SI Vault
Tex Maule
September 30, 1968
They are not yet 30 and they are still learning—often the hard way—but from this group of promising quarterbacks may emerge the one or two who will adequately replace those aging kings, Unitas and Starr
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 30, 1968

The Young Generals

They are not yet 30 and they are still learning—often the hard way—but from this group of promising quarterbacks may emerge the one or two who will adequately replace those aging kings, Unitas and Starr

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

But last week against Chicago, Munson did exactly what Detroit hoped he could, completing 15 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns as the Lions crushed the Bears 42-0. In every way he looked like the money in Detroit's bank.

Bill Kilmer, at 29, may have been given his opportunity too late and with too weak a team. Kilmer was the big gun in the San Francisco shotgun attack a few years ago, then suffered a severe ankle injury in an auto accident and hardly played at all until he was picked up by New Orleans in the expansion draft of 1967.

"Kilmer is a great competitor," says Fears, the Saints coach. "He's not a picture passer but he makes things happen. He moves the ball." He runs well enough and his wobbly passes hit the mark, but Kilmer has too much to prove with a team that won't give him a chance to prove it. Like all good quarterbacks, he has confidence. He threw well during preseason games. "This year I feel the job is mine," he says. "As a result, I think I'll take more chances." After a mediocre first game Kilmer was almost inconsolable. "The offense let the defense down, and I was to blame," he said. Last week Kilmer could smile again as he led the Saints to a 37-17 victory over Washington, passing for 183 yards and two touchdowns.

Probably farthest removed from the quarterback throne room are five very young starters: Jim Hart, 24, of St. Louis; Randy Johnson, 24, of Atlanta; Jack Concannon, 25, of Chicago; Kent Nix, 23, of Pittsburgh; and Don Meredith's understudy, 25-year-old Craig Morton.

Two of them ( Concannon and Nix) got starting jobs after being traded. Nix, who has run the Steeler offense since the third game of 1967, speaks for both when he says, "I'm glad I was traded by the Packers. A quarterback should play when he is young. The most important thing I learned last year was to recognize defenses. Now I can anticipate, but I still need better anticipation on first and third downs and I have to learn to throw the ball harder. My ball kinda sails out."

Concannon throws the ball hard enough, but, like most young quarterbacks, he has trouble with the delicate timing of short, square-out passes. He is a big man, like Gabriel, and a good runner. In his opening game he ran and wound up with a broken nose for his trouble, and last week against Detroit he couldn't do anything right. A year ago, when George Halas was still coaching the team, he watched Concannon in practice and said, "This boy will make it. I think he has the tools, and we'll teach him to stay in the pocket." If he learns the lesson and improves his short passing game, he is on the way.

Randy Johnson, like Tarkenton, began his pro career on an expansion team, but unlike Tarkenton, he does not have enough agility to scramble out of danger. As a result he has taken a fearful beating in his first two seasons, and while he is learning in a pressure cooker, he may be taking too much heat. The Atlanta Falcons have not improved much this year, and a third year of unremitting punishment could set Johnson back beyond repair. Norm Snead, the ill-fated quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, had the same experience in his early days with the Washington Redskins and only recently regained the poise and confidence of a first-rate quarterback.

Jim Hart, the youngster who was thrown into the lineup at St. Louis when the army called up Charley Johnson, has had moments of competence, but he threw 30 interceptions in his first year and three in the first game of this season under grievous pressure from the Los Angeles Rams. Like most young men, he has a tendency to force a pass or throw into too tight coverage instead of holding the ball. It is unfair to dismiss him on his performance so far; he needs the seasoning and intuition that comes only with time.

By the time Craig Morton, the Dallas No. 2, gets his chance at running the club, he should have all the seasoning he needs. He is in the fortunate position of playing for a high-scoring team behind a 30-year-old quarterback who often needs a rest. Morton played most of the second half in the Cowboys' first game, completing nine of 17 passes, one for a touchdown. When Don Meredith is having an off day, the Dallas fans have already begun to chant "We want Morton! We want Morton!" and some day they will get him.

But that day, for Morton and for most of the NFL's young generals, lies a few years in the future.

1 2 3