American Football: Quarterback gloss has tarnished look: Playmakers are losing their grip on the position of pre-eminence. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
ONCE upon a time there were two positions in the NFL: quarterback and anywhere else. And everyone wanted to be the quarterback. They received the biggest rewards, attracted the most attention and had special rules to protect them on the field. In the pecking order of American football they were always first among equals.

This year, though, has been rather different. True, they still earn the most, as Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys will testify. He has just pocketed dollars 11m ( pounds 7.3m) as a signing bonus from a dollars 50m contract. But as the regular season draws to a close this weekend it is clear that the thriving quarterback has become an endangered species. Indeed, of the 28 who started the campaign only a handful can claim to have enjoyed a trouble-free 1993. Suddenly clamour has replaced glamour.

There have been two principal enemies, opposition defenses and their own head coaches. Both have inflicted a lot of hurt.

Of course quarterbacks have always suffered injuries. Playing in the game's key position they are the primary target for every defense, and each year you could fill a casualty ward with battered playcallers.

In recent seasons, though, the focus seems to have intensified. 'More than ever the defenses are coming after the quarterback,' Phil Simms of the New York Giants said recently. At 37 Simms is in a position to judge, having taken, and shaken off, his fair share of licks. 'It is something we are going to have to live with. There might be just a couple of teams left that sit around in the zone but the rest are attacking the quarterback.'

Several factors have played a part: increasingly athletic defenses, the disruption caused to offensive lines by free agency and the loss of five seconds on the game clock.

The result has been a continual loss of celebrated names. Early in the season two of the league's most watchable quarterbacks, Randall Cunningham and Dan Marino, were lost for the campaign. For Cunningham, who suffered his second serious injury in a couple of years, a broken leg prompted some gloomy thoughts. 'I was thinking football is just so dangerous, maybe it's time for me to hang it up. I was ready to retire. Sometimes I think to myself is it worth it? You never know when your last play is going to be.'

The season-ending injury remains relatively rare but most quarterbacks have been forced to miss matches this season because of injury, while in virtually every game they are expected to shrug off assaults that would put normal mortals into intensive care.

However, for all the hurt, the hard knocks go with the territory. What is less expected are the vagaries of the head coach. By any standards it has been a remarkable season for leadership indecision with some of the game's biggest names among the victims.

The tone was set when Wayne Fontes, head coach of the Detroit Lions, selected, deselected then reselected Rodney Peete as his starting quarterback - all before the season began. More changes have come throughout the season with the Lions now led by Erik Kramer and Peete third-choice selection. Peete has certainly not been alone. Warren Moon was dropped during Houston's uncertain start - the Oilers have won 10 in a row since his return - while another former Pro Bowler, Jim Everett of the Los Angeles Rams, was forced to make way for the unknown T J Rubley.

Many others have replaced their starter, though few have matched the Washington Redskins in the vacillation stakes. They have made seven quarterback changes (so far), a situation that has prompted speculation that Mark Rypien, the Super Bowl MVP less than two years ago, may move on.

Nowhere, though, has a quarterback controversy raged more furiously than in Cleveland. Bernie Kosar, a local boy made very good, had led the Browns for eight years and was generally regarded as one of the most accurate in his position. Art Modell, the team's owner, treated him like a son and in October rewarded him with a dollars 26m contract. A few weeks later Bill Belichick, the Cleveland head coach, sacked him.

It was a sensational decision and may cost Belichick his job. Put simply, Kosar was always more popular in Cleveland than his boss and whatever his limitations - notably his immobility - he never lost the fans' support. To trade him would have been unpopular, to trade him without compensation, without a formidable back-up, in the middle of the season was courting disaster.

Kosar was snapped up by Dallas's Jimmy Johnson, who persuaded him to be Aikman's understudy. Whether he is happy there in the long term remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain. With the Browns failing to make the play-offs Kosar has a longer future in the league than Belichick has in Cleveland.

One reason for the plethora of controversies has been the lack of young talent at the quarterback position. Of the influx of college talent in recent years only Green Bay's Brett Favre has really established himself, and even he has more interceptions than touchdowns this season. This has forced coaches to rely heavily on the golden oldies, like Simms, Moon (38) and Steve DeBerg, who has played in Marino's place in Miami and will be 40 in January.

Which brings us to the game's most valuable 37-year-old - Joe Montana. In a league worried by its lack of personalities, Old Joe may be just the man to rescue a lacklustre season. He is now with the Kansas City Chiefs, whom he has guided to a division title and he appears to have lost few of the supreme qualities that garnered four Super Bowl rings while with the San Francisco 49ers. Who knows, he may even face the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

But to do so he must stay healthy, and this has been his biggest problem. He has already missed a lot of playing time with niggling injuries, and this despite the claim that he gets special protection. After playing Montana, Burt Grossman, a San Diego lineman, said: 'It was funny, whenever we got near him they (the officials) even yelled at Leslie (O'Neal, another lineman) and me a couple of times. When (John) Friesz (the San Diego quarterback) was hit, everything was fine. I guess it's because it's Joe Montana.'

Grossman, though, understood the sub-text. 'It's Joe Montana. He's done a lot for the league, and it treats him right. You don't want to get rid of Joe Montana and Michael Jordan. People like that are good for the leagues, so you're going to protect them.'

If Joe Montana is protected, and makes the Super Bowl, then perhaps it won't have been such a bad year for quarterbacks after all.

(Photograph omitted)