Many a detour, quite the find

NFL: The cream of this postseason's quarterback crop took years - and rather circuitous routes - before becoming bona-fide successes.

January 11, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The path least traveled usually leads to the NFL postseason.

That's what this year's crop of playoff quarterbacks suggests, anyway.

Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams couldn't make it in the NFL until he had passed start-up courses in the World and Arena leagues.

Jeff Garcia of the San Francisco 49ers had to cross the border into Canada before the NFL would even give him a look.

Jim Miller worked his way through six different teams before he made an impact with the Chicago Bears.

Of the 12 quarterbacks playing this postseason, three came into the league as free agents, five were drafted after the third round, and only four remain with their original team.

It's a playoff cast that drips with diversity, perseverance and character. It's a year that perhaps defines the position.

"It's a position no one can evaluate properly," said Ron Wolf, former general manager with the Green Bay Packers. "And no one has ever been able to do it."

Wolf, now living in retirement in Annapolis, managed better than most during his nine years with the Packers. He not only traded for three-time MVP Brett Favre, he also drafted Mark Brunell (fifth round, 1993), Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998) and Aaron Brooks (fourth round, 1999), all starters in the league this season. He even brought Warner to Green Bay as a non-drafted free agent in 1994, then cut him before the start of the season.

Wolf chuckled at the memory.

"John Dorsey, who's still in Green Bay [as director of college scouting], gets credit for him," Wolf said. "He recommended Kurt. [But] the Kurt Warner in Green Bay was not the Kurt Warner that is playing with the Rams. It's a great credit to Kurt that he went out and took the same sort of route that John Unitas took as a semipro. At least he realized what he had to do."

What makes quarterback evaluation so difficult?

"It's the combination of a lot of things," Wolf said. "There's a lot of pressure at that position. Some people succumb to the pressure, and some thrive on it. That's the difference."

Warner and Favre are in a class of their own. Since 1999 with Warner, the Rams have amassed the most points, total yards and passing yards of any team in NFL history over a three-year span.

This season, Warner earned his second MVP award by throwing for 4,830 yards - second most in NFL history - and 36 touchdowns. His passer efficiency rating of 101.4 and his average gain per pass attempt of 8.85 yards led the league.

Warner's meteoric rise from bagging groceries to winning the Super Bowl after the 1999 season is one for the ages.

"I think about that all the time," said Rams coach Mike Martz. "That's what makes this league so great. It's what you've got to love about the NFL, that this can happen. And that gives hope to a lot of young players out there."

Garcia spent four seasons in the CFL before he got a contract with the 49ers. Even then, it took a while before coach Steve Mariucci was convinced Garcia could win.

Drafted out of Delaware in 1987 by the New England Patriots, Rich Gannon drifted through five organizations before getting his best chance with Oakland in 1999. He took the Raiders to the AFC championship game a year ago, and this season led the AFC in passer efficiency. But at 36, on a team populated by 30-something stars, Gannon is pretty much reduced to one last shot at the Super Bowl.

Then there is the Patriots' second-year phenom, Tom Brady, who replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe after the second week of the season and never relinquished the job. The youngest of the playoff quarterbacks at 24, Brady was a sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan, where he played behind Brian Griese.

Obviously, there is no formula for success at quarterback in the NFL.

"There really isn't," Jets coach Herm Edwards said. "It's a unique position because he's your field general, basically, and they come in all shapes, sizes and forms, and it's a matter of if you can get him functioning and he's one of those kinds of guys that win games.

"And that's the bottom line you look at for your quarterback: Does he have the ability to win games for you?"

Here is a primer on this year's playoff quarterbacks:

The elite: Warner and Favre. Warner has gunned the Rams to an NFL-best 14-2 record and home-field advantage in the NFC. He could face Favre (32 touchdowns, 3,921 yards passing) as early as the divisional round. It would be no surprise to see either of these two in New Orleans.

Ascending to stardom: Garcia and Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles. Garcia has thrown for 63 touchdowns the last two seasons, but still has a losing career record (20-22). McNabb was runner-up for the MVP award last season, but struggled this year trying to become a pocket passer. Both could be elite quarterbacks soon. They are also capable of springing a playoff upset or two.

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