What backup quarterback is playing the NFL's best football in this year of the backup?
There are three lively candidates.
Steve Beuerlein, Steve Bono and Jeff Kemp have been winning game after game as replacements for, respectively, Troy Aikman at Dallas, Joe Montana and Steve Young at San Francisco, and Randall Cunningham and Jim McMahon at Philadelphia.
And they aren't alone.
Twelve NFL backups, in all, played with much of the poise and skill of veteran quarterbacks Sunday, and seven of them were on winning teams. Two others lost to backups.
The winners, besides Beuerlein, Bono and Kemp, were Minnesota's Rich Gannon, Kansas City's Mark Vlasic, New England's Hugh Millen and Detroit's Erik Kramer.
The replacements who lost to replacements were Phil Simms and Steve Walsh.
Simms lost to Kemp, who has thrown one big scoring pass in each of the last two weeks, upsetting the Houston Oilers and New York Giants.
Walsh, the only good thing about the fading New Orleans Saints, lost to Beuerlein.
The others bowing as backups Sunday--after all exceeded expectations at times earlier this year--were Stan Gelbaugh of Phoenix, Neil O'Donnell of Pittsburgh and Mike Tomczak of Green Bay.
Beuerlein vs. Joyner: With only two weeks remaining before the playoffs begin with the wild-card first round on Dec. 28-29, it will be backup against backup in a pair of clutch games this weekend:
--Although Steve DeBerg could play some for Kansas City (9-5) at San Francisco (8-6) Saturday afternoon, Vlasic has performed more impressively for the Chiefs this month, and will probably oppose Bono much of the time as the 49ers resume their late-season playoff drive.
--Although Aikman could play some for Dallas (9-5) at Philadelphia (9-5) Sunday, the probable pitchers, in a cold-weather matchup of two of the NFL's hottest teams, are Beuerlein and Kemp.
The Eagles, playing with a Super Bowl flair, are on a six-game winning streak. The Cowboys, the only team to conquer the Washington Redskins (13-1), this season, have won three straight with Beuerlein, who came in and made the decisive plays against Washington--and then improved against Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
Beuerlein doesn't, however, figure to dent Philadelphia's defense, whose front four, the NFL's fastest, has opened the holes that linebacker Seth Joyner has run through so effectively. He will probably run all the way to the Pro Bowl.
The Anaheim strangers: This is the year that Georgia Frontiere of the Rams (3-11) became the latest NFL owner to discover that firing a bunch of assistant coaches does not assure success in pro football.
John Robinson, in his ninth season at Anaheim, has seven new assistants this year, and, although there's no reason to doubt any of them as pro football people, they \o7 are \f7 different from last year's people.
And in the NFL, that makes a difference. Every time.
Robinson was comfortable with and accustomed to working with last year's staff. This year, for him as well as the new group, it was like starting over.
Among the NFL's 28 coaches, Robinson still rates in the most competent half-dozen. But in his circumstances this season, few of the others could have proved it, either.
Toughest division: In the AFC's most competitive division, the Raiders (9-5), who will be at New Orleans (9-5) next Monday night, are again one of three Western teams in the playoffs, joining Denver (10-4) and Kansas City (9-5).
And Seattle (6-8) could possibly make it four. The AFC West, what's more, is the NFL's most successful Monday night division, with the Raiders (.806) first, and two others, Seattle and Kansas City, in the top five.
Seven AFC teams are, strangely, the top seven Monday night winners--Miami, Kansas City, Cleveland and even Indianapolis among them.
Apparently, AFC players thrive on the exposure--the Raiders particularly.
Moon vs. Pinkett: The Houston Oilers (10-4), with Warren Moon at quarterback, reached two milestones this week. They won their first division title since 1967, and they became the first run-and-shoot team to make the NFL playoffs in successive years.
Even so, this has been a month of controversy in Houston. Critics charge that the Oilers didn't run the ball well enough to avoid a two-game slump, which, after their 9-2 start, jeopardized their position in the playoffs.
When fans began blaming Houston ballcarrier Allen Pinkett, he turned it around and blamed his lack of production on the club's lack of interest in rushing.
"If you don't run, there is always a lack of a running game," Pinkett said.
Moon has a different idea.
"We don't have to run it that many times a game," he said. "We just have to be effective when we do run."
Who wants to settle the argument? How about the inventor of the run-and-shoot, Mouse Davis?
"You have to keep running and passing--even when one of them isn't working--to make the run-and-shoot go," Davis said.