Where have all the quarterbacks gone?
As the NFL season nears its halfway mark, the general managers and coaches are scrambling to answer that question.
The shortage of quarterbacks is probably tied into the drop in scoring that has been one of the hallmarks of this season.
Although Bobby Hebert has come back from a season-long holdout to lead the New Orleans Saints to a 6-0 start, the league has lost such high-profile players as Joe Montana, Randall Cunningham, Jim McMahon, Timm Rosenbaugh and Dave Krieg because of injuries. And Phil Simms of the New York Giants has been benched.
Meanwhile, the pipeline of top-flight quarterback talent from the colleges seems all but dried up.
Charley Casserly, the general manager of the Washington Redskins, notes that since 1986, only three quarterbacks have come out of college and made the Pro Bowl -- Jim Everett of the Los Angeles Rams, Don Majkowski of the Green Bay Packers and Mark Rypien of the Redskins.
"That's a scary statistic," Casserly said.
Not that those players are carrying their clubs.
Everett is struggling this year and threw his first touchdown pass last week and Majkowski may have been a one-year wonder. Rypien has led the Redskins to a 7-0 start, but he's not generally rated a future star.
Among young quarterbacks, only Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys and Jeff George of the Indianapolis Colts get raves from the scouts, and George is likely to become the new Archie Manning because he's handicapped by an inept team around him.
That leaves Aikman as the lone future quarterback star the colleges have produced since 1986.
By contrast, Simms and Montana were in the class of 1979 and John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and Ken O'Brien were all drafted on the first round in 1983.
The shortage has become such a problem that when Cunningham and McMahon went down for the Philadelphia Eagles, they signed Pat Ryan even though he hadn't played in a regular-season game since 1989.
The Eagles were the target of much criticism when Ryan flopped, but their defense was that the other players available weren't any better than Ryan and he knew their system.
The Eagles cut Ryan last week and signed Jeff Kemp, who had started when Krieg was injured, but was cut last week when Krieg was activated.
The shortage is one of the reasons why the Redskins kept three (Rypien, Stan Humphries and Jeff Rutledge) on the active roster and stashed promising Cary Conklin on the injured reserve.
They knew that if they tried cut cut any of them, they'd be `D claimed and they figure you can never be too rich, too thin or have too many quarterbacks.
"If you look at the NFC Central, you're talking about Jim Harbaugh, you're talking about Vinny Testaverde-slash-Chris Chandler, Rodney Peete, Chris Gannon or whatever his name is up there, not Chris Gannon, Rich Gannon and Majkowski or Blair Kiel. Put that in perspective. You'd be starting an expansion team with those guys," Casserly said.
Even though teams averaged 48 points a game last week, the teams are averaging only 37 points a game this year, the lowest total since 1978, when they averaged 36.7 points.
There are reasons other than the quarterback shortage.
More teams are playing the conservative New York Giants' ball-control game that won them the Super Bowl last year, and the number of plays has dropped from 154.3 a game two years ago to 144.2 a game this year because the league has tried successfully to shorten the games under three hours.
New Orleans Saints' president Jim Finks, who heads the competition committee, said he thinks the problems teams are having at quarterback and the sophisticated defenses account for the drop in scoring. He said, though, that he's not concerned about low-scoring games as long as they're competitive.
Finks pointed to the Atlanta Braves' 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates Wednesday in the National League playoffs.
"I enjoyed that game immensely and there was only one run scored," he said.
But finding good young quarterbacks may become a problem.
Ernie Accorsi, executive vice president for football operations for the Cleveland Browns, said, "I think we're going through a phase."
He said it's similar to the late 1960s, when college teams were using the wishbone and the veer and weren't producing pro quarterbacks.
"Of course, that's not their job [to produce pro quarterbacks]," he said.
George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said, "We can only use the guys we get from the draft."
A sign of the times is that when the Redskins talk about Rypien, they say they want him to "drive the car."
Since they haven't had a quarterback since Joe Theismann who could carry a team (except for Doug Williams' brief stint in 1987), they decided to try to build a team around the quarterback and just ask Rypien not to crash it. The result has been a 7-0 record.
Until the colleges start producing more pilots, the NFL may have to be satisfied with drivers.