There are two types of quarterbacks: Gunslinger and Game Manager. On Thanksgiving Night the two prototypes met at Lambeau to provide America with a touching moment. The ultimate Gunslinger, Brett Favre, was inducted into the ring of honor of the tradition-seeped Green Bay Packers. Joining in the ceremony was the first great Game Manager, Bart Starr.
Now 81, hunched and withered, barely able to stand after two strokes and a heart attack, Starr smiled with gritted teeth. And let’s be clear: No one ever had more grit than the Master of the Ice Bowl and winner of the first two Super Bowls.
His arm strength was average, and it was written that he “would be a liability for most teams.” But all Vince Lombardi asked him to do was hand off to Jimmy Taylor and Paul Hornung and complete the occasional third-down pass to Boyd Dowler.
In a sense, Starr was a lot like the game manager in the last two Super Bowls, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, known for handing off to BeastMode, throwing 25 times a game, protecting the football like it’s his mom’s favorite crystal.
It wasn’t that Bart Starr did much to guide his team to three world championships, it was what he did NOT do: lose games by turnovers, which more often than not determine who wins and loses.
It was a different era then, not like today when the quarterback routinely heaves the ball into a crowded secondary and counts on his high-jumping receiver to come down with it.
When the pass rush was bearing in on Starr, he did not look for a cinematic escape. He did not scramble or retreat or risk a fumble or interception by desperately launching from his back foot and putting the ball up for grabs.
He clutched the ball with both hands, brought it down to his chest and dropped to the ground like a bag of sand. No quarterback was easier to bring down. Or harder to pick when a game hung in the balance.
Favre, the greatest Packer of the 1990s, was the most entertaining of all gunslingers and was the first I recall being designated as such. He stood in the pocket waiting for a receiver to break open, and just as a pass rusher was about to engulf him he would twist away, often throwing on the run or running for a first down or more. He turned sacks into touchdowns but also into more than a few interceptions.
There may never be another quarterback who will combine Favre’s electrifying talent with passion that would overcome broken bones in his hands and feet – 321 games played without any being missed from illness or injury.
He broke not only his own bones but those in the fingers of his receivers. In true gunslinger style he kept a chart in his locker to keep count, like putting notches on the handle of a six-shooter.
As they gush about Favre and his exuberant determination, Joe Montana and his cool precision, John Elway and The Drive, sports reporters today tend to bemoan the quality of NFL quarterbacking. But I doubt any other decade had a group of quarterbacks more accomplished than Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers.
All these men have won at least one Super Bowl, except for Rivers, surrounded by inept linemen, injury-prone receivers and unimaginative coaches, but hey, that’s another story.
On almost an annual basis the NFL rulebook is revised to bring more protection to the passers and catchers. Wide receivers now seem more interested in drawing flags than in making the catch. Whatever that may be.
So the quarterback’s importance continues to rise. Teams that committed to pounding the ball — Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams – are finding that you’ll fall hopelessly behind if you can’t hit your shots downfield. The Vikes, Rams and Niners aren’t doing as well adjusting as the Seahawks, after they entered their bye week 4-4.
That’s when Wilson reinvented himself as a gunslinger. With Marshawn Lynch sidelined by injuries, Wilson crushed the myth that he’s too short, at under 5-11, to stand in the pocket and pass to the middle of the field.
Probing all areas of the defense, he’s thrown 16 touchdowns in four weeks, with no interceptions, averaging 292.8 yards, 75 percent completions.
His leading receiver, Doug Baldwin, said, “He’s always been magnificent outside of the pocket, but now he’s doing something he hasn’t done up to this level inside of the pocket.”
Wilson has developed much like another undersized quarterback, Brees, who bore the dread designation Game Manager when he was in San Diego handing off to LaDanian Tomlinson. In New Orleans, Sean Payton freed him to fill the air with footballs.
But sometimes the evolution goes the other way, from gunslinger to game manager. Aaron Rodgers, who was Favre’s understudy in Green Bay, is now happy to hunker down with the ground game. Eddie Lacy and Committee combined for 44 carries and 230 yards against a Dallas defense that didn’t seem to mind being pushed around.
Since losing game-breaker receiver Jordy Nelson in preseason, the reigning MVP Rodgers has not found receivers open downfield. So he’s adopted the running game, and it’s working, the Packers leading the NFC North at 9-4.
Favre once said, “When I hear game manager, I’m thinking of someone who’s not trying to win the game.”
Indeed, the game manager is trying more not to lose it. Wilson, like Brees, Brady and Rodgers, has become an expert at building a lead and — something that’s just as important — protecting it.