Their backup QBs to the wall, NFL contenders fight on

December 21, 1990|By Vito Stellino

Jim Finks, head of the National Football League's competition committee and president of the New Orleans Saints, is something of an authority on quarterback injuries.

As the Pittsburgh Steelers' first T-formation quarterback in the 1950s, he kept playing in 1953 after suffering a broken jaw and getting four teeth knocked out, but was sidelined after undergoing knee surgery the next year.

"That's all part of football," Finks said of his injuries. "When you've got the ball, you're going to attract a crowd."

Not much has changed since Finks' days.

A half-dozen quarterbacks -- including four with teams that have Super Bowl visions dancing in their heads -- attracted a crowd last week and have been sidelined for varying lengths of time.

The injuries -- and that Joe ontana of the San Francisco 49ers still is healthy -- have increased the odds of the 49ers winning their third straight NFL title. This week, the oddsmakers changed them from even money to 3-5 favorites to win the Super Bowl.

You don't see much hand-wringing by the teams that lost quarterbacks, however. Teams virtually are resigned to quarterback injuries. Finks said he doesn't envision any rule changes to try to eliminate the injuries, because the league has tried that -- to no avail -- with such rules as in-the-grasp, which Finks would like to throw out because it's too tough to call.

The important thing about quarterback injuries is how a team copes with them.

Two of the teams that lost starters, the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears, primarily are running teams and may have an easier time handling the quarterback switch than the 49ers would if they lost Montana or the Philadelphia Eagles would if they lost Randall Cunningham.

A third team, the Buffalo Bills, proved last year that it can win with its backup.

"We have to roll with the punches, that's all," said Bills general manager Bill Polian, who is confident that backup Frank Reich will do well in place of ailing Jim Kelly in Sunday's battle for first place with the Miami Dolphins. Reich went 3-0 in relief of Kelly last season.

In recent years, backup quarterbacks have taken on a more important role, because so few quarterbacks can survive a 16-game season intact. Only six did the past two years, although the number is up to 12 so far this season.

"The backup quarterback is the second-most important player on your team," said Ernie Accorsi, executive vice president of the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns will start Mike Pagel for the last two games because Bernie Kosar suffered a chip fracture of his right thumb last week.

For the Browns, it's academic how Pagel does, because they're out of the playoff race.

But for Reich, Jeff Hostetler of the Giants, Mike Tomczak of the Bears and Steve Pelluer of the Kansas City Chiefs, this will be a chance to play in games with postseason implications.

Blair Kiel of the Green Bay Packers, who never has started a non-strike game, will replace Anthony Dilweg on a team that is alive in the playoff chase but needs a lot of help to make it.

Reich is subbing for Kelly, who is out a minimum of three-four weeks with a partial ligament tear, and, if he can help Buffalo beat Miami on Sunday, the Bills wouldn't play their first playoff game until the weekend of Jan. 12-13. Without Kelly, the Bills went from 3-1 to 5-1 on the odds board to win the Super Bowl.

Phil Simms was put on the Giants' injured-reserve list with a sprained arch (the same injury that has given running back Gerald Riggs of the Washington Redskins so much trouble the past two years), but Hostetler gets to warm up with two fairly easy opponents -- the Phoenix Cardinals and the New England Patriots -- the last two weeks of the regular season. The Giants' odds went from 7-2 to 5-1 without Simms.

Tomczak replaces Jim Harbaugh, who is out for the season with a separated shoulder, but the oddsmakers apparently don't think there's much difference between the two. The Bears are 15-1 with Tomczak, the same odds as with Harbaugh. Coach Mike Ditka seems intrigued with rookie Peter Tom Willis and may give him a shot.

Steve DeBerg of the Chiefs, who has a compound fracture of the small finger on his non-passing hand, has the best chance of returning by playoff time and would like to play Sunday, but Pelluer figures to start.

Kiel was the Packers' third-stringer, but now is the starter because Don Majkowski and Dilweg are out.

If a backup wins the Super Bowl this season, he would become the fourth quarterback who wasn't the starter at the beginning of the year to do it.

Earl Morrall replaced Johnny Unitas late in the second quarter of Super Bowl V and guided the Baltimore Colts to victory, and Jim Plunkett came on after Dan Pastorini of the Oakland Raiders suffered a broken leg in the fifth game of the 1980 season and led the club to the title.

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