The NFL's glamour position has become a faceless one.
Todd Philcox. Jason Garrett. Cary Conklin. T. J. Rubley.
Who are these masked men?
"Bodies, and there just aren't enough of them to go around," said Leigh Steinberg, agent for Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Warren Moon and a number of other NFL quarterbacks. "There haven't been a lot of good quarterback prospects in recent years."
Veteran backups haven't been dazzling this season, either. From the league that once brought you Earl Morrall, George Blanda and Don Strock, you now get Bubby Brister, Vince Evans, Ken O'Brien and Jim McMahon.
"I know I could still play," said Joe Theismann, 43, the former Washington Redskins quarterback, now a commentator for ESPN. "There's about 13 to 14 good starting quarterbacks in this league, and that's it. Frankly, the quarterback situation in the NFL is pretty discouraging right now."
There is not an adequate supply of dominating quarterbacks in the league. It's been a decade since the QB invasion of 1983 that featured the magnificent six of Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, O'Brien, Tony Eason, Todd Blackledge and John Elway.
Marino, Kelly and Elway are still starters. O'Brien, long past his magnificent days, is the only other member of the group still in the league. But most of the post-1983 quarterbacks have been flops or are holding clipboards and wearing baseball caps on the sidelines.
A look at quarterbacks drafted in the first round in 1991: Todd Marinovich was released by the Los Angeles Raiders before this season. Dan McGwire couldn't beat out rookie Rick Mirer to start at Seattle. Browning Nagle was such a disappointment that the New York Jets had to trade for Boomer Esiason.
* Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, the No. 1 pick in 1987, never lived up to expectations in Tampa Bay and is struggling in Cleveland.
* Steve Walsh (taken in the first round of the supplemental draft by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989) is a backup in New Orleans.
"Well, Troy Aikman is the best of the young quarterbacks," said Bob Valesente, Green Bay Packers linebackers coach. "Jeff George and Neil O'Donnell are good ones, and rookie Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer will develop. Of course, I think we have a good, young one here in Brett Favre."
Anyone else? "Well, that's about it," said Valesente.
Injuries have forced starters from at least 20 of the 28 teams to miss playing time this season, including marquee names Marino of the Miami Dolphins and Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles. Both are out for the season.
Players of the '90s are bigger, faster and stronger than they were decades ago, and the game often is played on AstroTurf. The result is greater risk of injury.
"Some of this has to be put into perspective," said Steinberg. "Some of the best reserve QBs in the past played on great teams, but didn't necessarily have great arms. They had great supporting casts. The schedule is longer now, and careers aren't lasting as long. The supply doesn't meet the demand."
The injuries also may be a result of a chess match that defenses are winning against the offenses. Pressure defenses became common in the mid-'80s, and soft zone coverages (which allow )) short passes, but take any longer ones), even inside the %J defense's 20-yard line, are causing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer and get hit more often.
Plus, the play clock has been reduced from 45 to 40 seconds this season, forcing more early timeouts and quicker decisions.
"Offenses are pretty complex, too, and coaches don't want QBs who make mistakes, so they prefer the veterans like a Brister, O'Brien or Steve DeBerg," said Theismann. "Before, it was the QB's responsibility to win the game, now it changes to his responsibility not to lose it."
"I think people fail to realize that a reserve who comes in during a game has less of a chance to make an impact on a game than the starter," said the Dolphins' Scott Mitchell, who replaced Marino as starter but then was injured himself. "You haven't taken many snaps during the week, and it takes you a while to get into the flow and get your reads. Therefore, there is a greater chance of you making a mistake."
Compounding the problem is the NFL's new free-agency system, which has spread some of the talent around, but removed the luxury of a team having two capable QBs.
"Either the league has to find a lot of overachievers, a minor league for guys to develop or this is going to become self-destructive," said Steinberg.
More college teams are passing, but Packers general manager Ron Wolf says they aren't turning out as many great quarterbacks.
Even quarterbacks who played pro-style offenses in college have experienced problems in the NFL. The University of Miami has run a pro offense for years, but Testaverde and Walsh have struggled, and Gino Torretta, the 1992 Heisman winner, is not projected as a starter.
"I think the biggest difference is the speed of the game. It's so much faster in the NFL," said Scott Zolak, the former Maryland quarterback who's now a reserve with the Patriots. "In the college game, you have a three- to five-step drop-back. In the pros, it's seven to nine, which we used at Maryland. You have to elevate your game. Some people do. Some people don't."
Steelers quarterback O'Donnell, also from Maryland, said: "There's just so many more coverages: dime, nickels. There is much more to learn. You're in meetings all day compared to an hour meeting in college. It's more mental preparation in this league than physical."
Lee Corso, college football commentator for ESPN, says NFL coaches have to do a better job of evaluating college quarterbacks.
He points out that colleges produced quality quarterbacks in the 1960s and '70s, when the wishbone and veer offenses were popular.
College football has become "pass happy" compared with those days, Corso said, using a quarterback who can roll out and throw or take off and run, such as Heisman winner Charlie Ward of Florida State.
"Tell them to do some coaching," said Corso. "They've been saying that kind of stuff for years. College coaches do a great job of finding athletes and turning them into quarterbacks. Hey, there isn't a college quarterback that isn't coached by a position coach."
Steinberg countered: "I don't think you're going to see Troy Aikman, who's worth millions of dollars, sprinting to the perimeter and taking shots on an option."
Theismann agreed with Corso. Only 15 of the 28 NFL teams have quarterback coaches, 10 of them doubling as offensive coordinators.
"That's absolutely ridiculous," said Theismann. "How can you not PTC have a coach working one-on-one with the central figure of your offense? Another problem is that these coaches have to win in a hurry, and some aren't committed to three or four years in developing these guys."
Good crop coming
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said the best group of quarterbacks since 1983 will enter this year's draft, including Gus Frerotte of Tulsa, Jay Fiedler of Dartmouth, Jay Walker of Howard, Doug Nussmier of Idaho, Glenn Foley of Boston College and Perry Klein of C. W. Post.
He said the 1995 class isn't bad either, with USC's Rob Johnson, Brigham Young's John Walsh, California's Dave Barr, Tennessee's Heath Shuler (if he doesn't come out this year) and Georgia's Eric Zeier.
"It's a cycle," said Kiper. "The situation in the NFL is not bad right now, it's just that some teams didn't pay attention to their quarterback situation. But I think the colleges are beginning to see the fruits of their labor in operating passing offenses."
But until then, the nation will have to be satisfied with the aging cast of Elway, Kelly, Marino, Moon, Joe Montana, Phil Simms, Wade Wilson, Jeff Hostetler and Esiason.
"Some of these guys aren't being pushed, so they might be around for a while," said Wolf.
With fewer quality quarterbacks, teams are scoring less this season. Comparing last year's NFL scoring totals with this year's:
Team .. .. .. 1992 .. 1993 .. Team .. .. .. 1992 .. 1993
Atlanta .. .. 248 ... 299 ... Miami . .. .. 347 ... 268
Buffalo .. .. 305 ... 236 ... Minnesota ... 324 ... 212
Chicago .. .. 248 ... 211 ... New England . 162 ... 147
Cincinnati .. 227 ... 148 ... New Orleans . 257 ... 257
Cleveland ... 231 ... 166 ... N.Y. Giants . 261 ... 245
Dallas ... .. 324 ... 278 ... N.Y. Jets ... 197 ... 249
Denver ... .. 202 ... 320 ... Philadelphia. 298 ... 199
Detroit .. .. 227 ... 231 ... Phoenix .. .. 208 ... 252
Green Bay ... 225 ... 222 ... Pittsburgh .. 267 ... 269
Houston .. .. 294 ... 278 ... San Diego ... 241 ... 221
Indianapolis. 169 ... 159 ... San Francisco 369 ... 401
Kansas City . 258 ... 256 ... Seattle .. .. 103 ... 213
L.A. Raiders. 207 ... 246 ... Tampa Bay ... 236 ... 183
L.A. Rams ... 248 ... 184 ... Washington .. 247 ... 188