Hart always could pass. He throws a very light ball that receivers like to catch because it does not hurt their hands, and he can throw the ball as far as necessary with considerable accuracy. He has completed close to 50% of his passes this year, above average for a young quarterback, and he is not afraid to pass despite those interceptions.
"My high school coach in Skokie, Mike Basrak, who used to be a center for the Steelers, put all the thoughts about quarterbacking in my head," says Hart. "He told me what happens to quarterbacks who run all the time. He told me to stay in the pocket. Drop back fast. Set up. Release quickly. And that's what I try to do." ("It's damn disheartnin" for us linemen to be there, ready to hit him, and then have him get that ball off so fast," shrugged Willie Davis of the Packers.)
The exhibition season, during which the Cardinals lost four of their five games, was mostly a period of adjustment and orientation, not only for Hart but also for the rest of the Cardinals. The receivers, who were so used to Johnson that they could freelance a pattern and expect the ball to be there, now had to run strict patterns, turning at exact moments to catch a ball that should be on the mark. The offensive linemen diligently overemphasized pass blocking during their workouts, aware that a new quarterback might be subjected to sustained blitzes and that at times he might wait too long to pass.
Hart himself worked particularly hard to refine his timing on passing. Still, he threw as many as three interceptions a game during the exhibition season. Then on opening day against the New York Giants he threw four more, and the Cardinals suffered an upset.
"I think we all wanted things to come too fast," Hart says of that game. And maybe the purists were right. Kids can't play quarterback.
If the last thought crossed Cardinal minds, it was soon forgotten, as everything began to work better. Hart and his receivers synchronized their timing, and he and rookie receiver Williams, the leaper from the University of Washington who was regarded as so fine a prospect that St. Louis felt safe in trading off former All-Pro Split End Sonny Randle to San Francisco, made a slight technical adjustment that has meant touchdowns for the Cardinals. "We weren't clicking," says Williams, "and I knew something was wrong. Jimmy was throwing his deep passes on a fairly low trajectory. I told him I'd rather have him throw the ball up and let me run under it, and since then that's what we've been doing." So, against the Packers, Hart lofted two long passes that Williams stole away from Herb Adderley for touchdowns. And his interceptions, despite the five he threw Sunday in a bad game against Chicago, are about normal for the NFL.
Hart also has begun to call automatics more frequently, and the coaches now send in fewer plays from the bench. At the start of the season, for instance, the coaches called about 50% of the Cardinals' offensive plays, whereas Charley Johnson was left on his own at least 80% of the time. When the Cardinals were inside the 10-yard line during early games the coaches called all the plays, but against Washington, a few weeks ago, Hart himself signaled for a look-in pass to Bobby Joe Conrad that went for a touchdown. The experienced quarterback—say a Unitas or a Starr—might switch plays at the line of scrimmage 20% to 25% of the time. At the beginning Hart rarely checked off. Now he does it on every fourth or, at most, fifth play.
Hart, too, has been blitzed less frequently than the Cardinals expected. This possibly is because he has been able to pick up the telltale signs of the blitz early and to adjust to it with an audible. Against the Eagles, for example, he recognized a safety blitz, called an automatic and hit Jackie Smith with a 74-yard touchdown pass. He did the same thing again with a 31-yard scoring pass to Conrad. Long touchdown passes through the vacated safety area will halt blitzing every time.
It is possible that the pressures will mount on the 23-year-old Hart and that he will lose his poise, at least temporarily, before he becomes the compleat quarterback. Possible, but not probable. Saturnine Vince Lombardi, for one, is not counting on Hart to panic. "He's a professional quarterback right now," the Green Bay coach says, and he has been on the receiving end of the young mover's own style of hippiness.