AMERICAN FOOTBALL: Time up for old guard as gridiron enters new era

EARLIER THIS year, the National Football League concluded what is thought to be the biggest television deal in the history of sport, an eight-year contract worth slightly over $16bn (pounds 9.9bn). The gridiron game may have its problems on the international front, as evidenced by the closure in June of the England Monarchs, but at home, American football remains a national obsession.

A new season opens for business on Sunday night, and just as the massive influx of television money is certain to have far-reaching consequences off the field, an excitingly different era is dawning on it. An elite group of quarterbacks, who have dominated affairs for more than a decade, are slowly but surely in decline; on the sidelines a fresh young, brash group of passers stand ready to consign them to history.

The quarterback is the single most important player on a team's 45-man roster. With 30 franchises in the league, talent is spread thinly, the few passers of proven quality are protected jealously by their teams, while the rest hope the annual collegiate draft throws up a few gems. This year, the draft delivered two genuine prospects: Peyton Manning, from the University of Tennessee, was selected by the Indianapolis Colts, while Ryan Leaf gave up his studies at Washington State early for the chance to join the San Diego Chargers.

They are considered the brightest young stars since Dan Marino and John Elway arrived in 1983. Marino and Elway have enjoyed illustrious careers and are still playing, Elway having led the Denver Broncos to victory in the Super Bowl last year, while Marino, with Miami Dolphins, remains the only person in league history to pass for more than 50,000 yards. Both are multi-millionaires, but even their jaws will have dropped at the amount of cash thrown at their young rivals.

As the first beneficiaries of the new TV money, Manning signed a six- year deal worth $48.5m (pounds 30m), while Leaf had to settle for just $31.25m (pounds 19.5m) over five years. "People are asking me what I plan to do with the money," Manning said. "The truth is, I plan to earn it. If I don't do the job, which is to win, the money means nothing."

The two youngsters, both daunting physical specimens at 6ft 5in and over 16st, are blessed with the confidence of youth. Leaf is already talking in terms of winning a Super Bowl in two or three years, while Manning predicts good times ahead for a Colts franchise mired in decades of mediocrity. Most rookie quarterbacks are gently eased into the front line over a two or three-year period, but Leaf will be at the helm when the Chargers begin their season against Buffalo, while Manning has the chance to observe Marino when the Colts entertain the Dolphins.

"There's no question that Ryan is ready," Leaf's college coach, Mike Price, said. "Not only is he strong and fast, but he has the right mental attitude."

Jim Mora, the Colts' coach, speaks similarly of Manning: "Peyton will be a great player in this league," he said. "He will progress faster than most rookie quarterbacks because he has such special talents."

Sobering stuff for the old guard, aware that in the ruthless business of American sports, past achievements count for nothing. Marino, who will be 37 in less than a fortnight, has already learned that owning every passing record worth having has not stopped malicious tongues wagging. Last season, the unthinkable happened when it was suggested in many media quarters that the Dolphins might be better served by a change of quarterback. If they struggle this season, their pragmatic head coach, Jimmy Johnson, might yield to temptation.

Flushed with Super Bowl elation, Elway considered retirement before deciding to give it one more year. Considered the most technically-accomplished quarterback ever, the Denver passer's talents are clearly eroding. The daring, mazy runs that were once his trademark are rarely seen these days, while an arm which once propelled the football with finger-burning velocity has lost some of its snap.

Then there is Seattle's venerable Warren Moon, 42 in October, desperately trying to hold off the challenge of the young Jon Kitna, who showed huge potential playing for the Barcelona Dragons in the World League in 1997. When the NFL season ends in January, it is possible that all three will have taken their final snap.

Bizarrely, the Atlanta Falcons have brought Steve DeBerg out of retirement to back up Chris Chandler, their frequently injured passer. The 44-year- old DeBerg hasn't played since 1993, and has spent the last four seasons coaching. "Isee it as a great opportunity," he said. "I plan on enjoying it."

Unfortunately for yesterday's men, age rarely finds accommodation on the gridiron. An exciting future beckons, and for Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning, the young guns of the NFL, that future is now.

SUPER BOWL XXXIII: THE ONES TO WATCH

THE FAVOURITES KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Under head coach Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs have become play-off regulars but, up to now, have regularly fallen to unexpected defeats. However, the addition of defensive ends Chester McGlockton and Leslie O'Neal should make a team which finished 13-3 last season even more powerful. Despite running back Marcus Allen's retirement, the Chiefs may never have a better chance.

THE DARK HORSES TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Derided as a joke for most of the last 15 years, the Bucs have become contenders under the leadership of Tony Dungy. In Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, they have the best running game in the league. The only question mark is over their quarterback, Trent Dilfer, who remains limited, despite Dungy's best efforts to build an offense he can operate.

FOR THE FUTURE ARIZONA CARDINALS

The Cardinals have not appeared in a championship game for 50 years, and have made just one play-off appearance since 1975. An impressive draft should assist their young quarterback, Jake Plummer, and the defense has high-class performers in Eric Swann and Aeneas Williams. Expect a big improvement, with a serious challenge in years to come.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition