The thing that makes 1999 different in pro football is that it's the year of the young quarterback.
And for the NFL's numerous new young leaders, the learning curve has been a league-wide happening.
In one conspicuous case Sunday, the new Miami quarterback, Damon Huard, grew up on national television. In the first half against New England, he couldn't make a first down in the first quarter but caught the hang of it in the second quarter and drove the Dolphins into a 10-10 halftime tie.
Learning some more in the third quarter, Huard drove the Dolphins in front with two touchdowns that made it 24-10, a lead that stood up through the rest of the NFL's game of the week, though Huard left with a broken nose. Miami won, 27-17.
At 26, Huard, from the University of Washington, is a backup quarterback who until 1999 had thrown only nine NFL passes. Last week he could generate only three points and 101 net yards in Miami's defeat at Buffalo, 23-3.
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Huard: Big Mistake to Big Play
Chances are, the Dolphins' new, young quarterback will be watching the veteran Dan Marino in many of this season's remaining games. But if they want him, Huard will be nourished by a remembrance of how he did it Sunday, when he progressed in 30 minutes from the big mistake to the big play.
The big mistake was a first-quarter pitch to a running back who wasn't looking for the ball, which was fumbled into a New England lead, 7-0.
The big play was a third-down shotgun pass from Huard, a graduate of the NFL's European league, to arena-league graduate Oronde Gadsden, a second-year Dolphin wide receiver who has been growing up along with the new passer.
That play produced 16 yards for Miami's first first down of the game--in the second minute of the second quarter--and Huard liked it so much that in his next third-down crisis, he shotgunned it again to Gadsden, who eventually caught both of Huard's touchdown passes.
They're learning together.
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Losing a Team Effort for Pats
The game that Huard won with critical, timely pass completions is being described in New England and Miami today in two other ways:
They're saying Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe blew it with five interceptions.
Or they're saying Miami's defensive team won it by cleverly earning five turnovers, which, for the following reasons, is also an oversimplification:
Interception 1 came on a pass that shouldn't have been called--or which the Patriot coaches shouldn't have permitted--near the end of the first quarter. It was third and five at the New England nine-yard line--91 yards away from a touchdown against one of the NFL's toughest defenses. It came at a time when New England led, 7-0, and the Miami offense had gained hardly a yard.
Interception 3 was a deflected ball that could have landed anywhere.
Interception 5 was thrown toward the end of the fourth quarter when, 10 points behind, you have to take chances.
Bledsoe's two other turnovers did seem to be a nexus of bad calls, bad throws and good defense.
As a rule, winning and losing in the NFL is a team effort. In the last two weeks, three people have teamed to drop New England from 6-2 and first in the NFC East to 6-4 and next to last: the signal-caller, Ernie Zampese; the head coach, Pete Carroll, and Bledsoe.
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McGinest Earns Himself Stiff Fine
On the play that kept Huard going 80 yards to the go-ahead touchdown, he threw incomplete on third and five but took an illegal hit from New England defensive lineman Willie McGinest, who lowered his head and plowed full steam ahead into the quarterback's helmet.
It was a don't-know, don't-care move by McGinest, who, clearly, was bent on slamming the passer, hang the cost.
For unsportsmanlike conduct, the cost was 15 yards, which, if there's any justice, the league should raise by many thousands of dollars in a fine this week.
It's tough enough grooming young quarterbacks against legal defenses.
It's absurd for the NFL to let the McGinests and Warren Sapps and Bill Romanowskis kill them off illegally.
The next time McGinest saw Huard in Sunday's game, he carefully turned his head away from the passer--as he should have the first time--and swiped him with what seemed to be a legal, one-armed thrust, breaking Huard's nose.
Ironically, that's what knocked the young quarterback out of the game.
But there's a big difference between a bloody nose and a concussion.
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Dallas Owner Has Blown the 1990s
After the season's first 10 weeks, the Dallas Cowboys, who haven't reached the Super Bowl for four years, stood 5-5 and seemingly out of serious contention again.
And that was a reminder of what might have been.
The Cowboys might have won most of the Super Bowls of the 1990s if their owner, Jerry Jones, had paid whatever it took to keep Jimmy Johnson--the coach who won the 1993-94 championships for Dallas--and if Jones had paid whatever it took to keep offensive coordinator Norval Turner.