of Detroit.
•1987—two starters. Chris Miller may be all right if he survives playing for Atlanta. Ditto Vinny Testaverde in Tampa Bay, but here and there you hear whispers that the Bucs shouldn't have let Young go to make room for him.
•1988—zip. Out of all the colleges playing football—hundreds of programs, thousands of athletes—how come only two quarterbacks were drafted in the first five rounds? A cyclical thing, say the more optimistic scouts. Perhaps. But since 1983 I count only two quarterbacks, Kosar and Cunningham, who can quicken your pulse. So the question remains: Why not more?
"Teams have gone corporate," says former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. "You used to have half a dozen or so exceptional quarterbacks—Unitas, Bradshaw, Starr, Hadl, Jurgensen, Namath. If they played well, the team won. Today the primary job of a quarterback is not to win games; it's to make the right decisions and not lose them. Most clubs are no longer one-quarterback teams. It's like training two senior vice-presidents—and coaches will make a change quicker these days. It's like bringing a World B. Free off the bench. It's the only way some of these coaches can impact a team. It's easier than being a true quarterback coach, a teacher."