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Best QBs Have Tools, and Right Mind-Set

NFL STATE OF THE GAME. Day 3:

January 20, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The world turns out scores of terrific neurosurgeons, preeminent physicists, boffo biologists and venerated men of letters--arguably even a few top-drawer sportswriters.

So why are there only five great quarterbacks?

Bill Walsh conducts camps for them, Sid Gillman still breaks down film of them, networks pay billions to televise them.

Kids have played the game on sandlots for years and not one yet has volunteered to play center. Any boy worth his football salt wants to throw the rock, throw it hard, throw it through an old tire, throw it with a spiral so tight he can hear the ball hiss.

Yet, we count the difference makers on one hand:

1. Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers. Simply, the best quarterback in the game.

2. John Elway, Denver Broncos. He's 37, but still a prime rib cut above.

3. Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers. A step slower at 36, but still a supernova.

4. Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys. Won three Super Bowls, one with Barry Switzer as his coach.

5. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins. Not what he used to be, but just remember what he used to be.

You could argue for Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell, Kordell Stewart and the raging, if not aging, Warren Moon, but you would be mistaken.

Frankly, this quarterback shortage is worrisome.

Once, there was the NFL class of 1983, a mother lode that yielded Elway, Marino, Jim Kelly and significant others. But greatness since has been dispensed in drips and drops. The class of 1984 sent along Young. Aikman was dropped off in 1989, Favre in 1991.

And not a single, solitary, slingin' Sammy superstar has appeared since.

The NFL, of course, is thrilled this year to be getting Tennessee's Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf, probably the best 1-2 quarterback punch in years.

What took so long?

The folks responsible for producing great NFL quarterbacks are college coaches, of course, so we asked five to explain why they haven't been able to keep up with demand.

The consensus: The game is evolving at warp speed. Players are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than ever, and a lot more of them now play defense. And defenses tend to be disguised by complicated formations.

Football has become a cat-and-mouse game of Darwinism between offense and defense, thus, "superstar quarterback" has made the endangered species list.

Finding a quarterback who can stand tall in the pocket, run if he has to, unravel the mysteries of zone versus man-to-man coverage in the time it takes to say "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi," and throw a 20-yard out pattern on a line, is akin to striking oil.

In 30 years, football has gone from a 45-rpm record to a laser disc.

"If it came down to one word, it would be 'speed,' " says Purdue Coach Joe Tiller who, with great success, introduced wide-open offense to the Big Ten last season. "The precision demanded at the position today is greater than it's ever been. It takes a greater talent at the quarterback position to stand out than it used to take."

As coach at Wyoming, Tiller had an epiphany while watching a 1990 Brigham Young-Miami encounter in which BYU quarterback Ty Detmer, a future Heisman Trophy winner, tried to punch holes in a lightning-fast Miami secondary.

"I made a comment to our coaches, I said, 'That Miami defense makes the field look smaller than what it really is. They just close on the ball so much quicker.' "

Clearly, today's quarterbacks suffer responsibility overload.

They must be tall--although how tall is debatable--6 feet 4 or more is preferable.

They must be durable, able to avoid tall buildings (defensive ends) and 245-pound blitzing linebackers.

They must be leaders, cut-throat competitors, sound of body and mind. They must excel under intense pressure and increased scrutiny.

They must make split-second decisions.

"You can't be one-dimensional anymore," says Washington State Coach Mike Price, who coached Bledsoe and Leaf. "You can't be Doug Flutie and sprint out every time. You can't just be some rawboned guy that stands in the pocket. It's a real difficult position to play. A receiver is going to be open, but you've got to find him and you have two seconds to do it. If you're not right on the top of your game intellectually, then you're going to get sacked."

It's no wonder football watchers are salivating over Leaf, a 6-6, 240-pound quarterback with a rifle arm, canned hams for calves, great football instincts and a thirst for knowledge.

"If you put it on a chart, you'd have to say Ryan Leaf indicates the future of the position," University of Arizona offensive coordinator Homer Smith says.

Bill Diedrick, who coaches the University of Washington quarterbacks, is polishing his own diamond in Brock Huard, a top NFL prospect who recently decided to return for his junior season.

Before moving to Seattle, Diedrick coached Bledsoe while an assistant on Price's staff.

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