They are the next generation, the X generation, of quarterbacks, members of the 20-something crowd whose time is now.
By the evening of Jan. 26, on the concrete floor of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, one of them will have won more Super Bowls -- one -- than the illustrious Class of '83 combined.
And remember that the future belongs to Brett Favre, 27, of the Green Bay Packers, Mark Brunell, 26, of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Drew Bledsoe, 24, of the New England Patriots, and Kerry Collins, 24, of the Carolina Panthers.
In the NFL's countdown to New Orleans, those four quarterbacks dominate today's championship games at Green Bay and New England.
It will be Favre's passing wizardry against Collins' low-risk Carolina offense in the NFC matchup at Lambeau Field. In Foxboro, Mass., in the AFC game, Bledsoe, the classic pocket passer, will lead the Patriots against Brunell's Jaguars.
Even Collins, the youngest and rawest quarterback of the bunch, knows how to keep score at this level.
"Some people worry about stats and comparing stats," said Collins, a second-year pro who is 10 months younger than Bledsoe. "But let's face it, the only thing quarterbacks are measured by is winning Super Bowls."
Bledsoe concurs. "I think there's a real sense of urgency on my part to take advantage of the opportunity I have right now because you never know when you're going to get another," he said.
Just ask Marino, the Miami Dolphins quarterback who went to the Super Bowl in his second season -- and hasn't gone since.
Or Elway, a three-time loser who figured to have his best shot this year until his Denver Broncos were corralled by the wild-card Jaguars.
Or Kelly, who went 0-for-4 in the Super Bowl in consecutive years with the Buffalo Bills.
More than anything else, this year's playoffs have been about transitions. From the dynastic era of the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers to the expansion era of the Panthers and Jaguars. From the era of restricted player movement to the era of rampant free agency.
But no transition has been more symbolic than the one taking place at quarterback.
Just like that, Favre is in the catbird seat after getting bounced out of the playoffs three years running by the Cowboys. A two-time league MVP, he is the biggest reason the Packers are favored to win it all.
That reality struck him like a 2-by-4 as he watched the Panthers dethrone the Cowboys last week with his agent, James "Bus" Cook.
"We were watching the game and [Cook] said, 'You're the old man of the group,' " said Favre, a six-year veteran. "I never thought that would happen, me be the old man in the final four. It says a lot of the young quarterbacks. It says a lot about the coaches getting these guys ready.
"There's been a lot of talk the last few years about young quarterbacks not living up to par with the Class of '83. I think this proves now we are good enough to live up to it."
Bledsoe, the first pick in the Class of '93 -- 117 ahead of Brunell -- said he feels "a sense of vindication for the guys playing quarterback who are my age or younger."
Two years ago, at age 22, Bledsoe became the youngest quarterback ever to play in the Pro Bowl. When the Patriots stumbled to 6-10 last season, he experienced a swift fall from grace.
This year, though, he had his finest season, throwing more touchdowns (27) than interceptions (15) for the first time. He established his toughness and his leadership as the Patriots won the AFC East title.
"For me and the team, this was an important year," Bledsoe said. "We had to prove, and I think we have proved, that last year was the exception."
Now the question is whether Bledsoe is ready to take the quantum leap to Super Bowl quarterback.
Patriots coach Bill Parcells walked cautiously around that one.
"It's not whether he's ready, it's whether we're all ready," Parcells said. "He's a big part of it, but you can't lay it all on him. If we win Sunday, then the answer to that question is, 'Yeah, he's ready.' "
Brunell didn't appear ready until the Jaguars made their stretch run, turning around a 4-7 season with big plays and clutch victories.
In two playoff wins over the Bills and Broncos, Brunell passed for 239 yards and 245 yards, respectively. His improvisational running ability also proved crucial.
"I don't know of a quarterback in the league who runs and makes plays on the run as well as he does," Bledsoe said.
A fifth-round draft choice by the Packers in 1993, Brunell was hand-picked by Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin to become the quarterback of the Jaguars' future. After studying Brunell extensively in the 1994 preseason, Coughlin traded third- and fifth-round picks to Green Bay before the 1995 draft to get him.
"I liked everything about him," said Coughlin. "He was an athlete, he could move, he had courage. He has a strong arm, he could bring the ball over the perimeter -- all the things I thought would be critical."
Brunell threw 20 interceptions this season, but only three during the five-game winning streak that put the Jaguars in the playoffs. He led the league with 4,367 passing yards.
"I think I'm more patient," Brunell said. "The more game experience you get, the more confident you get and you become more patient."
Like the Jaguars, the Panthers committed to their young quarterback and watched the results pour in.
"We're reaping the dividends right now for making the decision to start Kerry early on last season and just stick with him," said Carolina coach Dom Capers. "The maturation of Kerry Collins has been just incredible from last year to this season."
As a rookie, Collins threw for 14 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. This season, the numbers were 14 and nine, a dramatic improvement.
"He's just done a much better job of [not] taking chances that might hurt the team this year," Capers said.
The Panthers seldom ask Collins to win a game with the pass, however. They lean heavily on defense and special teams, and look first to establish the run with Anthony Johnson on offense.
That offensive philosophy is diametrically opposed to what the Packers do with their throw-first, run-later attack.
"Carolina will take the ball out of Collins' hand," said Don Strock, quarterback coach for the Ravens. "Favre will try to win the game by himself."
It's not been a bad strategy. Favre throws as well on the run as he does in the pocket.
"The thing that jumps out at me is, he's such a good athlete," Capers said of Favre. "He can feel pressure, he can back up and avoid that pressure, or go left or right. And he can put enough velocity on it to get the ball there. Many quarterbacks can't do that."
Even Favre's teammates marvel at him sometimes.
"You sit there and go, 'How in the world did he get out of that?' " said tight end Mark Chmura. "You just scratch your head."
Said Green Bay strong safety LeRoy Butler: "He's thinking, 'My arm is going to get me through,' but what's getting him through is his feet."
Favre predicted he'd win a Super Bowl soon after he spent 45 days in a Kansas rehabilitation center for an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin last summer. Now he's two wins from making good on the prophecy.
"The only way my season will be really complete and satisfying is if we win the Super Bowl," he said.
"In this league, it's like walking steps to get to the top of the mountain. We've climbed those steps, we fell down, we got back We're at the last step. It's time to get to the Super Bowl."
If it happens, Favre will be king of the quarterback mountain, too.
Reaching the championship level
A look at when some of the game's active quarterbacks first started in a championship game.
Quarterback, Team, Age, exp., Date, Opponent, Result, Stats line
Dan Marino, Dolphins, 23, 2 Jan. 6, 1985, Steelers, W, 45-28, 21-32, 421 yds., 4 TDs, 1 int.
Troy Aikman, Cowboys, 26, 4, Jan. 17, 1993, 49ers, W, 30-20, 24-34, 322 yds., 2 TDs, 0 int.
Brett Favre, Packers, 26, 5, Jan. 14, 1996, Cowboys, L, 38-27, 21-39, 307 yds., 3 TDs, 2 int.
John Elway, Broncos, 26, 4, Jan. 11, 1987, Browns, W, 23-20, 22-38, 244 yds., 1 TD, 1 int.
Jim Everett, Rams, 27, 4, Jan. 14, 1990, 49ers, L, 30-3, 16-36, 141 yds., 0 TD, 3 int.
Boomer Esiason, Bengals, 27, 5, Jan. 8, 1989, Bills, W, 21-10, 11-20, 94 yds., 1 TD, 2 int.
Neil O'Donnell, Steelers, 28, 5, Jan. 15, 1995, Chargers, L, 17-13, 32-54, 349 yds., 1 TD, 0 int.
Jim Kelly, Bills, 28, 3, Jan. 8, 1989, Bengals, L, 21-10, 14-30, 163 yds., 1 TD, 3 int.
Jeff Hostetler, Giants, 29, 7, Jan. 20, 1991 49ers W, 15-13 15-27, 176 yds., 0 TD, 0 int.
Stan Humphries, Chargers, 29, 7, Jan. 15, 1995, Steelers, W, 17-13, 11-22, 165 yds., 2 TDs, 1 int.
Steve Young, 49ers, 31, 8, Jan. 17, 1993, Cowboys, L, 30-20, 25-35, 313 yds., 1 TD, 2 int.
Jim Harbaugh, Colts, 32, 9, Jan. 14, 1996, Steelers, L, 20-16, 21-33, 267 yds., 1 TD, 0 int.
Coming of age
Today's AFC and NFC championship games feature quarterbacks that range in age from 24 to 27. Here's a look at the four by the numbers (statistics are for career):
................... Drew ..... Mark ..... Kerry ... Brett
Bledsoe .. Brunell .. Collins .. Favre
Age ................ 24 ....... 26 ....... 24 ....... 27
Height ............ 6-5 ...... 6-1 ...... 6-5 ...... 6-2
Weight ............ 233 ...... 217 ...... 240 ...... 220
NFL exp. ............ 4 ........ 4 ........ 2 ........ 6
Attempts ........ 2,379 ...... 930 ...... 797 .... 2,693
Completions ..... 1,310 ...... 566 ...... 418 .... 1,667
Percentage ....... 55.1 ..... 60.9 ..... 52.4 ..... 61.9
Touchdowns ......... 80 ....... 34 ....... 28 ...... 147
Interceptions ...... 73 ....... 27 ....... 28 ....... 79
Playoff record .... 1-1 ...... 2-0 ...... 1-0 ...... 5-3
Pub Date: 1/12/97