TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Peyton Manning was asked if the retirements of John Elway, Dan Marino and Steve Young make him one of the NFL's top QBs or just one of the top young ones.
"I think I'm at the top of the young guys," replied Manning, who doubles as a football historian. "I still have a lot to learn."
When Kurt Warner, the former Arena Leaguer who led the Rams to the NFL title last season, was asked the same question, he said: "You have to do it for more than one year."
A lot of humility for the two most visible quarterbacks last season. For with those high-profile retirements in the last two years, there might be talent at quarterback, but there sure isn't much star quality.
Just Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, Drew Bledsoe and an aging Troy Aikman are up there with Manning and Warner. Six second-year players who will start at quarterback this season carry the league's hopes for producing a new crop of stars at the position.
But some NFL veterans insist it's always been this way.
"People think that everyone used to have great quarterbacks," Colts president Bill Polian says.
"Not so. If you look back 30 years or so when there were just 12 teams, there were maybe a handful of guys who were top flight and the rest were average. Remember 1963? The Bears won an NFL title with Bill Wade at quarterback. Bill Wade?"
Here's a look at the current QB crop as appraised by a dozen general managers, coaches and scouts:
1. THE BEST: "I'm only 75 percent of where I should be," says Manning, who led the Colts from 3-13 to 13-3 in his second season. Based on last season, he is the top star, along with Warner, who was recently rewarded with a seven-year, $46.5 million contract.
— Although his last two seasons didn't measure up to three straight MVP years in Green Bay, Favre remains at the top. He played all of last year with a thumb injury and his supporting cast wasn't as good.
— Bledsoe is hampered by New England's lack of a running game but demonstrated in 1998 that he can win in late-game situations. Most of those questioned agree that he belongs at the top even though he'll never be a superstar.
— Brunell needs that breakthrough Super Bowl appearance, but he's injury prone. He's one of the best when healthy and adds mobility to the mix.
— Aikman, who has three Super Bowl rings, is on the downside. He will turn 34 in November and is concussion prone. Still, he retains the glamour of Super Bowls past and quarterbacking the Cowboys still counts for something.
—Steve McNair might be ready to join this group under the tutelage of Mike Heimerdinger, the Titans' new offensive coordinator. He was good enough to take Tennessee to a Super Bowl last season and nearly tied it in the final moments.
2. THE SOPHOMORES: Tim Couch of Cleveland, Akili Smith of Cincinnati, Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia, Cade McNown of Chicago, Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota and Shaun King of Tampa Bay.
All but Culpepper played a lot last season and all will start this year.
The consensus is that McNabb and perhaps Smith can be stars and Couch can develop into a solid QB like Bledsoe.
The one carrying the most pressure might be King, a second-round choice who took over late last season and almost got the Bucs to the Super Bowl. The team wants a title now and has added more offense, including Keyshawn Johnson, one of the league's top receivers.
Coach Mike Martz of St. Louis, one of the NFL's new quarterback gurus, compares him with Warner and Trent Green, who was set to become the Rams' starter last year when he injured his knee and gave Warner his chance.
"He's just like our two guys," Martz says. "The only difference is that he's 2 inches shorter."
3. VETERAN JOURNEYMEN: Chris Chandler of Atlanta, Vinny Testaverde of the Jets, Steve Beuerlein of Carolina, Brad Johnson of Washington, Elvis Grbac of Kansas City, Jeff Blake of New Orleans, Jim Harbaugh of San Diego.
All have had success, notably Chandler's run to the Super Bowl with Atlanta two seasons ago. All are injury prone, and Blake's probably just a very good backup who has to start now.
Johnson's in a funny position — everyone in Washington, notably owner Dan Snyder, expects a Super Bowl trip. A bad game, even a bad half, and Snyder probably will order up Jeff George, whose physical talent has been overshadowed by a tendency to alienate those around him with a me-first attitude.
4. PROMISING, BUT ... : Charlie Batch of Detroit, Jake Plummer of Arizona, Rob Johnson of Buffalo, Tony Banks of Baltimore, Brian Griese of Denver, Jon Kitna of Seattle.
Batch showed considerable promise as a rookie in 1998, spent most of last season hurt and now has a knee injury that will sideline him until September.
Plummer looked sensational for two years and was awful last season. He also seems injury prone.
The Bills got Rob Johnson in a trade, then signed him to a $25 million, five-year contract. He got hurt, lost his job to Doug Flutie then got it back for the playoffs last season. With Flutie out until at least September, he has a big burden.
Banks was run out of St. Louis after three erratic seasons and is turnover prone. He had a good final third of last season, and the thinking is that coach Brian Billick, who has turned around quarterbacks before, can do it with him.
Griese's problem is that he's in Denver, where no one can match Elway's 17 seasons. Some scouts think he'll be fine if the Broncos shorten their pass patterns to accommodate his weaker arm.
Kitna is a work in progress. Even his own coaches don't know if he's the long-term answer.
5. THE BUSTS: It's hard to remember that some thought Ryan Leaf, not Manning, was the most talented QB in the 1998 draft. Leaf is back with San Diego, his shoulder is supposedly healed and he's said to have become an adult.
They said that about George, too. Chances are that if he succeeds, it will be elsewhere.
— Kerry Collins had two good years in Carolina, then flamed out.
— Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart. "Slash," one of the NFL's bright young stars of the mid-90s, is coming off two horrible seasons. He lost his job last year to 38-year-old Mike Tomczak and is competing for his job with Kent Graham, the ultimate journeyman backup.