Today's NFL Quarterbacks—you call these guys helmsmen, field generals, architects of indomitable scoring drives? Deckhands on a tramp steamer, grunts, crane operators with wrecking balls would be more like it. Has there been a season in recent memory when, as a group, pro quarterbacks looked less, well...less professional?
At the midpoint of this season, through Sunday's games, touchdown passes are way down compared with last year. Scoring is off. Running the ball is up. Nervous, clueless quarterbacks throwing into triple coverage—that is way up. Halfway through last year, NFL teams had scored an average of 20 touchdowns, including 11 per club by way of the pass. At the same point this year they have averaged 16 TDs, with nine through the air. There have been 100 fewer touchdowns, 66 fewer scoring passes. In a game that measures change in inches and ounces, that's a remarkable drop.
And get this: Though the completion percentage for the league is up nearly 2%, total net passing yardage is down almost 1,700 yards. Only 11 regular quarterbacks have thrown for more touchdowns than interceptions. Airing it out—and then completing those bombs to men in friendly jerseys—is becoming a lost art.
One explanation may be that there just aren't enough good men for the job. "There are only about 10 NFL quarterbacks," says New England Patriots offensive coordinator Dick Coury. "There are a lot of good quarterbacks, but there's a big difference between being a good quarterback and being an NFL quarterback. An NFL quarterback is one who's good enough to win for you. He can win for you when the rest of your game isn't good enough. Today, it seems so many teams are trying to create situations in which they aren't asking the quarterback to win the game. Maybe that's because if you do ask him, he'll get you in trouble."
Here's trouble: People with names like Friesz, Goebel (Brad not George), Kemp, Tupa, O'Donnell and Wilhelm (Erik not Hoyt) have been taking a lot of snaps. Two of the most productive and pulse-quickening acts in the league, Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers and Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, have been lost for the season with an elbow and a knee injury, respectively. Eight other starters have missed a total of 24 games because of injuries, including the Phoenix Cardinals' promising newcomer Timm Rosenbach, who's out for the year with torn knee ligaments, and Cunningham's backup, Jim McMahon, who sat out three weeks with a strained knee ligament. In addition, the Detroit Lions' Rodney Peete was sidelined for the rest of '91 when he tore an Achilles tendon on Sunday.
After McMahon went down, the Eagles had to turn their offense over to a rookie free agent, Goebel, who in his first start, against the hapless Tampa Bay Bucs on Oct. 6, completed 9 of 20 passes for 62 yards and threw two interceptions. The following week he was 12 of 22 for 106 yards and four interceptions in less than three quarters against the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles then gobbled up veteran backup Jeff Kemp—the same Jeff Kemp who 24 hours earlier had been placed on waivers by the Seattle Seahawks after getting intercepted three times against the Los Angeles Raiders. That performance gave Kemp 12 interceptions in the six games in which he replaced Seattle starter Dave Krieg, who was out with a broken thumb.
O.K., so a litany of quarterback injuries and the titanic struggles of their replacements are nothing new, but what about these beauties from Jim Everett, the high-profile QB of the Los Angeles Rams? He converted 7 of 16 passes for 83 yards against the New York Giants on Sept. 8, the next week he went 6 of 17 for 71 yards against the New Orleans Saints, and on Sunday he completed 9 of 27 for 92 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. And how did you like Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys getting sacked 11 times by Philadelphia? Or Dan Marino (page 38) of the Miami Dolphins getting sacked 15 times in the first half of the season, when he was pulled down only 15 times all last year?
Sacks are not usually the quarterback's fault, you say. Well then, how about interceptions? Two weeks ago Marino, a certain Hall of Famer, faced the Houston Oilers' Warren Moon, another sure Canton inductee, in what was supposed to be a big shootout, and in the first half they each threw three interceptions. The next night the Buffalo Bills' Jim Kelly, also Hall-bound, tossed three interceptions in the first half against the winless Cincinnati Bengals. Halloween was just around the corner that Monday night, but black magic aside, what is going on here?
Of the NFC's six top-rated passers at the midpoint of 1990, Montana and Cunningham are injured, Phil Simms of the Giants has lost his starting job, Chris Miller of the Falcons and Jim Harbaugh of the Chicago Bears have taken the art of inconsistent play to new heights, and Everett didn't complete a touchdown pass until L.A.'s sixth game. Speaking of players who seem to be out of it, Jay Schroeder of the Raiders, who was third in the AFC quarterback ratings halfway through '90, dropped 27 points in the ratings over the same span in '91. With the Raider running game out of sorts, he's a sitting duck for opposing defenses. What's more, Cincinnati's Boomer Esiason, whose strong arm has perennially lifted him high in the rankings, was rated last among AFC starters at this year's midpoint.
Two quarterbacks who two years ago looked to be stars of the future, Bubby Brister of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Don Majkowski of the Green Bay Packers, now appear to be has-beens. The onetime Majik Man pulled a mouse from his hat against Chicago two weeks ago, completing 3 of 16 passes for 32 yards before being lifted for Mike Tomczak. The Bucs (Vinny Testaverde or Chris Chandler?), Patriots (Tommy Hodson or Hugh Millen?) and Minnesota Vikings (Wade Wilson or Rich Gannon?) can't decide who their quarterback is, and John Friesz is the San Diego Chargers' sixth starting signal-caller since Dan Fouts retired after 1987.