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In today's NFL, QBs
must run for their lives
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Let's not make a big production out of this, but it's time to climb out of the muck of the past, out of history being the nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Let us recognize without fear or favor how pro football and the position of quarterback have evolved -- and how they haven't.
Once we've done this, then you, dear Scanner, can participate in the ESPN.com Page 2 Quarterback Rating Poll. You will be rewarded. How, we don't know. The next time something good happens to you, think of usThe poll is simplicity itself. You get to pick the most "Unlimited" quarterback in the NFL today. (I get to rate them all -- see the adjoining box -- because of my superior wisdom, but don't let that influence you.) Unlimited means a QB can take his team to a Super Bowl and once there, help it win. Limited means, simply, he can't. First, some background: Once, in the thrilling days of yesteryear, in the '80s, before he flirted so gregariously and profitably with Teri Hatcher in TV ads for Radio Shack, Howie Long was an All-Pro defensive tackle with the Raiders. One day, before practice, Howie was talking to me about QBs. First, Howie talked about Warren Moon, who was then with the Houston Oilers. Howie grunted admiringly at the way Warren hung in there and took some ungodly poundings, then stoically lined up in an unprotected Run & Shoot spread formation and took some more, and then took even more after his defensive teammates -- encouraged by coach Jerry Glanville -- named the Houston Astrodome "The House of Pain," causing visitors like Howie to take umbrage and then to take that umbrage out on Moon. Then, Howie brought up John Elway. Now, I watched Elway play from the time he was an 18-year-old at Stanford until his final two Super Bowls 20-odd years later in Denver. I knew early on what he could do, which was plenty. Howie raved on about how Elway would be in his clutches one minute and then gone the next, reverse pivoting, spinning away, ripping free of big men who had themselves been "ripped from stone" (as Howie believed himself to be), eluding hot pursuit, then looking up and, on the run, firing a 60-yard bullet off his front foot, all arm, downfield to a distant receiver. Mostly, Howie raved over what a physical specimen John was. "Ralph," Howie finally said, ironically (as he saw it) mimicking the rationalizations of black defensive teammates who could not stop Elway, "he's like a brother!" I half-lifted my eyebrows, and said nothing. Howie curled a lip, then said in his normal voice, "Here comes that brother (crap)." Don't blame Howie. He was victimized, as we all were, by a similar soft sell from the olden days -- the position of quarterback is a stand-still position. It never was for yer black-tahpe ath-a-lete; they would run off at the slightest provocation, crack under pressure, not run the game from the pocket in the classic dropback style that elevates the position from the mundane. Hogwash. Thus was the position of professional QB held in abeyance from black hands for years. Salary negotiations were affected, for no matter how well a player might do at another position, the GMs would say, "Yes, but he's not a quarterback." So for many years, it was two birds with one stone. No one ever stopped to think that it was absurd on its face to say that a football player, any football player, at any position, might find being able to run a disadvantage. Just about all the greatest QBs in history were fine runners -- if your protection broke down and your receivers were covered, on bootlegs and throwback passes to themselves, in the open field itself. Elway, it goes without saying. Joe Montana could run; Steve Young could run. Staubach was not called "Roger the Dodger" just because it rhymed. Fran Tarkenton ran like a chicken with his head cut off. He'd scramble past the same defensive lineman three times on a single play. Even the real clod-hoppers like Johnny Unitas in his high tops could be seen in meaningless Pro Bowls, 30 yards downfield, throwing cross-body blocks in front of Galloping Gale Sayers. The so-called "prototype pocket passer" -- a bigger crock of stats I never heard. In today's NFL game, "prototype pocket passer" goes by other names: Sitting Duck. Dead Meat. The game has changed from the days of Roger and Fran, even from the days of Super Joe. With 300-pound d-lineman running 4.5 40s and creative zone blitzing bringing swift malevolent pursuit from every angle, an immobile pocket passer is nothing but limited. He'll never make it. Can't win with him anymore. You need a QB who can break containment, outrun pursuit, get two or three first downs with his legs every game and deliver a low, hot, impeccable strike 50 yards downfield or within inches of the sideline.
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