Anatomy of the quarterback’s perfect quarterback.
“Pro quarterbacks,” says Dick Thornton, formerly one himself as well as a great defensive back, “are the ultimate heroes.”
So they are. These days, among star athletes and more ordinary heroes, quarterbacks in professional football have become Super People. They are rich (Toronto Argos pay Joe Theismann 50 grand a year), revered (they draw far more fan mail than players in any of the other positions), brainy and sophisticated (they operate out of playbooks as thick as a Herman Wouk best seller). To Jim Trimble, who coached Hamilton Tiger-Cats to five league titles, quarterbacks are “like the general manager of a large corporation.”
Which, for me anyway, introduces a quandary. Who can relate to a general manager? Who can relate to today’s pro quarterbacks?
I could relate to Nobby Wirkowski. He was a little guy permanently on guard against the forces of adversity which visited him on a regular basis. When he came from Miami of Ohio University to the Toronto Argos in 1951, he displaced a popular favorite, Al Dekdebrun, and the fans booed him, even when he took the team to a Grey Cup in 1952. “Toronto’s most misunderstood athlete,” a line read in the Globe and Mail back then. Eventually Wirkowski was moved along to Hamilton TigerCats, then Calgary Stampeders. He used to throw his passes with a grand motion, like a jock playing touch football on a Sunday morning, and his specialty was the bomb, that favorite of all touch football devotees. Good old Nobby. He seemed human.
But, I ask myself, how human are today’s quarterbacks, those super people, with their marvelous techniques and their secret new skills?
Joe Theismann answered a question I hadn’t asked him.
“The greatest thing that ever happened to me,” he said at the beginning of our talk, sitting in the empty stands at the CNE Stadium one summer afternoon, “was marrying my wife Cheryl. Married life gives me something to hold on to. For me, marriage is number one.”
About quarterbacking, Joe . . .
“Also I love my kids, really love them.”
Theismann is working on an image. “The way the media sees you,” he told me later on, “is the way most fans are going to see you.” He was making sure I saw him as a reverse Joe Namath. Joe Theismann, Family Man.
His looks are straight out of a TV commercial. He’s tousle-haired, handsome-faced, wide-smiling, deepchested, trim-bottomed, and not all that tall. (Does Argo publicity exaggerate? It says Theismann is six feet. I, at five-footsix, didn’t have to glance up too far to go eyeball-to-eyeball with Joe, a conversational stance he favors as part of the straight-shooter image.)
Theismann has phenomenal stats as a quarterback. All-time offensive champion, passing and rushing combined, at his university, Notre Dame. Runner-up to Jim Plunkett (now New England’s quarterback) for 1970 Heisman Trophy as the U.S.’s number one college player. Led Notre Dame over Texas in 1971 Cotton Bowl, passing for one TD, running for two more. Top passer in CFL East during 1971 rookie year with Argos — 148 completions out of 278 attempts for 2,440 yards and 17 touchdowns. Broke his ankle in 1972, a season about which he says, “I don’t even count it as part of my life.”
Theismann, still only 24, adjusted with breathtaking speed and adroitness to Canadian quarterbacking.
“Number one thing I did was strengthen my arm,” he said in his quick, vivid talking style, the words tumbling out helter-skelter. “The big field
up here means you got to throw maybe 45 yards across and 15 ahead just to complete a little sideline pattern. Nobody notices that, but it’s tough. So I worked out three hours a day throwing the ball and I increased my arm strength by half as much and my weight by 15 pounds.”
Little things mean a lot?
“Not so little. See, basically a quarterback is born with certain attributes. The same way a sprinter naturally has speed, a quarterback naturally is born with a quick release” — i.e., the ability to throw a pass without undue delays that allow the defensive line to upset the play — “which cuts down right there on the number of people who are going to grow up to be quarterbacks. You’re born with attributes, then you’ve got to work on them in practice. Throwing balls is my business. I concentrate on that.”
But does Theismann have a guiding philosophy behind his approach to quarterbacking?
“It reads on my visa, ‘Entertainer.’ That’s how I see myself. I’m earning the kind of salary that I can dedicate my whole time to football. I’ve got an obligation to give out 150% to the fans because they’re inadvertently paying my salary. That’s my approach.”
A few days after the conversation, Theismann gave a demonstration of his quarterbacking techniques — quick feet, whippet arm, bubbling air of sensation — during a game that Argos won from Saskatchewan Roughriders, 25-13. The demonstration narrowed down most exquisitely to a series of five consecutive plays in the second quarter beginning at the Argo 48, first and 10 for Toronto.
First play: wide receiver Eric Allen, his speediest receiver, cuts into the Saskatchewan secondary, running left to right, and Theismann hits him on the money with a swift
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Wrist — Ealey, Hamilton
For a passer who isn't strong-armed (that’s Chuck) the secret is in the wrist. Flick. Completion.
Shoulder — Liske, Calgary
The bomb? A sideline flare?
A quick pitch to the flat?
Pete’s your all-round passer.
Elbow — Lancaster, Regina
Three seconds are all it takes Ron to unload the ball. They’re why he’s the master of the quick release.
Legs — Theismann, Toronto
Joe’s whippet running chalks up more rushing yards than most halfbacks gain.
Boots — Jonas, Winnipeg
It helps to hold a kick or two in reserve. Don does. He boots field goals and converts.
Height — Rae, Toronto
First you have to see your receivers. Mike can. He’s one of the tallest passers
Confidence — Jonas, Winnipeg
Interceptions and other disasters don’t faze Don — he still figures he’ll finish ahead at the final gun.
Hands — Mira, Montreal
Now you see it, now you don’t — George puts a magic spin on his 0***. ball-handling.
Heart — Wukmson, Edmonton
He's short, potbellied and chews tobacco but he's all heart. Teammates run through brick walls, even defensive lines for Tom.
Body — Keeling, Ottawa
Jerry must be durable — he put in the first half of his pro career as a hard-nosed defensive back.
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pass thrown straight as a clothesline.
Second play: Theismann, waiting for the ball from centre, shuffles his feet and throws his own linemen offside. Five yard penalty against Argos.
Third play: Theismann runs to the left, taking short, fast, tap dancer’s steps that barely lift his feet off the ground, and travels in a straight line angling toward the sideline, frustrating all tacklers until he’s out of bounds at the Saskatchewan 19-yard line.
Fourth play: Theismann flexes his most recent muscles and throws a pass across the width of the field, left to right, to wide receiver Ken Matthews who is tackled on the Saskatchewan five.
Fifth play: Hand-off to Leon McQuay for the touchdown.
Theismann, watching McQuay score, executes a quick, little, businesslike leap of triumph.
In the projection room off the Hamilton Tiger-Cat dressing room at Ivor Wynne Stadium, the barrel-chested man wearing nothing but a cigar, white socks and a jock strap, was giving proper hell to another man. The first man was an assistant coach, the second man was a defensive end, and the two of them were examining films of the end in action in the previous week’s game.
“Lookit there,” the coach shouted around his cigar. “You didn’t have a clue what was happening!”
“Right,” the man mumbled.
“You shoulda let him have the forearm. That’s what the Lord give it to you for.”
Then the Main Man made his entrance into the projection room, Chuck Ealey himself, Hamilton’s all-star quarterback, exuberant, radiating good humor in his diddy-bopper walk. He had a long-pronged afro comb stuck nonchalantly in his mini-afro hair. His face *• wore a generous, open look. And he gave off the serenity you associate with one of life’s winners.
Which Ealey is. His high-school team in Portsmouth, Ohio, won all 30 games he played in. His college team, Toledo University, did the same in the 35 games he quarterbacked. In his one year of CFL football, 1972, he was top passer in the east, an Eastern Conference all-star, winner of the Schenley Rookie Award, and Most Valuable Player in the Grey Cup game, which his team won.
Ealey and I left the coach and the end to their film lessons and he led the way to a couple of chairs in a small cubicle beside the coaches’ quarters. He began by explaining, casually but to the point, that it was one particular adjustment in •his play that got him going as Hamilton’s hotshot quarterback last season.
“Down in Toledo I was strictly a rollout quarterback. I’d take the ball and
run out to either side ready to throw or take off. Up here, about midway into the season, coach [Jerry] Williams taught me to drop straight back instead, hang in the pocket and pick out my receivers. That gave me two quarterbacking styles to work with, drop back and roll-out.”
And it was when he accomplished the adjustment, Ealey didn’t bother mentioning, that Hamilton went on a 10game winning tear that eventually took the team to the Grey Cup. He mentioned, though, that the change to dropback passer meant negotiating one tough problem.
“The thing is that I’m not a real strong-arm quarterback like Don Jonas and those guys. I don’t throw hard, so I have to make up for that with another ingredient, which is timing. I lay the ball in there at the exact split second that the receiver’s open. Or I try to.”
In everything Ealey said, he showed a simple open-and-shut attitude to his role in football. Was it tough to read defenses? Not so much, he shrugged, just study films beforehand and see how certain defensive guys always do certain things and store up that information for the game. Any favorite receiver? Oh man, everybody on this team can catch the ball.
Tommy-Joe Coffey, the former great Hamilton receiver, says of Ealey that he’s never seen a rookie show “so much poise, so much discipline, so much unassuming confidence in himself.” And those were the qualities that stood out when Ealey summed up for me what his job was all about.
“I call the play and then the margin of error in carrying out the play is gonna be real small. I’ve got 3.5 seconds, four at the most, to get a pass off. So I’ve got to have a whole rhythmatic system going for me. The other guys on the team know what they have to do and where they’re supposed to go in those 3.5 seconds. I take the ball from centre, drop back, do a quick read of where everybody is and let the ball go. That’s the job done.”
On the field in a game against the Argos later in the week in which I talked to Ealey, he didn’t look much like a quarterback. The football pads emphasized his chunky build, and any fan seeing him for the first time would take him for a power-running back, someone who gets the call in short-yardage situations. (Ealey also looked smaller than the six feet that the Hamilton publicity awards him. Hmmm, was there some kind of height conspiracy afoot?)
The contrast between Ealey’s quarterbacking style and Joe Theismann’s in the Hamilton-Toronto game was dramatic. Ealey played in a cool, methodical, nearly invisible manner; Theismann was flamboyant and skittery. In
passing, Ealey threw a softer ball than Theismann’s whipping drives; Ealey’s passes came in light and with the end up, undoubtedly easier to catch.
As it happened, Theismann had the hotter hand, and feet, in the game, which Toronto won by three points. Theismann completed 15 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns, and he careered around the field for a net rushing gain of 91 yards. He looked fabulous.
Ealey was hardly shattered. “Long season still to go,” he said afterward.
On the phone in his Winnipeg Blue
Bomber office, the team’s assistant general manager, Gary Hobson, was blasting a caller whose name, amazingly enough, was Mr. Blank. A Bomber season ticket holder, Mr. Blank was objecting to the team’s release of Jim Thorpe and Mack Herron, offensive stars from 1972 who had been nabbed by the Mounties in two separate drug busts. Mr. Blank considered the releases, coming before the players’ trials, unjust. He wanted his tickets canceled and his money refunded.
“That’s a crap attitude if you don’t mind my saying, Mr. Blank,” Hobson
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barked into the telephone. “I’ll tell ya, I sure as hell didn’t vote NDP in the last provincial election but I’m not about to leave the province just ’cause they won. That’d be the same as you’re doing — quitting when you don’t agree with management.”
“Attaboy, Gary,” Don Jonas, the Winnipeg quarterback, said from a chair in Hobson’s office, looking as if he’d like to ram the phone down Mr. Blank’s throat. “Give ’im hell.”
Jonas, I recognized from the start, was a different kettle of fish from Theismann and Ealey. He’s a veteran, 34 years old, a man who’s been around, and with his experience and expertise, he’s honed a personality that’s direct, honest and assertive. He has a landmark of a jaw, jutting and aggressive, and his body — though, you’ve guessed it, he isn’t especially tall — radiates enormous strength.
Jonas grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, rugged coal-mining country. He was a tough running back at Penn State, and he spent half a dozen years in the Atlantic Coast and Continental pro leagues where he was a perennial allstar at quarterback. He moved to Canada in 1970, first with the Argos, then in ’71 with Winnipeg where he blossomed
as a passer (27 TD tosses in 1971) and as a leader (’7 l’s Schenley Award winner as the CFL’s best player).
Of all Canadian quarterbacks, Jonas seemed to me to have the most football smarts, a fact that became clear in conversation after we adjourned from Gary Hobson’s office — “Look Mr. Blank, you’re damn lucky to get your money back” — to the empty trainer’s room down the hall.
“It takes plenty of years to figure this game out,” Jonas explained. “Keying, for example. When I call a pass, I know where my receivers are going, but I don’t know where the other team’s linebackers are going. I have to find out. So I key on one of them. That means I send a man in motion, then I watch for a reaction in one particular linebacker or cornerback. I make the defense move, in other words, and then I know how to counter it. Sound simple? The hell. Not when you got 12 guys moving on both sides.
“Years ago, I used to waste a whole first half of a game trying to work out how I could operate against the other team. Now we do that in advance by putting together a game plan. We look at films of the other team’s defense and
we figure out ways to put our strength against their weakness. Isolate our speed on the other guys’ slow spots. Like a miniature battle.”
Jonas has a reputation as the country’s premier drop-back passer, a man who can hold on in the protective pocket of his linemen for the right moment to throw the ball while all around him meaty defensive linemen are threatening to beat him into the ground.
About that, Jonas said: “Part of the secret is the two types of series we have in our offense. One is the real quick release where I set up only four yards back of the line and my receivers break off their pass patterns at six or eight yards down field. That annoys the defense because we’re moving the _ ball on very short but very reliable completions. Second series is where I set up eight yards back and the receivers go twice as deep. That means the defense can’t barrel in on me in time to stop me throwing, which also annoys hell out of them. The trick is to alternate the two series perfectly and keep the defenses always off balance.”
Jones figured his job this year boiled down to one essential task.
“Moving the ball. And I don’t care how I do it. Last year we moved it real well, and if we don’t do it this year, people’ll say it’s because those guys” — meaning Mr. Blank’s Herron and Thorpe — “are gone. I want to move it so the team gets the confidence that, damn it, we can do it. Thing is, I got to be the leader out there.”
Mysteries about quarterbacks still hung unanswered. This business of height was one. Gil Brandt, chief scout of the Dallas Cowboys, the team that has the most sophisticated talent-rating apparatus in pro football, insists that a quarterback these days must be at least six-foot-two because a shorter man can’t see enough of the field over the giant defensive linemen. And yet the quarterbacks I’d encountered — Theismann, Ealey, Jonas — were comparatively short guys. How essential is height anyway?
And is it possible to pinpoint exactly the qualities a quarterback must carry around with him? Jim Trimble, the long-time CFL coach and now a personnel executive with the New York Giants of the NFL, has tried. Arm, running, native intelligence, leadership, savvy and durability: these are the necessaries Trimble seeks. Incidentally, in rating the CFL quarterbacks he observed during his negotiations in Canada, Trimble places Russ Jackson, once of the Ottawa Rough Riders, as number one. Awarding a maximum of five points for each of the six essential qualities, Trimble gives Jackson 29 points out of 30, dropping him only on his arm, and that’s a high tribute for the last Canadian-born CFL
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quarterback. But the questions remain, are they exclusive and are they enough?
I phoned Dick Thornton. He should know. Thornton was a substitute quarterback and an all-star defensive back for 12 years with Winnipeg and Toronto. He was cut from Argos this season, so football insiders say, only because he was too independent in his opinions.
Thornton and I got together at the bar of the Old Spaghetti Factory in Toronto. He was turned out in a natty summer outfit featuring white leather loafers. He looked fit and, around the eyes, rather menacing. He drank Tuborg, smoked cigarettes through an elegant holder, and he made his no-nonsense reputation plain from his opening remarks: “What football is all about is broads, dope, getting your bread and getting out in one piece.”
Then he disposed of the height matter: “Crap. The NFL wants big quarterbacks so they can stand up under the pounding they get in a long season. But in Canada you don’t need to be tall to function as a good passer for the simple reason that the wider field up here spaces the players out. That gives the quarterback, no matter what size he is, time to look around and find whoever he wants.”
Thornton sorted out one quality he says a quarterback must have: “He’s got to be one of the guys. He has to have the rapport that’ll make the other players work for him. You take Tom Wilkinson [of Edmonton Eskimos, formerly of Argos] — he’d come into the dressing room, a pot-bellied guy, with his mouth full of chewing tobacco, dressed like a Manitoba pants salesman. Looked ridiculous, but he had the respect of everybody, and they’d give 100% for Wilkie.”
Once the rapport is established, Thornton said, a quarterback can go at his job in different ways: “Jonas does it with confidence. Doesn’t matter what happens on the field, fumble, interception — Jonas keeps coming back big as life. Ronnie Lancaster at Saskatchewan has the quickest release of any passer. Theismann is tops for versatility. He’s the most all-round gifted athlete and he hasn’t even come close to his potential yet. Ealey’s a good athlete, too, and he’s got the edge on Theismann in the department of picking out his secondary receivers when the primary receiver is covered. With Joe, once he sees the primary guy covered, he takes off and runs.”
Thornton fitted another cigarette into his holder. “Every CFL quarterback has to be fantastic,” he said, “and every quarterback is fantastic for a different reason.”
Nobby Wirkowski, 47 years old and a Canadian citizen now, lives with his wife
and four children in Mississauga, Ontario, and makes a good living as athletic director at York University. I drove out to his house and met him, a man with formidably erect posture and hardly any grey in his hair. He has a splendidly deep voice, broadcast quality, and bright blue eyes, intense enough to stare a hole in adversity.
We sat on his patio with a pot of tea, and Wirkowski, often looking away from me into the middle distance as if the past, 1952 Grey Cup and all, lingered out there, talked football with intelligence and affection.
He had some enlightening things to say about today’s quarterbacks. “Sometimes they outthink themselves. For example, when a particular pass pattern works a couple of times, they’ll stay away from it because they think the defense’ll be on guard against it. That’s baloney. If a pass works, throw it eight, 10 times.” And: “The drop-back passer has it over the roll-out. Your drop-back guy can always see the whole field in front of him, but the roll-out, by the nature of his style, cuts himself down to the third of the field he’s running towards.”
But I found Wirkowski most appealing when he reminisced just a little.
About the fans’ booing: “A quarterback isn’t paid to play up to the fans. There were times, when I was quarterbacking, when I’d find all my receivers covered and I’d deliberately throw the ball away so it wouldn’t be intercepted. Well, when the fans’d see that they’d think I couldn’t hit the ass end of a cow with a bull fiddle. But better they should think that than I should have a pass intercepted.”
About the bombs he threw: “I didn’t throw many long ones really. Uly Curtis, who was the premier all-round running back I ever saw, used to work on them in practice with me. Then in a game when he figured a defensive back was set up for one, he’d tell me in the huddle or on the bench, and we’d throw it. Usually worked.”
About his own talents: “Did you know that the eastern conference didn’t start keeping records up here until 1954? All those touchdown passes I threw in ’51, ’52 and ’53 not in the records. In 1952,1 only had eight passes intercepted in about 400 throws. Not in the books. I regret that.”
Regrets. Well, Wirkowski has none about the riches and recognition that today’s quarterbacks earn, money and fame unheard of in his day.
“You should never begrudge anything,” he said. “But there’s one thing — once a quarterback negotiates a big salary, he should take his money, keep his mouth shut and perform like hell on the field.”
Good old Nobby, still a quarterback I can relate to. ■