Sun, Feb 01, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Legend-type QBs vanish from recent Super Bowl games


Starr. Staubach. Bradshaw. Montana. Elway. Favre. The Super Bowl is the place where American football's great quarterbacks go to get rings and establish legacies.

Not lately, though.

The last four titles have been won by passers named Warner, Dilfer, Brady and Johnson -- a pack of quarterbacks without a single pedigree.

This year, it's Tom Brady of New England -- a sixth-round pick -- matched against undrafted Jake Delhomme, who didn't even start the Carolina Panthers' season opener.

What is going on here?

"It's hard to say," Patriots backup Damon Huard said. "The quarterback is definitely the most important guy on your team."

Important, but no longer indispensable. Teams don't need a high-drafted, high-paid passer to win it all nowadays. Some are better off saving their money and investing in defense, then letting a caretaker passer take it from there.

Kurt Warner, an Arena Football League refugee, started the trend by taking the Rams all the way and becoming MVP of the 2000 Super Bowl. Then came Trent Dilfer, a journeyman who essentially stayed out of the way as the Ravens' record-setting defense won it in 2001.

Dilfer was released a month later, before his championship ring had been cast. Suddenly, championship quarterbacks were a disposable commodity.

The unheralded Brady took over for the prominent Drew Bledsoe and took the Patriots to the title. Last year, Brad Johnson pulled a Dilfer -- he got out of the way and let Tampa Bay's defense win it.

"Watching those guys gives guys like me hope that if you do get an opportunity, you can make the most of it," said Delhomme, the latest obscure passer to emerge. "And look where you could end up -- maybe in the Super Bowl."

That's not how it worked in the beginning. Quarterbacks ruled the league when the Super Bowl was hatched in the 1960s. They had freedom to run the show, and their teams were a direct reflection of their talents.

The list of winning quarterbacks for the first 19 title games is a Who's Who: Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Johnny Unitas (with relief from Earl Morrall), Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Joe Theismann.

As recently as the 1990s, John Elway and Brett Favre were leading their teams to titles and putting exclamation points on their remarkable careers.

NFL teams wanted to draft a quarterback and make him the foundation.

Now, teams are building with different materials.

With the salary cap and free agency turning every roster into a temporary thing, quarterbacks have a more difficult time delivering. Just as the offense starts to gel, it gets torn apart and has to start over.

"It seems players are moving in and out," said Brady, the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft. "When so many guys are coming in and out of a program, it's hard to continue to evolve as an offense and as a team."

Plus, there's not enough good ones to go around. Teams usually need at least two because of the high risk of injury -- Cincinnati's Jon Kitna was the only NFL quarterback to take every snap this season.

Finally, the salary cap forces teams to spend money wisely.

A franchise can invest tens of millions of dollars in a first-round quarterback, or spread the money around the rest of the roster and win with balance and depth instead of one strong arm.

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