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THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : The Changing Fortunes of Changing Quarterbacks

November 12, 1994|BILL PLASCHKE

The phone rang in the middle of the night.

It had been an off-season filled with what agent Leigh Steinberg believed was the worst sort of player movement.

When he sleepily reached for the handset, he figured the caller could be only one type of person.

He was right.

It was a quarterback who had recently signed with a new team.

And the quarterback was panicked.

"Leigh," shouted the man. "What was I thinking! "

What was the entire league thinking?

Eighteen months' worth of talk about rebuilding and rebirths and lively arms and leadership has been followed by an autumn of discontent.

After watching the results of a free-agency overhaul in which 19 of the league's 28 teams' starting quarterbacks changed jobs, coaches and officials have come to a sobering conclusion.

There are no quick fixes.

Court a new quarterback and--unless the guy is a future Hall of Famer like Warren Moon or Joe Montana--you are courting disaster.

"I think people are finally realizing that an out pattern in Dallas is not the same as an out pattern in Minnesota," said Pat Haden, former quarterback and current national TV and radio commentator.

Steinberg, who represents 22 quarterbacks, put it another way.

"In baseball, if a player can hit a home run in Candlestick Park for the Giants, the assumption is that he can hit one in Dodger Stadium for the Dodgers," he said. "People who try to make that same sort of assumption about quarterbacks are wrong. Nothing is more important at that position than stability."

The Detroit Lions know that now. For $11.1 million, they bought a player who has thrown more interceptions, 11, than touchdown passes, 10, with no completion having traveled farther than 34 yards before his season mercifully ended last week because of a broken finger.

Scott Mitchell will spend the off-season trying to forget his last three games, in which he completed 27 of 62 passes, three for touchdowns, and threw five interceptions.

Mitchell, a former backup in Miami, could never quite the learn the plays, the personnel, where in the heck to throw the ball.

According to Coach Wayne Fontes, Mitchell's presence was actually a detriment.

"I hate to blame the quarterback for not moving the ball, but I told you guys going in, I thought this was a good offensive football team," said Fontes after the Lions finally showed some spark last week with veteran backup Dave Krieg. "We just never got it going, never got in sync. With a guy 15 years (in the NFL), I think we will get a little more in sync."

Mitchell has been the worst. But he has not been alone.

Eight other teams that made quarterback changes in the last two years because of free agency or the salary cap have watched the experiment fail.

Erik Kramer has been benched in Chicago. The same for Jim Harbaugh in Indianapolis. Steve Beuerlein has not helped in Arizona. Cody Carlson has been a joke in Houston.

Boomer Esiason is still trying to bring the New York Jets to another level. Chris Miller has been no help in lifting the Rams out of the basement.

Jeff George is still throwing tantrums in Atlanta. And the New York Giants, who thought they could manage without Phil Simms, now must manage without a trip to the playoffs, thanks to failure by Dave Brown.

"I expected all of them to start slowly, but it's been sort of a surprise that so many have continued to struggle," Haden said. "This just shows, you have to give new quarterbacks a lot of time to learn not only the receivers, but the offensive line, the running backs, everybody."

Except if those quarterbacks are named Montana and Moon. What Montana did for the Kansas City Chiefs last year, Moon is doing this year for the Minnesota Vikings.

After a slow start, Moon is second in the league with 2,476 yards passing. That last-second, game-winning touchdown pass last week to Qadry Ismail Sunday?

That was his fourth option on the play.

Moon has a legitimate chance of becoming only the third quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl in his first year with that team.

"We ought to send Houston a basket of roses, champagne or whatever," said receiver Cris Carter, who is on a pace for a league-record 128 receptions. "Everything centers around Warren."

Steinberg, Moon's agent, said he spent hours trying to talk the Oilers out of parting with Moon, who was traded last spring for salary-cap reasons.

He used words like catalyst, and touchstone, and leader.

But the Oilers made the mistake of looking at the quarterback position as one looks at an automobile. It was a mistake made by many other NFL teams and it might not soon be repeated.

"They told me Carlson was younger, and that was that," Steinberg said.

Oh yeah, Carlson has thrown 132 passes this year. One for a touchdown.

ANOTHER LIST

Rating the league's 28 starting quarterbacks this season, and notice where the quarterbacks with the longest tenure rank:

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