Veteran quarterbacks throw off age with yardage to spare It was good ole season for Cunningham & Co.

NFL year in review

December 31, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Chris Chandler spoke for quarterbacks everywhere -- but especially young ones -- when he addressed the difficult learning curve in the NFL last October.

"The best thing for the young guys is to let them make mistakes," he said back then. "It might be painful, but they'll be better in the long run."

Chandler, 33, should know. He lived through the harsh, formative years as a young, struggling quarterback. Ten years and five teams after he debuted with the Indianapolis Colts as a third-round draft pick, he enjoyed a career year with the Atlanta Falcons this season.

He threw for 25 touchdown passes, won 13 of 14 starts and joined a select group of recycled, 30-something quarterbacks who magically transformed their careers.

In a season of brutal officiating, loutish behavior and an unprecedented coaching purge, the reclamation of veteran quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde, Randall Cunningham, Doug Flutie and Chandler was easily the redeeming quality to 1998 for the NFL.

Those quarterbacks, ranging in age from 33 to 36, account for three of the top four seeds in this year's Super Bowl tournament: Cunningham, 35, guided the Minnesota Vikings to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. He won 13 of 14 starts this year after Brad Johnson broke his right fibula, just two years after he sat out the 1996 season, unwanted by any NFL team. In an MVP performance, Cunningham threw 34 touchdown passes and led the league with a 106.0 passer efficiency rating.

Chandler led the Falcons to their first division title since 1980 and a No. 2 seed in the NFC. Traded to Atlanta in 1997, he had a Pro Bowl season a year ago before taking his game -- and the Falcons' -- to a new level.

Testaverde, 35, signed by the New York Jets last June after being cut by the Ravens, won the starting job in Week 7. The Jets lost just once since then to claim the No. 2 seed in the AFC behind Denver. Testaverde broke Joe Namath's team record with 29 touchdown passes, threw only seven interceptions and led the AFC in passing.

Flutie, 36, returned from an eight-year run in the CFL to win Buffalo's starting job in Week 7. He went 7-3 as a starter to send the Bills into the playoffs as the AFC's No. 5 seed after an 0-3 start. He threw for 20 touchdowns and ranked fifth among AFC passers.

As the regular season fades away, here are some observations about 1998 and beyond.

Quarterback roulette

As unique as the circumstances were for the above-mentioned quarterbacks, there are several more intriguing possibilities who will be recycled in the off-season.

Among those veterans expected to become available are Warren Moon of the Seattle Seahawks, Scott Mitchell of the Detroit Lions, Neil O'Donnell of the Cincinnati Bengals, Kerry Collins of the New Orleans Saints, Rich Gannon of the Kansas City Chiefs, Gus Frerotte of the Washington Redskins and Bobby Hoying of the Philadelphia Eagles.

But the two who might make the biggest splash in another uniform are Minnesota's Brad Johnson and St. Louis' Tony Banks. With two years left on a four-year, $15.5 million contract, Johnson no longer fits under the same salary cap with Cunningham's new five-year deal worth $5.5 million per year. And the talented but erratic Banks may have worn out his welcome with the Rams.

No replay, no justice

How bad was the officiating in 1998? Bad enough down the stretch that the NFL convened an emergency session to consider restoring instant replay for the playoffs. The idea was rejected, but replay should make a return in 1999. Here are three reasons why:

Week 7: The Colts lost two end-zone interceptions to incorrect defensive holding calls in a game at San Francisco. Both penalties set up touchdowns that fueled the 49ers' come-from-behind 34-31 win. The league later acknowledged the bad calls.

Week 13: Walt Coleman's crew made two incredibly bad calls in the waning moments at New England that allowed the Patriots to steal a 25-21 win over the Bills. The most grievous mistake came on a fourth-down pass to Shawn Jefferson. It was ruled complete and kept a drive alive even though Jefferson was clearly short of the first-down marker and came down out of bounds. The league acknowledged the mistakes.

Week 14: Testaverde was awarded a 5-yard touchdown run to beat Seattle, 32-31, when only his helmet reached the goal line. It was good enough for head linesman Earnie Frantz, who mistook the white helmet for the brown ball. Again, the league acknowledged the error.

The result of those three incidents is that San Francisco plays Green Bay at home in this week's wild-card game rather than in frosty Wisconsin, and that the Patriots are in the postseason rather than the Seahawks.

The dishonor roll

Then there was the egregious conduct of several so-called stars. The lowlights:

Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene attacked his position coach, Kevin Steele, in the heat of a sideline conversation.

Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas drew three personal foul penalties before Marty Schottenheimer pulled him in a 30-7 trouncing by the Broncos.

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