September 30 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) and executive vice president of football operations John Elway talk near the end of the game against the Oakland Raiders at Sports Authority Field. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 37-6. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

The Quarterback (R)Evolution: Part One

I had planned to start writing a longer article than most, to be published in pieces, that I could work on during my recent vacation seeing family out in Texas, but didn’t have much time and didn’t get to work on it. What happens when I get home? ESPN the Magazine is waiting, and inside was an article titled “The First-Year Five” subtitled “A Rookie QB Revolution is upon us, brace yourself for a bumpy ride – or not” by KC Joyner.

OHHHhhh joy. I think up a piece, and ESPN’s folks already had an angle on it in the current issue. Okay, fine. My own “angle” was going to be a little different, so I thought I’d go ahead and write mine.

In the 1960’s and ’70’s, quarterbacks were generally not very big guys…look at Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Jim Plunkett and Kenny Stabler. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning fit the physical mold today, if a bit taller than the past-generation QBs…they might or might not be real tall, certainly not great athletes overall, necessarily, and although the likes of Fran Tarkenton and Kenny Stabler could scramble and run that really meant they couldn’t get an open receiver and were trying to get some positive yards of what amounted to a busted pass play. It really was a last resort once upon a time.

Remember, the passing rules were certainly much more defender-friendly than they are today. I recall watching many a game as a young kid and I just don’t remember too many pass interference calls. Maybe 1 or 2 a game, not every other drive like today.

The QBs of old were really pocket-passers…again, Brady or Peyton Manning-like in their athleticism but they had ability to dodge or side-step defenders, step up in the pocket, and fire their passes downfield. A couple could run a bit, but their ability there was a tertiary consideration.

They almost NEVER saw the field as rookies.

Later came the famous QB draft of 1983. John Elway was the top pick overall by the Colts after he told the them he would not play for them. They still drafted him but quickly made a trade with Denver to send him there. People forget that. Dan Marino was the 6th and last QB taken that round, and the two became Hall of Famers. The other 4 were bust Todd Blackledge of Kansas City, Marino’s arch-nemesis at Penn State when Marino was at Pitt. Then came Jim Kelly for Buffalo (fresh from the defunct USFL if memory serves), Tony Eason of New England, Ken O’Brien of the Jets, then finally Marino at #27 overall. Jim Kelly was 26 when drafted in the NFL, so his USFL days had him head and shoulders further along in development than the other, true “rookies.”

Only Elway was known for running, and generally only after scrambling. They’d have him do a QB draw once in a great while, but otherwise had few designed runs for him.

Also don’t forget to toss in Randall Cunningham, who wound up being a 2nd-round pick in 1985 out of UNLV. Cunningham proved to be a competent passer, playing 16 seasons in the NFL. He was also the first QB that would really run as a designed play, but even that was done sparingly. Again, there was no “sliding,” no “in the grasp” stuff…no “horse-collar” penalties, and no throwing the ball away if outside the tackle box.

His career is worth taking a look at as he ran for almost 5,000 career yards and, looking back, was the single QB who most personified the shape of things to come in the 21st Century.

Next: part two – Randall Cunningham.

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