Just a few completions behind Gabriel and Tarkenton are a cluster of quarterbacks who have the promise but, in most cases, have lacked the opportunity to achieve superstar status. Three of them—Gary Cuozzo of Minnesota, Bill Munson of Detroit and Bill Kilmer of New Orleans—have spent most of their time understudying other quarterbacks who possessed either superior talent or who were preferred by their coaches. Cuozzo was No. 2 behind John Unitas on the Colts before he asked to be traded rather than remain on the bench.
"I learned a lot just from watching Johnny," Cuozzo said some time ago. "But I thought I was ready to start and I had no chance with Baltimore."
Cuozzo got a chance to start with the Saints, but he is a classical drop-back quarterback who needs a pocket to throw from, and the Saints had a few holes in their pockets. By midseason of 1967 Coach Tom Fears had decided to go with Kilmer who is a strong runner. The decision may have saved Cuozzo's life. He was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, only to be sidelined by an injury during the preseason and see Joe Kapp, a 30-year-old quarterback who has spent most of his career in the Canadian League, take over. Cuozzo, almost a carbon copy of Unitas in his drop-back, set and pass, could still hit the top. He is only 26 and he has the arm and the mind, plus adequate size—6'1", 195. He is in the same plight as Detroit's 27-year-old Munson, who also must shake the No. 2 personality.
Munson. unlike Cuozzo, has demonstrated that he is capable of handling the burdens of a starting quarterback. In his first year with the Los Angeles Rams, 1964, he took over as first-string quarterback and held that job until the middle of the 1965 season, when a knee injury opened the door for Roman Gabriel. During the next two seasons Munson stewed on the bench.
"When George Allen took over two years ago," Munson said before the Lions lost to Dallas in the season opener, "he told me that he was going to give me and Gabriel the same shot at quarterback. Then I played maybe two quarters in the whole exhibition season. He said he was bringing me along slow, but I think that was a little too slow."
Gabriel was Allen's quarterback from the beginning, although some members of the Los Angeles press and a considerable number of fans questioned the coach's judgment.
"The first year I sat on the bench was torture," Munson said. "Toward the end of the season I had colitis and, sitting on the bench, I was tense and tied up. The next year I was resigned to it, but I told Mr. Reeves [ Dan Reeves, owner of the Rams] that I was going to play out my option so that I could move to a club where I could start."
Both the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions wanted the Ram quarterback, but Munson, despite the added lure of possible Super Bowl money with Green Bay, opted for Detroit. "At Green Bay I would have had the same thing," he said. "I couldn't expect to replace Bart Starr."
At Detroit the starting job was waiting for him. "We tried to get him for three years," says Russ Thomas, the Detroit general manager. "He's a natural No. 1. We knew it. In this game if you don't have a quarterback—even if you have everything else—it's like trying to run a bank without money."
Munson completed 19 of 22 passes as the Lions beat Baltimore in a preseason game, but an operation to remove a growth from his leg kept him from working on his timing. Then he suffered a pulled muscle in his chest, which prevented him from starting the Dallas game on opening day.