So who's getting the job done? Kelly and Moon, to be sure. John Elway of the Denver Broncos, Bobby Hebert of the Saints and Mark Rypien of the Washington Redskins have done well enough, as have Steve Young in relief of Montana and Jeff Hostetler as Simms's replacement. Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns hasn't thrown an interception all season. Steve DeBerg, at 37, can still wing it for the Kansas City Chiefs. Even so, something seems to be holding most of these guys back from real glory. Other than Kelly and Moon, no signal-caller seems to be a formidable force every week.
Herewith are the reasons for the quarterbacking malaise:
•Superior defenses. In the mid-1980s pass-oriented offenses went wild, taking advantage of rules changes that benefited the passing game and of an influx of swift, glue-fingered wide receivers who simply had more speed and talent than the people lined up against them. The defenses have fought back. Linebackers like Pat Swilling of the Saints and Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs are often the best athletes on the field, and cornerbacks like Deion Sanders of the Falcons and Donnell Woolford of the Bears have raised the level of coverage.
Most of all, the defensive schemes have adapted to the passing attacks and become as complicated as anything the offense has to offer. "When I came into the league, there was a strong zone, a weak zone, a man-to-man with a free safety and a blitz," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "That's all there was for a quarterback to read. There weren't even five defensive backs on the field. The difference between playing quarterback now as compared to 30 years ago is the difference in riding a kiddie car and piloting a jet airplane."
Defenses are madly making situation substitutions, lining up in weird alignments and confusing the daylights out of quarterbacks. "Who did we play the other night that had a 2-5-4?" says Packer vice-president Tom Braatz. It was the New York Jets, but it probably could have been any team. Timing patterns have been disrupted almost out of existence by blitzes and by jams on receivers. Also, the old seven-step drop for quarterbacks is as quaint a notion as the cha-cha. It's run for your life on nearly every pass for many quarterbacks.
•Imitating the Super Bowl champs. The Giants won Super Bowl XXV with a ball-control, run-oriented attack. And, according to an unwritten NFL code, the rest of the league (except the Super Bowl runner-up) must strive to emulate the team that went all the way. "We're the biggest copycats in the world," says Coury. "The Giants ran the ball, ran the ball, ran the ball, played defense and tried to keep it close until the fourth quarter. That's really hurt the passing game. The thing is, most of us aren't the New York Giants."
•Fewer pass-interference calls. A 1988 rule change allows a pass defender incidental contact with a receiver as long as the defender is looking back for the ball. Receivers had perfected techniques for making a defender appear to be interfering when, in fact, the defender was playing within the old rules. That trick no longer works; defensive backs play tighter and penalty yardage is harder to get.
•Lousy backups. Despite all the injuries to starters, teams still aren't taking the time necessary to develop good backup quarterbacks. "The number one quarterback gets three quarters of the practice time, and everybody else gets the rest," says Miami receivers coach Larry Seiple. "The backup isn't 100 percent sure of things when he gets into the game, and I think that affects the entire team."
•Failure of recent high draft choices. The only rising star who has been drafted in the last five years is Aikman, the No. 1 pick in 1989. The highly touted gunslingers who have fired blanks include Testaverde, Kelly Stouffer, Steve Walsh, Billy Joe Tolliver and Andre Ware. And who knows if Rosenbach can come back from his knee injury to reach his potential, or if bonus baby Jeff George can survive behind the Indianapolis Colts' patchwork line?
Says Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, "In the NFC Central, you're talking about Harbaugh in Chicago, Testaverde-Chandler in Tampa, Peete in Detroit, Chris Gannon or whatever his name is up in Minnesota and Majkowski and Blair Kiel in Green Bay. Put that in perspective. You'd be starting an expansion team with any of those guys." Indeed, when the league adds two teams in 1994, somebody probably will.