Quarterback Sneak

Pile your bowl high with Flutie Flakes and get a load of this. Among the thirty National Football League quarterbacks who held starting jobs at the beginning of September, eighteen are, for one reason or another, out of the picture right now. In San Diego, errant Washington State rookie Ryan Leaf, owner of the worst rating in the game, has found a well-earned spot on the bench. Enter someone called Craig Whelihan. Elvis Grbac, who had returned from a dislocated shoulder last month, is suffering anew in Kansas City from a bad case of loudmouth complicated by galloping incompetence. Enter Rich Gannon.

In one disastrous Sunday afternoon, the powerful Minnesota Vikings lost both ends of their simmering quarterback controversy, Randall Cunningham and Brad Johnson, to injuries. Miraculously, Cunningham returned to the helm six days after knee surgery. In New Orleans, coach Mike Ditka Sunday used his eighth starting QB in 24 games, dating back to last year. Name five of them and win a plate of crawfish etouffee.

Here in Denver (in case you haven't heard) John Elway's perfectionist farewell tour has been periodically interrupted by a sprung hamstring, an aching back and, most recently, barbecued ribs. The legend has almost 50,000 yards on him, and all the moving parts seem to be wearing out at once.

Enter Mister Brister!
Meanwhile, of the twelve original NFL starters still standing in week eleven, only six play for teams with winning records. Here's to you, Messrs. Marino, Brunell, Stewart, McNair, Favre and Chandler. But please watch yourselves. You never know when you'll inhale anthrax on the way home from practice. Or get fatally sacked by a grocery cart. Or wind up spending the rest of the year in an interrogation room with Special Prosecutor Bart Starr.

If, on the first day of the season, the guy on the next barstool had told you that after eleven weeks the AFC's leading passer would be well-traveled Vinny Testaverde, who displaced Glenn Foley as the New York Jets starter, and that Grbac would rank sixteenth, you would have gently taken his beer away from him and called Yellow Cab. If the guy had further insisted that, after ten games, Green Bay sharpshooter Brett Favre would lead his conference only in interceptions, with sixteen, or that someone named Charlie Batch, displacing Scott Mitchell, would wind up at the helm of the Detroit Lions, you might have summoned the boys with the straitjackets.

Can it be that Kordell Stewart, Pittsburgh's beloved "Slash," has been loudly booed this year at Three Rivers Stadium? Impossible. How about 44-year-old Steve DeBerg, who hadn't played in five years, starting a game for the Atlanta Falcons? Never. And what of the Kerry Collins affair? Can the first-round draft choice on whom the hopes of the Carolina Panthers rode really have announced to his coach last month that, no, he really wasn't interested in starting anymore? Can it also be that Collins, quickly unloaded to the New Orleans Saints, would pop up a few weeks later on a drunken-driving beef in the very city he left in disgrace?

The astonishments of football at the highest level continue apace. Using Elway and Brister in unlikely tandem, coach Mike Shanahan has nailed together a perfect 10-0 start. Using (and using, and using) the beleaguered rookie quarterback Peyton Manning, Indianapolis has managed 2-8. The kid threw eleven interceptions in losing his first four games, but they say he's learning; unfortunately, neither hangnail nor flu nor concussion has given him a break from the dismal proceedings of his club.

Here's a name for you: Donald Hollas. In scenic Oakland, California, Hollas took up the slack for injured Jeff George on October 4 and won three straight games for the Raiders, who at 7-3 remain Denver's closest pursuer in the tough AFC West. And how about that Neil O'Donnell, who replaced starter Jeff Blake in Cincinnati this year? O'Donnell's defense-poor Bengals have a gruesome 2-8 record this year, but as of last week he was the fourth-ranked quarterback in the AFC, trailing only Testaverde, Elway and the Jacksonville Jaguars' sturdy young gun, Mark Brunell. Consider the afternoon of November 1: It took another patented Elway drive late in the fourth quarter to put away O'Donnell and the Bengals 33-26.

It doesn't much matter whether the hapless Washington Redskins start Trent Green or Gus Frerotte, or whether Philadelphia's flightless Eagles go with Bobby Hoying or Rodney Peete: Both clubs are in quarterback hell this year. So are the semi-dreadful 3-7 St. Louis Rams, who have pinned their hopes on Tony "can't take it to the" Banks. He's thrown more passes this year than anyone but Manning and San Francisco's Steve Young, but he's got only six touchdown strikes--as opposed to eleven interceptions.

The collapse of the highly touted Kansas City Chiefs--Denver's Monday-night win at K.C. means they've lost five straight and are headed into oblivion--can be largely attributed to a Swiss-cheese run defense, lousy special teams and a coach who has a knack for panic. But the aforementioned Mr. Grbac hasn't helped matters much. He ripped some of his teammates after losing to Pittsburgh on October 26, and the Chiefs haven't been the same since. After throwing three interceptions to the Jets November 1 and losing in Seattle the next Sunday, Marty Schottenheimer sent Elvis off to the Heartbreak Hotel for a lie-down. May as well put out the Do Not Disturb sign and keep ordering from room service.

That brings us, of course, to the dominant quarterback comeback stories of 1998--most of them long on geezerhood. Randall Cunningham, reborn in his twelfth season, has 1,942 passing yards, eighteen touchdowns and a conference-low three interceptions, which makes him the best in the league this year. His knee injury was a blip on the screen, and Minnesota's back in biz. There's also nine-year man Troy Aikman, of the Dallas Cowboys, who broke a collarbone September 13 here in Denver but has led his team to three straight wins since his return. In Atlanta, one of football's best-traveled but frailest tourists, Chris Chandler (ten seasons), has generally kept his health together and propelled the Falcons to a surprising 8-2 mark. Miami's 38-year-old Dan Marino, no longer strong-armed but still whip-smart, has picked up the scoring pace of late, and the defensive-minded Dolphins could be headed for a playoff spot. Forty-one-year-old Warren Moon may not be generating much offense in Seattle, but the 49ers' Steve Young, who at 37 might more aptly be called Steve Young-at-Heart, is fighting back from an injury himself but has San Francisco poised for the playoffs.

Inevitably, we finish with Doug Flutie, a child of 36. At five-foot-nine and 190 pounds, the former Boston College star was always deemed too small to play in the NFL and so spent eight years throwing footballs in the snowy wastes of Canada. Still, the Buffalo Bills signed him as a backup this year for the bargain-basement salary of $275,000. Three weeks later they traded for Rob Johnson, who got a $25 million contract for his trouble.

Could a boy's book read any better? Since Johnson went down with bad ribs on the third play of the Bills' October 11 game against New England, Flutie has completed 112 passes for twelve touchdowns, run in for a couple of additional scores himself and rejuvenated moribund Buffalo with a 5-1 winning streak. In western New York, where the chicken wings are hot and the winters are freezing, Flutiemania is running rampant. Grocery stores can't keep Flutie Flakes on the shelves, and all is well in the world of armed combat.

At least until next Sunday.

Barry Fey's over the moon. Since winning the million-dollar Breeders' Cup Sprint November 7 with a three-year-old rocket named Reraise ("Run, Barry, Run," October 29), the concert promoter and longtime horseplayer has been wearing out the videotape replay ("I'm still getting chills," he admits), playing the audio portion over the telephone for friends and generally feeling like he's 25 again and has just booked a bunch of English kids called the Rolling Stones.

"It was absolutely unbelievable," Fey says of Reraise's seemingly easy wire-to-wire win in the Sprint over equine monsters like Affirmed Success and Wild Rush. "After the first half-mile, I knew they wouldn't catch him."

Asked in the Churchill Downs winner's circle when Reraise would next race, an exuberant Fey blurted: "In about two hours. We wanna run him again in the Classic!"

In truth, Fey (who owns 60 percent of the swift gelding) and trainer Craig Dollase are aiming Reraise at the Malibu Stakes, scheduled for December 26 at Santa Anita. Fey's irrepressible confidence aside, the bar will be raised anew with the sprinter's return to Southern California. Reraise's opponents in the seven-furlong race, Fey reports, are likely to include 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet, as well as fellow speed merchant Old Trieste, a late-blooming three-year-old who has worked into peak form this fall.

"We'll be ready for them," Fey promises.

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