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A Farewell To Arms?

With the NFL's best quarterbacks nearing retirement age, the league is facing a talent shortage at the most important position

In 1955 the Pittsburgh Steelers selected a lightly scouted quarterback from the University of Louisville in the ninth round of the NFL draft. Fourth on the depth chart when camp opened, the guy was soon cut and he hitchhiked home. The next season, though, the Baltimore Colts picked him up, and he stuck with them for quite some time. You might have heard of him, fellow by the name of John Unitas.

Thirty-three years later, as many as 20 NFL scouts would show up at University of Houston games to watch quarterback Andre Ware during his junior season. The following winter, after he had led the Cougars to a 9-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy, Ware declared himself available for the draft, and dozens of scouts and pro coaches attended his pre-draft workouts. "Gentlemen," one of the league's preeminent offensive minds said to his colleagues at one of these sessions, "we are looking at the next great quarterback in the National Football League."

It didn't happen. This summer, after having been the seventh pick of that draft and having spent four seasons in and out of the Detroit Lions' lineup, Ware is struggling to make the Minnesota Viking roster as a backup.

When Unitas played for Louisville, NFL scouting was a raw, unsophisticated exercise that relied less on scientific appraisal than on intuition, luck and happenstance. For instance, in 1957 a New York Giant scout spent a fall Saturday at West Point's Michie Stadium, where an obscure Utah quarterback named Lee Grosscup had a fine afternoon against Army. In 1959 the Giants made Grosscup their No. 1 draft choice. He languished on their bench for nearly three seasons before drifting away to the nether regions of the AFL and then, in 1965, out of football altogether.

In the '90s, scouting has evolved into an industry, a major subsidiary of the NFL. Yet, when it comes to selecting quarterbacks, little has changed. The misses far outnumber the hits. This year the collective candlepower at the league's marquee position is dimmer than it has been in many a year.

For every Troy Aikman, there are five Dan McGwires, and among the quarterbacks who were picked high in recent drafts, there are more suspects than prospects. Petulant Jeff George talked his way out of Indianapolis and is now starting over in Atlanta. Timm Rosenbach was felled by injuries year after year before abruptly quitting the Arizona Cardinals, only to resurface a year later in the Canadian Football League. Todd Marinovich chose to surf in the nude rather than put in the necessary time to become the quarterback of the Los Angeles Raiders. Former top-10 selections Jim Everett (New Orleans Saints), Vinny Testaverde (Cleveland Browns) and Steve Walsh (Chicago Bears) are just hanging on to pro careers, instead of dominating the game as they did in college. David Klingler struggles to become a complete quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals after rewriting the college record book in the run-and-shoot.

We think we detect greatness in four picks from the last two drafts—Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer in '93, Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer this year—but recent history has taught us to be wary. At quarterback, a sure thing is anything but.

Mirer, with the Seattle Seahawks, and Bledsoe, with the New England Patriots, had fine rookie seasons—finishing with a combined 5,327 yards and 27 touchdowns—and their ascendancy can't come a moment too soon for the NFL. Aikman, who has led the Dallas Cowboys to two straight Super Bowl victories, is the only signal-caller in the league under 32 who is clearly Hall of Fame material. In fact, of the quarterbacks who have entered the league since 1987, Aikman remains the only one who has blossomed into a franchise player.

The NFL's star quarterbacks are old and brittle. At 38, Joe Montana of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to have only a year or two left before calling it quits. Warren Moon, at 37, will try to win it all in Minnesota after having failed for 10 years to reach the Super Bowl with the Houston Oilers. When the Giants cut 38-year-old fixture Phil Simms in June, the cries of protest left New York general manager George Young exasperated. "We've got to get somebody else ready to play," he says. "What do you want us to do, stuff Phil and keep wheeling him out there?"

Among the other aging candidates for induction in Canton, only 34-year-old John Elway of the Denver Broncos is physically sound. The Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, who turns 33 next month, is trying to rebound from a torn Achilles tendon, and the Buffalo Bills' Jim Kelly, 34, will attempt to play through tendinitis in his throwing shoulder.

"I think the NFL's in trouble," says Sid Gillman, who is considered the father of the modern passing game. At 82, Gillman, a former San Diego Charger and Houston Oiler coach, still analyzes tapes of quarterbacks for coaching friends from his La Costa, Calif., home. "You've got two more teams coming in next year, which means you'll need 30 quarterbacks," he says. "Sixty, really, because so many of the starters get hurt. Where's the NFL going to get these guys?"

Even Gillman would have to admit that this isn't the first time the league has suffered lean times at quarterback. While six of the 26 starting quarterbacks from 25 years ago went on to the Hall of Fame—Bart Starr, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Namath, Fran Tarkenton, Len Dawson and Bob Griese—the NFL's overall completion percentage was eight points higher in 1993 than in '68 (57.9 to 49.9). What's more, on average in '93, each team threw two more touchdown passes than interceptions; in '68, teams averaged two more interceptions than TD passes. If today's quarterbacks are uninspiring, compare them to this list of '68 starters: Pete Beathard, Marlin Briscoe, Jack Concannon, Dan Darragh, Randy Johnson, Tom Sherman, Dick Shiner and John Stofa.

Yet the league's current quarterback woes run far deeper than a mere cyclical ebb in talent. Consider:

•In this era of free agency, teams are less likely to be patient with quarterbacks who are having difficulty mastering an offense. The logic is simple: Why work hard to develop a young quarterback, as Miami did with Marino understudy Scott Mitchell, if he's going to end up as the starting quarterback for someone else? (The Lions signed Mitchell as a free agent in March.)

•Losing begets losers. Bad teams get the first crack at the best quarterbacks coming out of college, but those teams now tend to change coaches—and thus offensive systems—more often than most people change their oil. So a talented prospect may learn little about his position.

•Other sports are pilfering top prospects. Bill Walsh, the former 49er coach, who is currently the coach at Stanford, says Josh Booty, a recent graduate of Evangel Christian High in Shreveport, La., is the best teenage quarterback he has ever seen. Booty will be in the Florida Instructional League this fall, polishing his shortstop skills, instead of playing football at LSU. "I love baseball," Booty says from the heart. His head told him something about career longevity. "It seems like NFL quarterbacks only play about half the season anymore because the game's so violent."

•The science of scouting has progressed to where everything from body fat to reflexes are measured with precision. However, assessing the intangibles needed to become a successful pro quarterback remains a dicey undertaking.

Obviously a pro quarterback must have size, mobility and arm strength, as well as a solid supporting cast and good coaching. Far more important and far more difficult to measure are such factors as intelligence, mental toughness, durability, high pain tolerance and, above all, leadership.

Aikman, Elway, Kelly, Montana and Simms demonstrated all these characteristics early on. Why scouts do not scrutinize leadership ability as carefully as they do arm strength is a mystery even to some in the league. "As pro football people," says Bronco personnel boss Bob Ferguson, "we put so much emphasis on finding the right guy, on finding the Holy Grail, that we sometimes end up reaching for a quarterback, because everyone knows you're not going anywhere without a good quarterback."

Yet the personality of a quarterback grows in importance as the demands of the position increase. "When I played [quarterback in the AFL in the '60s]," says Seahawk coach Tom Flores, "the media and the public pressure weren't there. You just went out and played football. Today, when you're a first-round quarterback, you have to walk on water. You have to be a savior. The pace of the game is incredible, and the complexity is mind-boggling. The desire to succeed has to burn inside of you."

Walsh believes the trouble begins with careless scouting. "For the people who haven't played quarterback at a high level, there's a mystery about it," says Walsh. "It's almost mystical. To know who will be a good one, you have to have experienced it intimately. You have to have played the position and lived the position. That's why it's so hard for most people to project who will be the really good ones. You have a scout who plods along in his job, maybe a guy who was a linebacker 30 years ago, and you're asking him to evaluate whether a college quarterback can play in an intricate pro offense. It's unrealistic."

Even if the scouts have done their job properly, a prospect can fail if he is not taught the game well in the pros. "You have to take a kid and teach him everything about quarterbacking from scratch," says Gillman. "The snap from center, the intricate footwork, how to cock your arm before the pass, everything. You have to have a coach with him constantly, like a nursemaid. And the coaching has to be consistent."

Often it isn't. Owners and general managers of losing teams run coaches through revolving doors, even though the unmistakable lesson from successful teams like the 49ers, the Bills, the Dolphins and the Raiders is that a stable coaching staff is the key to success—and the key to grooming a star signal-caller. In four seasons with the Colts, George had as his tutor five head coaches and assistants, so it's no wonder that Indianapolis has not had a double-digit winning season since 1977.

In San Francisco, Walsh established a system of coaching and management that survives to this day, even though his last coaching season with the Niners was in '88. When offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan came to the club in '92, he watched videotapes of Walsh and former offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren teaching the San Francisco offense. "The point is," Walsh says, "players and coaches will come and go, but you have to have a long-range system that is unwavering. A pro quarterback is not going to learn his craft in one training camp. He's going to learn it in five or six training camps and in off-season programs, in one system of football."

Walsh's system saved the 49ers in 1991, after they had lost Montana for the year and Steve Young for much of the year to injuries. Third-stringer Steve Bono, cut by other teams four times earlier in his career but a Niner backup the previous two seasons, stepped in for Young and finished as the league's fourth-highest-rated quarterback.

If the NFL flunked with Grosscup and Ware, and with a hundred in between, how do you find that can't-miss kid? You fly to Chicago, get on a puddle-jumper to South Bend, Ind., drive east on a county road for 45 minutes or so, and you find Rick Mirer in the small town of Goshen.

"When Rick was eight," says his dad, Ken, "he was in the state Punt, Pass and Kick finals in Indianapolis. I took him down, and there was a big crowd of kids and their parents. I was a basket case. I said to Rick, 'Now, keep your head. Relax out there.' Rick looked at me and tried to assure me that everything would be O.K. He said, 'Don't worry, Dad. I've done this before.' Then we get to Soldier Field for the regionals, which he won, and before the competition, he raises his hand, to silence the crowd. Damnedest thing I ever saw."

"When Rick was a senior in high school," says Randy Robertson, his coach at Goshen High, "his poise was incredible. In our homecoming game, we're tied 6-6 with two minutes to go, and it's our ball on our 20. Rick says to me, 'It's in the bag, Coach.' He goes 80 yards in a minute and a half, just the way it's supposed to happen. But all through high school, you could see that, unlike some kids at that age, this wasn't the culmination for Rick. He wanted more."

Rick thinks two factors in particular helped him to become an NFL quarterback. First, he started the first grade a year late, because his parents figured that doing so would help him in his class work. Being older, and thus more mature and physically developed, also helped him in athletics. Second, Mirer thinks that staying at Notre Dame for his senior year, instead of entering the NFL early, helped him to prepare for the pro game.

As a 23-year-old Seattle rookie (Bledsoe was 21 on opening day in '93), Mirer threw more passes (486) for more completions (274) and more yards (2,833) than any other rookie in league history. "That's two extra years that some kids didn't have," he says. "I think that helped me grow up a ton."

Walking across his former high school field one day last month before the Sea-hawks assembled for training camp, Mirer tried to put his finger on how a pro quarterback is created. "I never made sports bigger than life," he said. "I just played and enjoyed them. My whole approach to sports was based on the love of sports and common sense. If I was playing pickup basketball, I'd figure out my opponent's weakness and go for it. But I don't think there's any one way quarterbacks are made."

Which is why they're so hard to find.



The aborted NFL careers of Rosenbach (top)and Marinovich (below) spoke of a failure of will, while Ware (left) and Everett will attempt to redeem their early promise amid new surroundings.



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Walsh (below) predicted stardom for Booty (left), who chose a safer game.



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As a rookie, Bledsoe discovered that quarterbacking a losing team is a painful learning experience.