Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Great Quarterbacks Are Hard to Predict

NFL quarterbacks are the most vital players to any team's success. But despite their importance, and the dozens of categories used to rate them, no one really knows what makes a great quarterback great.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And now, football quarterbacks. They're picked over in lots of statistical categories: yards per attempt, completions, interceptions. You know the rest. In a moment we'll take a look at one NFL quarterback who is under more scrutiny than most. First, why a quarterback's contribution to a team can't be quantified, at least according to commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: I've always thought that the most misnamed titles in sports belonged to shortstops and quarterbacks. Shortstops really ought to be called longstops, shouldn't they? And quarterbacks? Quarter is such a measly prefix. A two-bit back? Please! Quarterbacks are the whole package - the indispensable. Fullback is already taken, so...absoluteback? Consummateback?

Face it, there is no position in any team game so vital as the quarterback. Yes, a team with an absolutely fabulous defense can win without a good quarterback, like, most famously, the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. But that only proves again that even a blind pig finds an acorn every now and then.

It isn't either just a matter of a team being so much better when it has a fine quarterback. No, maybe even more valuable - having a good quarterback frees you so from thinking about the one most vital thing. And teams like the Indianapolis Colts or the New England Patriots simply possess a peace of mind that teams without good quarterbacks don't have. It's like having money. No, it can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you the luxury of letting you worry more about everything else.

And yet as absolutely, completely, totally crucial as the quarterback is to the game of football, even in these days of the most sophisticated scouting and analysis it seems as if our ability to predict who will become a successful quarterback is still primitive. The quest for a quarterback is still the modern search for the Northwest Passage, the Holy Grail.

Sure, the Indianapolis Colts appear brilliant for selecting Peyton Manning with the number one pick in the draft. But there are far more quarterbacks chosen with high picks including, it seems, Peyton's little brother Eli, who have turned out to ordinary or even worse.

And of course, all those geniuses who can assure you what players in other positions will be fabulous on the finite basis of how fast they run the 40 yards or how much weight they can bench press don't have a clue who will succeed at quarterback.

Perhaps the three greatest quarterbacks of their generations, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Tom Brady, were passed over for hundreds of other players before they were chosen. And there was Montana at Notre Dame and Brady at Michigan hidden in plain sight. But nobody could see. Nobody could tell. Nobody.

It's humbling. We think we're so smart. But we can't predict quarterbacks any better than we can predict the economy, earthquakes or Iraq. Measure arm strength, technique, I.Q. None of it really matters because the intrinsic command qualities somehow do not reveal themselves except over time, under fire.

This year, it seems that the desperate search for the quarterback of our dreams has become even more manic. Almost every week in the NFL, some team changes quarterbacks. Even this past Sunday, this late in the season, Denver turned over its team to a rookie quarterback, Jay Cutler. And the scouts are poring over who are supposed to be the best college quarterbacks for the draft.

It's the most crucial position in sports, but nobody has a clue. Nobody. Nobody can tell what it is that makes a quarterback a winner. Nobody.

AMOS: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford