TAMPA, Fla. -- The study of a quarter-century of Super Bowl quarterbacking, from Starr to Kelly, offers one obvious lesson. It takes a first-rate quarterback to lose the game as well as to win it.
The list of the 14 winning pitchers is luminous, including seven Hall of Famers and one (Joe) in waiting. Jim McMahon and Doug Williams rate as the least accomplished. Each was a starter for years.
Among the 18 losers, the nadir is Vince Ferragamo, David Woodley and Tony Eason, an average group. But all three did have substantive careers. And the rest of the losers are elites, among the best of their day.
The lesson, clearly, is that you must qualify for the game before you can lose it, and an accomplished quarterback is almost mandatory for wading through the season and playoffs to the Supe.
Then there is Jeff Hostetler. The extreme. The least accomplished starting quarterback in Super Bowl history. By a mile. By a thousand miles. It isn't close. He is a babe in such company, far out of his league.
He will lead the New York Giants against the Buffalo Bills today in Tampa Stadium, and let's not underestimate the depth of his inexperience. He has been a Giant since 1984. This is his seventh start.
The Giants used a third-round draft pick on him, but he didn'tthrow a single pass until his fifth season. He had caught a pass and blocked a punt -- he volunteered for special teams because he was so bored -- before throwing his first NFL pass in 1988.
Before the Giants' Phil Simms went down with a foot injury in the 14th game of this regular season, Hostetler's pro totals were 92 passes, five touchdowns and two starts. All for a career that began before Ronald Reagan was re-elected.
"You do begin to wonder," said Hostetler, a central Pennsylvanian with a soft voice, a long, thin nose and a wispy mustache, "if an opportunity is ever going to come."
It did. Hostetler, 29, will today make his fifth straight start for the Giants, becoming, along with Jim Kelly, the 29th and 30th quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl. If he wins, it would be among the greatest up-from-nowhere stories in NFL history. He could also turn into a pumpkin.
The point is that this is new territory. Never before, not once in the analysis of any of the previous 24 Super Bowls, has a quarterback been such an unknown quantity, such an X factor. Is he up to it? Is he over his head? Who knows?
There are, of course, two bodies of opinion, those who expect him to blow up and those who expect him to play well. The latter do have some evidence with which to argue. Hostetler was an All-America at West Virginia, and it is clear that, despite the few NFL downs he has played, he is not an utterly lost soul.
In 1989, he rallied the Giants to a win after Simms was injured in the middle of a Monday night game against the Vikings and their top-rated defense. Getting a start the next week against Phoenix, he threw for two touchdowns and the Giants won.
His real chance came this season, though, and he has led the Giants to playoff wins over Chicago and San Francisco the past two weeks. Defense and the running game are the Giants' bedrock, but Hostetler has been calm and error-free, a mobile Simms, very much in command.
Seeing that, it can be argued that Hostetler's main deficiency as a pro has been his lack of luck, being drafted by a team on which the quarterback and coach, Simms and Bill Parcells, had already established what Parcells calls "a special relationship." Hostetler had no chance.
"I have never considered myself a backup," he said. "I always thought of myself as a quarterback who didn't get to play because of circumstances, playing behind a very good quarterback who never got hurt."
His teammates agreed. "We saw him every day in practice running the scout team," said center Bart Oates, "and there were days when he was fantastic, hot as ever, eight, nine completions in a row. He had this big, strong arm, and could scramble. The public never saw that. We did. We saw a good quarterback."
So did Hostetler, and he openly bristled at his lack of opportunity, repeatedly demanding to be traded. Even now he describes his relationship with Parcells as just a "good working relationship." No buddy-buddy there. Too much history.
Parcells had hinted to him last July that this could be the year he got a chance. When it didn't happen by midseason, he turned sarcastic. "There was one point when I told Jeff he might get a chance soon," Simms said, "and he said, 'Yeah, sure.' "
It turned out Simms was prophetic. Oates said the team was "horrified, sick" when Simms went down, but Hostetler's playoff performances have eased many fears. You know, though, that today there will be silent doubts in the Giants' locker room before the game. It is only human nature.
Simms was a sure thing. Hostetler would have beaten him out long ago if he were another Dan Marino. He isn't. But then, what is he? "I have no doubt that I can do it," Hostetler said. "Convincing others of that is a different story."