LAST WEEK several NFL general managers took a desperate plunge down memory lane, frantically flipping through their Rolodexes to find help at quarterback. One number that got rung was that of Vinny Testaverde, he of the rubber arm and the 1963 birth certificate. Drew Bledsoe, a 35-year-old who retired in April and who was busy coaching his sons in flag football, also received several calls about his availability but declined the invitation. What, was Joe Montana busy?
For NFL coaches and G.M.'s not employed by the Patriots, Colts or Packers, these are worrisome times. Good young quarterbacks are as rare these days as parades down South Bend Avenue for Charlie Weis. What once was the most glamorous position in sports has become a circus of fallen stars, bumped-up second-stringers, unprovens and never-weres. Let's put it this way: Tarvaris Jackson? Cleo Lemon? Who outside of downtown Phoenix even knew that Kurt Warner was still playing football until Matt Leinart's star descended and in went Warner to run the Cardinals' offense—for a while. Now Leinart is out for the season with a collarbone break, and Warner, 36, is sidelined with damage to his nonthrowing elbow. So who's taking snaps for Arizona? The unknown-to-the-paparazzi Tim Rattay, who signed in midweek and faced off on Sunday against ... Testaverde's Panthers.
Consider that in Week 1, Rex Grossman was the man for the Bears, Joey Harrington was for the Falcons and the debate was not whether they could, respectively, improve on last season and fill the shoes of Michael Vick, but whether they were talented enough to be in the NFL. That was before Drew Brees and Carson Palmer went sour, Chad Pennington had New York calling for his head (his arm went unrequested) and Jay Cutler at times looked overwhelmed. That was also before the mad scramble that has seen 45 starting QBs this season, with more on the way. It is fascinating to contemplate—given that Gus Frerotte and Brian Griese are already out there—who they might be.
To be sure, injuries are part of the reason that Testaverde, for example, was playing on some 365 days' rest. Besides Leinart and Warner, Jake Delhomme is out for the season (elbow surgery) and so is backup David Carr (back injury). But there are always injuries, and not always so many QBs as anonymous as factory workers.
What's happened is that the job of quarterback has gotten a lot tougher. Thanks to more complex and varied schemes, "we've become so sophisticated on defense that it's unbelievable what is expected of the quarterback," says Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys. Today's offenses are also harder to memorize and manage. Former Eagles QB and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski estimates that only 10 signal-callers in the NFL now can consistently run an offense. "You have to have the physical capability, and you have to have the right mind-set," says Doug Williams, the MVP of Super Bowl XXII with the Redskins and now a personnel executive with the Buccaneers. "Back in the day, you could put a quarterback in, and his teammates could make up for what a quarterback lacked." But today, says Williams, "if your quarterback is lacking, your team is lacking."
The reality is that there are 32 starting jobs and only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Brett Favre and a few others are capable of filling them. Faced with this shortage, teams are grasping for experience. "I think teams go with guys like Testaverde and Warner because they've been around and you can't trick them," says Brandt. "I know a lot of the system that they run here," said Testaverde last week, "so for someone with my experience it's a little bit easier than it is for someone younger trying to come in and learn a new system." Maybe: Testaverde led Carolina to a 25--10 win over Arizona on Sunday, throwing for 206 yards and a TD. His counterpart, Rattay, showing rust and an understandable inability to absorb the Cardinals' system in a few days, threw three interceptions in a loss that left his team adrift and waiting anxiously for the result of Warner's MRI. And maybe that's all you need to know about the NFL in 2007, that someone not in his immediate family is waiting anxiously for the results of Kurt Warner's MRI.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND