Franchise QB making more of a difference in '98

On The NFL

October 04, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Whatever happened to parity?

That's the unanswered question about the start of the 1998 NFL season.

Four weeks into the season, there are seven unbeaten teams and six winless teams.

That means 13 of the 30 teams have either won all their games or lost all their games.

That's surprising in an era when free agency has tended to group the teams together. Last year, there were seven teams -- four unbeaten and three winless -- in this category after four weeks. The gap between the haves and have-nots seems to be %% widening.

There are various theories about this development. One popular one is that it's simply too early to make any judgments.

The most intriguing one, though, is that in this era of parity, a franchise quarterback makes more difference than ever.

Brett Favre, for example, can virtually win games all by himself in Green Bay with little help from his running game.

It's noteworthy that six of the seven unbeatens -- Green Bay (Favre), San Francisco (Steve Young), Denver (John Elway, although he's been hurt), Jacksonville (Mark Brunell), Miami (Dan Marino) and Minnesota (Randall Cunningham) either have a franchise quarterback or one (Cunningham) playing the best ball of his career.

The seventh team is New Orleans, and the Saints have benefited from a soft schedule (St. Louis, Carolina and Indianapolis) and figure to lose their next two to New England and San Francisco.

The era when a Joe Gibbs could win a Super Bowl by putting together a veteran team around an average quarterback (Mark Rypien in 1991) may be all but over. It's too difficult to keep a team together the way Gibbs could in the pre-salary cap days when he won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks.

Now the easiest way to win is to get a top-notch quarterback.

Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, said, "They definitely make the difference. There's probably six to eight -- I don't want to have to name them -- elite quarterbacks, and they are the difference in the game."

Scott Piolo, the New York Jets' director of pro personnel, said, "The teams with the upper-tier quarterbacks have a chance to win every single week. The team that don't have a chance to lose every single week."

By contrast, the winless teams tend to have quarterback problems. The Washington Redskins, for example, are down to Trent Green now that Gus Frerotte has flopped and Jeff Hostetler is out for the year with a knee injury.

The Redskins are so helpless that Denver coach Mike Shanahan decided to rest Elway's tender hamstring last week and gave the start to shopworn veteran Bubby Brister.

The value of the top quarterbacks is so great that the only real question about this season now is if Favre and Young stay healthy and if Elway can overcome his hamstring problems.

If they're standing at the end, Favre and Young -- who meet Nov. 1 in Green Bay -- are likely to duel in the NFC title game, with the winner playing Denver in the Super Bowl.

Minnesota gets its chance tomorrow night to knock off the Packers. If they fail, the Packers then have an open date and games against the Lions and Ravens before playing host to San Francisco.

All bets are off, of course, if Favre, Young or Elway gets hurt.

As Newsome said, "Where would Green Bay be if Favre gets hurt?"

The Packers hope they don't get to answer that question since Favre has answered the bell 97 straight games. As long as he keeps extending that streak, the Packers will be in contention at the end.

Big Monday matchup

When the unbeaten Packers play the unbeaten Vikings tomorrow night in the best Monday night matchup so far this season, NFL officials will be keeping their fingers crossed.

Since the Monday ratings are down 15 percent, they're hoping this will bring the kind of ratings to which the NFL is accustomed.

"Monday Night Football" wasn't help by opening on Labor Day night -- next year the schedule will be moved back a week -- and was blindsided by the Cubs-Giants playoff game last week. The NFL got a boost during the 1994 baseball strike when it was the only game in September.

The earlier starting time doesn't seem to have made much difference, but viewers could be turned off by the dreadful pre-game show, "Monday Night Blast."

The show from the ESPN Zone in Baltimore is a good promotion for the city and for the latest Disney venture, but it doesn't much whet the appetite of football fans.

If the Vikings-Packers game brings back the audience, it will probably mean the real problem is that the matchups haven't been very good so far.

Feuding update

You need a scorecard in the NFL to keep up with the feuds.

In the latest one, Bob Kraft, the New England owner, publicly knocked Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf for reportedly making a deal that coach Mike Holmgren can leave at the end of this year if the Packers get a second-round pick as compensation.

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