Expect another busy off-season of musical chairs for NFL quarterbacks. More than half the teams in the league either gained or lost a veteran quarterback last year, and the market probably will be just as active this winter.
Many teams are looking for a quick fix. History says the odds are against them, but that won't stop teams from trying. Of the eight teams currently in first place or tied for first in their divisions, only one - Kansas City with Joe Montana - is doing it with a quarterback who is in his first year with the team. And in the Chiefs' case, it was the rest of the team, not Montana, who had to learn a new offense.Miami's Scott Mitchell, Atlanta's Chris Miller, the Rams' Jim Everett, Phoenix's Chris Chandler, San Diego's John Friesz and Bernie Kosar, finishing the year as Troy Aikman's backup in Dallas, all could find new homes. Also, Detroit is unlikely to invite its entire troika of Erik Kramer, Andre Ware and Rodney Peete to return. All nine quarterbacks are on the last year of their contracts.
Among quarterbacks still under contract, Washington's Mark Rypien, Indianapolis' Jeff George, the 49ers' Steve Bono and Chicago's Jim Harbaugh may be available, and if Houston doesn't reach the Super Bowl, it's likely the Oilers will part with Warren Moon.
In Washington, Rypien, MVP of the Super Bowl just two years ago, said, "You've got to face reality sometimes and swallow it and move on." Indianapolis' offense has gone into the tank since George returned to the lineup. Bono could move because of the 49ers' salary cap considerations.
In Chicago, a Sun-Times poll on Harbaugh's future got more callers than similar polls on subjects ranging from abortion to the presidential race. Of more than 11,000 responses, 89 percent said Harbaugh should not be the Bears' No. 1 quarterback next year.
Houston may not want a 38-year-old Moon when probable future starter Cody Carlson is making $3 million a year. "If I have to move on, it wouldn't be the worst thing," Moon says.
One factor stands out in all this maneuvering: It never has been clearer than right now that quarterback is a position demanding experience. As a result, desperate teams can be expected to jump at a quarterback who has it. Look at what a difference a journeyman like Jeff Hostetler made for the Raiders.
Of the six quarterbacks selected to the Pro Bowl, only one, Aikman, was under 32. Three - Montana, Moon and Phil Simms - were 37 or 38.
Among the eight first-place teams, only two, Dallas with Aikman and Green Bay with Brett Favre, have first-string quarterbacks younger than 32. Detroit doesn't count, because the Lions don't have a clear first-string quarterback.
"Coaches are looking for these older quarterbacks, because they don't trust the younger ones," said former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann. "Coaches want quarterbacks who won't make mistakes, and that's why you're seeing so many of these veterans still starting."
Either NFL teams in recent years have done a lousy job of developing young quarterbacks or their scouts have done a lousy job of finding them. But of 18 chosen with first-round picks since 1983, when the draft produced John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, only one - Aikman - currently is playing a starring role in the NFL.
Recent first-rounders have included such washouts as Chuck Long (Detroit), Kelly Stouffer (Phoenix) and Todd Marinovich (Raiders), and others who languish on the bench, such as Steve Walsh (New Orleans) and Ware (Detroit).
One problem is time. Many rookie quarterbacks are seen as saviors and are thrown in immediately. If they have mental toughness like Aikman, they survive. If they lack mental toughness, like Vinny Testaverde or George, they don't survive.
SET WITH A PROVEN QB: 49ers, Cowboys, Atlanta, Philadelphia (if Randall Cunningham is healthy), Buffalo, Miami, N.Y. Jets, L.A. Raiders, Denver.
PROVEN QB BUT AGE LIMITS FUTURE: Kansas City, N.Y. Giants, Houston.
QB IS DEVELOPING, PATIENCE NEEDED: Green Bay, Phoenix, New England, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego, Tampa Bay.
FLOUNDERING: Chicago, L.A. Rams, Detroit, New Orleans, Minnesota, Washington, Cleveland, Indianapolis.