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It's the year of the QB

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 1999



BOSTON

The one thing clear about the National Football League season, which begins Sept. 12, is that nothing is clear.

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That's the joy of football, American style. Experts predict who is best, then players play. The players always come up with the correct answer. It's a game loaded with sophistication. Its nuances are many.

But the best way to figure what's likely to happen is to look at each team's quarterback. If he's experienced and good and stays healthy during the 16-game regular season, his team has a superior chance to be in the hunt with the big dogs. Conversely, inexperience, inability, or injury at QB will doom a team to nipping and yipping at the heels of opponents.

The 31-team National Footbal League (NFL) is divided into two conferences, the American (AFC) and the National (NFC). The winner of each conference plays in the Super Bowl, this time in Atlanta, Jan. 30. Each conference has three divisions. Here's how they're shaping up:

AFC WEST

Denver has won the Super Bowl twice in a row and the Broncos are saddling up to go rope a never-accomplished third straight. They have enormous talent - notably premier running back Terrell Davis - and even more notably, the best and smartest coach working, Mike Shanahan.

All is well and in place. Except that the Broncs' starry QB, John Elway, retired. Journeyman Bubby Brister, out of football in 1996 because nobody wanted him, has been Elway's backup in recent years and now gets his job.

Brister won four games as a starter last season when Elway was hurt, but filling in and starting are different tasks. Chris Miller was signed with an eye toward having him as No. 2 quarterback, and perhaps, No. 1. But his career has been slowed by head injuries and now, arm troubles. Brian Griese will be good some day but maybe not these days. Fortunately for Denver, it plays in the weakest of the six divisions.

Next best: Seattle looks most likely to challenge - except its QB is Jon Kitna. He did pass in one game for 456 yards and seven touchdowns, but that was when he was playing at Central Washington against Pacific Lutheran. Only two seasons ago, Kitna was competing in Spain.

However, the Seahawks, 8-8 last year, have a star coach, former Packer boss Mike Holmgren. He's making more than $4 mil a year, so expectations are high. Kitna's receivers are adequate. But Seattle is a classic underachiever. It must play closer to its talent to improve its results substantially.

Others: Kansas City fired coach Marty Schottenheimer after years of frustration but is lost in the weeds. Proud Oakland has been humbled and will remain so. San Diego may have made a cataclysmic mistake a year ago, drafting misbehaved and poorly performing QB Ryan Leaf No. 1. Then he was injured the first day of practice last month. Vet Jim Harbaugh gives a sliver of hope.

AFC CENTRAL

This should be a year to remember for Jacksonville. Quarterback Mark Brunell has poise and savvy. Even better, Brunell has standing near him on each play running back Fred Taylor, him of special talent. And maybe even better, Brunell has in front of him the two best offensive tackles in the league, Tony Boselli and Leon Searcy. The Jaguar defense still needs work, especially the pass rush. It's looking better in the early going. Jacksonville, 11-5 last year, has sniffed at success. This year it should end up inhaling.

Next best: Probably Pittsburgh. But that depends on whether QB Kordell Stewart, a five-year veteran, can get it back together. He has been dreadful of late, and the Steelers have been funk-prone; in 1998, they lost six of their last seven games. Running back Jerome Bettis ("the Bus") is around, motor always running, but looking as if his transmission is wearing out.