John Unitas, who has played a little quarterback, opened the season on the bench for the first time in 12 years when the Baltimore Colts beat the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago and he was still there when the Colts won again last week, beating Atlanta. Johnny U. is 35, and his right elbow, chronically sore for three years, hurt too badly for him to throw the ball; fortunately the Colts had 34-year-old Earl Morrall to fill in and do an excellent job.
Bart Starr, the only quarterback considered the equal of Unitas, shrugged off his 34 years to complete 14 of 18 passes while Green Bay defeated Philadelphia in its opener. Don Meredith, who is 30 and has moved into stardom in the last two years, did even better, hitting 16 of 19 in leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 59-13 whomping of the Detroit Lions; last weekend he guided the Cowboys to their second straight victory. And 34-year-old Sonny Jurgensen, the fourth of the super quarterbacks, completed 14 of 21 passes for four touchdowns to upset Chicago for the Washington Redskins.
Aside from their obvious excellence, the one thing the four have in common is their age. Each is 30 or over; within the next five years it is almost certain that at least three of them will find that life on the shady side of 35 is more comfortable if spent in the stands. Only Charlie Conerly and Y. A. Tittle, in recent years, have played past 35 with any degree of competence.
It is no coincidence that the big four are all plus 30. The apprenticeship for a quarterback in the National Football League is long, hard and often cruel. Not many athletes have either the mental or physical toughness to survive it, and only a few ever graduate to super-stardom. The others, because of injury, a psychological fatigue that magnifies the terrors of the job or an innate inability to cope with its mental demands, become journeymen, capable of an occasional brilliant game but unable to sustain a championship level for an entire season.
Behind the big four in the National Football League today stand a number of quarterbacks, all of whom, at one time or another, have indicated great potential. Some are only a step away, while a few are just beginning their arduous schooling. Among those who have completed their apprenticeship and are on the verge of breaking into the top echelon, Roman Gabriel of the Los Angeles Rams seems most likely to take the final step. He is 28, has been with the Rams since 1962 and, most important, has had the opportunity of playing instead of sitting on the bench.
"He has attained a certain majesty," said Bernie Casey, the fine Ram receiver, after Gabriel put the team into the playoffs last year. "It rubs off on all of us."
Gabriel's problems in his first four years were inconsistency and a curious reluctance to release the ball quickly, but suddenly he began to read defenses surely. Where he had been hesitant throwing the ball into confusing coverage, he became decisive. He has always had the arm and at 6'4" and 230 he is the biggest quarterback in the league, probably the only one strong enough to break away from a tackier, stiff-arm a linebacker and still get the pass away. Since 1965, when he replaced the injured Bill Munson in midseason, Gabriel has won 24 of the 35 games he has started. In two climactic games at the close of the 1967 season he may have taken the step from continued star to superstar: against Baltimore and Green Bay he ignored the pressure to complete 38 of 58 passes for six touchdowns and 479 yards. Neither Unitas nor Starr (his opposing quarterbacks) could be expected to improve on that.
Gabriel has had the advantage of playing with one of the best teams in football. Another outstanding 28-year-old has not been as lucky. Fran Tarkenton, the 6', 190-pound scrambler for the New York Giants, began his career with the Minnesota Vikings in the same year the team was formed, an enormous handicap for even a seasoned quarterback. Despite this, he has compiled a better career record than Gabriel.
At Minnesota, Tarkenton spent much of his time bouncing from sideline to sideline in search of receivers and he developed a healthy distaste for nonexistent protective pockets. He proved that he could throw with surprising accuracy while dodging tackles, a not inconsiderable talent. Unfortunately for Tarkenton, he left the Vikings last year for the Giants, where he was still forced to scramble. Norman Van Brocklin, then the Viking coach following a career spent as an extremely immobile quarterback, lived uncomfortably with Tarkenton. "With the Peach," he once said sourly, "a coach has to come up with a good third-and-40 offense."
Allie Sherman of the Giants has accepted Tarkenton's tendency to roam. He has designed part of the Giant offense to take advantage of it, and Tarkenton may have his best years ahead as the Giants continue to improve. No scrambler has ever won an NFL championship. If Fran's legs retain their spring into his 30s, he may be the first of a new breed.