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NFL SUFFERS SHORTAGE OF SUPERSTAR QBS

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To the list of endangered species that includes the American bald eagle, add the American balding quarterback. The veteran, star NFL passer is gray and fading to black.

Scan this weekend's marquee: Joe Montana (age 38) vs. John Elway (34), and Dan Marino (33) vs. Jim Kelly (34). You've got Warren Moon at 38. Boomer Esiason, 33. Steve Young, also 33. Randall Cunningham nears 32.Troy Aikman, 28, is the only under-30 starter in the league who is both a firmly established veteran and a superstar still ascending. If you seek the next wave of megastars, Patriot Drew Bledsoe, 22, is the only guy who might make it, but even that is iffy. The Bengals' Jeff Blake, 23, is hot now, but banking on his future superstardom is a reach.

The NFL has become a litter of interchangeable, sub-star QBs such as Steve Beuerlein, Jim Harbaugh, Jeff Hostetler, Chris Miller and Neil O'Donnell - a league in which Stan Humphries and Steve Walsh masquerade as elite by sheer dearth of competition.

Would-be superstars ultimately have failed to live up: Jim Everett, Don Majkowski, Mark Rypien, Vinny Testaverde. . . . And the hot free agents? Erik Kramer lost his job in Chicago. Injury ended Scott Mitchell's disappointing year in Detroit. . . .

The superstar-QB shortage is why the NFL hopes to enlist guru Bill Walsh to develop new arms through the World League. It is why the best college arms (BYU's John Walsh in the coming draft) almost always go first. And why mere potential begets a high pick.

The failure of so many top-drafted QBs in recent years is the biggest reason the NFL has a weak crop to replace its aging superstars.

Consider the 15 highest-drafted QBs of the 1990s, the first- and second-rounders from the past five drafts. We rank them in order of superstar potential, and it's slim pickins. In fact, Slim Pickens, the old cowboy movie star, throws better than some of these guys near the bottom:

- Drew Bledsoe (1st round, '93): Big stats, huge potential, in New England. But many pickoffs, too, and QB rating is 23rd.

- Jeff George (1r, '90): Up and down with Colts but now proves with Falcons he's a star, if not super.

- Brett Favre (2r, '91): Fourth-year Packer having best season. Inconsistent but very good when on.

- Rick Mirer (1r, '93): Solid starter for Seattle, but numbers don't suggest he'll vault to superstardom.

- Heath Shuler (1r, '94): Crime to write off a guy who doesn't instantly shine, but Redskin ranks 38th of 38 QBs with 100-plus attempts.

- Trent Dilfer (1r, '94): Rating (after 82 throws for Tampa Bay) is even lower. Yes, give him time. But doubt is cast.

- David Klingler (1r, '92): Still too early to dismiss him as bust, but Cincy seems to be doing just that.

- Dave Brown (1r, '92): Giants let him develop, seemed committed and then sat him when losses grew.

- Matt Blundin (2r, '92): Hangs on as Chiefs' third-stringer.

- Browning Nagle (2r, '91): Jets reject now hangs onto Colts bench.

- Tommy Maddox (1r, '92): Career backup, Denver, now Rams.

- Andre Ware (1r, '90): Slow fade with Lions. Landed in CFL.

- Dan McGwire (1r, '91): Seattle savior? McGone after season.

- Todd Marinovich (1r, '91): Drugs. Wasted Raider. Out of league.

- Tony Sacca (2r, '92): What were Cards thinking? They weren't.