A golden year for golden arms NFL: A generation gap has emerged at quarterback this season, as veterans flourish and rookies flounder.


In a season when Steve DeBerg came out of retirement at age 44, when 35-year-old Randall Cunningham recaptured his former glory, and when 35-year-old Vinny Testaverde finally found a place he could call home, the rules have changed.

A young man's game?

Not anymore.

Not when it comes to quarterbacks, anyway, and especially not when it comes to backup quarterbacks.

The phenomenon of the 1998 NFL season is that while it has

always been difficult for young quarterbacks to succeed,

recycled veterans are enjoying a resurgence unlike any in recent years.

Two years after he labored as a marble cutter installing kitchen counter tops inforced retirement, Cunningham is the league's highest-rated passer for the 9-1 Minnesota Vikings.

Five months after he was unceremoniously dumped by the Ravens, Testaverde, a native of Long Island, has won six of seven starts for the New York Jets and leads the AFC in passing.

Eight years after he was banished to the Canadian Football League, Doug Flutie, 36, not only won a roster spot with the Buffalo Bills but their starting job as well.

Playing on his sixth NFL team in 11 years, Chris Chandler, 33, has the Atlanta Falcons in first place and need not look over his shoulder any time soon.

If Chandler does glimpse behind him, he'll see DeBerg, who this season became the oldest player in the modern era to start an NFL game. DeBerg had been retired five years when he joined the Falcons as Chandler's backup.

That's not all. Among the other over-30 quarterbacks who have ascended to a more prominent role this season are Rich Gannon, 34, of the Kansas City Chiefs, Donald Hollas, 31, of the Oakland Raiders and Steve Beuerlein, 33, of the Carolina Panthers.

More than anything, this trend represents the generational gap at football's most important position. It takes more than a strong arm and Heisman Trophy hype to make the quantum leap from Saturday afternoon phenom to Sunday afternoon pro.

Just look at rookies Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Ryan Leaf of the San Diego Chargers. The top two picks in this year's draft have combined for a staggering 33 interceptions and only five wins.

The indoctrination period at quarterback can be a painful one. That's why Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher mapped out a long-range plan when the Oilers selected Steve McNair with the third pick of the 1995 draft.

"We expected and intended to bring our quarterback along at our pace and play him as a starter when we felt he was ready," Fisher said this week. "When you start a guy off in his first year without any experience, the guy's going to have problems.

"One cannot learn just by playing. You have to have an opportunity to sit back and see things done. There's an awful lot of information that has to be digested before you're able to be successful. And that's what Steve has been able to do."

McNair, 25, is progressing nicely in his fourth season. He spent two years behind Chandler in Houston, then became the starter last season. With 11 touchdown passes and seven interceptions this year, he is ninth in the league's passer efficiency ratings. He is the exception, not the norm, however.

The top four passers in those ratings are all 35 years or older.

Ten of the top 13 are 32 years or older.

And, at the other end of the spectrum, nine of the bottom 10 quarterbacks are 27 or younger.

It's no coincidence.

"The most important thing about playing quarterback is knowing where to throw the ball," Chandler said. "The second most important thing is being able to throw it there. A veteran quarterback has a much better idea of where he wants to throw it and makes decisions quicker and better."

Chandler was one of the most successful rookie quarterbacks in NFL history in 1988, winning nine of 13 starts for Indianapolis. By comparison, Dan Marino won seven of nine starts in 1983 as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins.

But when Chandler reflects on his rookie season, he sees a mirage.

"The first thing is, I was drafted in the third round, so I didn't have the expectations of immediate success thrown on me," he said. "I also had Eric Dickerson in probably his last really good year running. I'll tell you what: I can look back now and I had no idea what I was doing. I ran around, I threw the ball, I made my share of mistakes."

That was also before the zone blitz took the NFL by storm. The unpredictable pressure defense has wreaked havoc for all quarterbacks, but especially for young ones who haven't faced it much. In the zone blitz, linebackers and/or defensive backs blitz the quarterback while linemen drop into coverage.

"The zone blitz has been around a long time," said Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, "but not to this extent where everybody has a zone blitz in their package and some teams may run zone blitzes three-fourths of the time. That's one reason we've gone from being a team that has five out in the passing game and putting all the load on the quarterback to a more protection offense."

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