Monday, September 5, 2011

The Quarterback hero

Being a pro football quarterback is like being a Hollywood movie star: you're always in the limelight, you're only as good as your last performance, and the analysis of your career is unfairly based upon perception more than fact.

The first two trends are common in many industries, especially since intranet news morphed into a 24-hour machine of scrutiny. So they might never change. But the third point is more applicable to NFL quarterbacks than even politicians, which is disconcerting given that so much evidence is available these days to refute any false perceptions.

But alas, it was the perception of Cam Newton as a natural leader that had him selected No.1 overall in the 2011 draft, regardless of the fact he is short on passing accuracy, has limited ability in reading coverages, or possess inconsistent mechanics. It was similarly perception that saw Brady Quinn's muscles and matinee idol looks touted as the type of qualities that could rescue a floundering Cleveland ball club in 2007. Brady's now in Denver, as you know. And a very misguided perception, too, has allowed Tavaris Jackson to make a living as a starting quarterback, despite the fact he has completed just 58 per cent of his career passes and thrown almost as many interceptions as he has touchdowns.

Are there really so few talented quarterbacks that we need to create hype around players that wouldn't get a run on Goldie Hawn's Wildcats? Or are we simply being spun too many stories by a rampant online rumor mill that's clouding our judgement?

Lately, it feels like there are less elite quarterbacks in pro football and a laundry list of "projects". This is either a strange point in time along the quarterback time continuum, or there's been a deliberate veering away from experience behind centrer.

In the Eighties, we were certainly spoiled by Elway, Marino and Montana, but it also felt like their contemporaries were equally competitive. As such, even the NFL’s worst quarterbacks, the Average Joes, were once stars. On any given Sunday, on any given team, you’d see a guy barking plays whom you trusted, looked up to, and rooted for the previous week – no matter his numbers. The quarterback was the leader, more than the athlete.

At least that's how I remember it.

Unfortunately, somewhere between Steve Young displacing No. 16 and Madden '03, the QB role morphed. Suddenly, perception took on greater importance and hype could seal you a record contract. Good for some, not so much for the rest of us.

Look, I realize many of yesteryear’s QBs lacked a rifle arm, had questionable footwork, and struggled to fill out their jerseys. They often threw more picks than touchdowns and tossed as many wounded ducks as frozen ropes. Their quarterback ratings weren't even worth rating. Guys like Dave Krieg, Bobby Hebert, Neil Lomax, Steve Grogan, Jim Everett and Ken O’Brien probably didn’t make as many plays as I remember. But still, these men had the requisite John Wayne gait, Mellencamp mop, and enough confidence to overcome a leaky offensive line. Average Joe owned the huddle with as much gumption as Joe Cool. And that's all we cared about - quarterback ratings be damned.

At least that’s how I remember it.

Today’s NFL prefers potential over personality, cannons over catapults, and statistics over leaders. Mark Sanchez's playoff win "line" is certainly proof of the power of spin. GQ shoots are the new currency folks - there’s no longer a place for extraordinary feats by simple men. In fact, you only have to glance down the list of starters for 2011 to see that there are three kinds of signal-callers right now: the elite, qualified by their numbers; the middle tier, qualified by ups and downs; and then the prospects, qualified mostly by their potential. And the drop off after those five or six elites is alarming.

In the end, I can’t help but think there was consistency to all those old quarterbacks. A persistence. They were just always there – starting. It was their names – not the name of some multi-millionaire rookie hovering over their shoulder – that always flashed up onscreen in those budget yellow titles. They labored through three-win seasons, took the hits to their much smaller cardboard cut-out bodies. And yet, they always bounced back up. These warriors may not have been franchise quarterbacks as we consider them today, but media and fans alike rarely screamed for their heads with the same ferocity that they do today.

It might just be nostalgia, but I miss that quarterbacks were once stars by virtue of hours clocked, not pre-draft hype. They were classically skilled but not powerful. Confident, yet grizzled. A little rough around the edges with a noodle arm and flat ass. Kurt Warner fit that mold, which is why he seemed such an oddity in the current era.

But once upon a time, every team had their Kurt Warner, didn’t they? Average or not, short or stout, he started and usually finished. He just played football, come sleet or snow. And that’s why he always seemed so heroic.

At least, that’s how I remember it.

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