Every NFL team over the years has fetishized its quarterbacks, perhaps because it’s easy to do.
The List of Hysterical Platitudes might include: You can’t win without a good quarterback . . . you have to protect the quarterback at all costs . . . the quarterback sets the tone for your entire franchise . . . the quarterback is your most important financial asset . . . playing quarterback is harder to master than quantum physics while on fire.
There are many others, but that is the state of play.
Still, few places have gilded and even cast the position in titanium quite like the Bay Area. The San Francisco 49ers have always been defined first and always by their quarterback, starting with Frankie Albert in the long-dead and utterly forgotten All-American Football Conference (ask your grandfather and hope for the best). Through Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie and through to the now, for nearly 70 years, 49er coaches, executives and fans have expended far more energy on the quarterback position than all the others, thrice over.
If there is an AFC equivalent, it is in Denver, where first Craig Morton, then John Elway and now Peyton Manning have made the Broncos a quarterback-centric organization. The Broncos do not go back as far with their fixation (Morton joined Denver in 1977 and shared Colorado’s attention with the Orange Crush defense), but they operate in the same way. Even if you take out their dark period (Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow), it matches San Francisco’s (Tim Rattay, early Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill).
And now, they bring Colin Kaepernick and Manning together in an odd role-reversal game on Sunday night (8 pm ET on NBC or online via Liva Extra). Role reversal, that is, in their stark differences to the best quarterbacks on their teams.
Kaepernick is most like John Elway, the standard for Denver quarterbacks, while Manning is closer than any other current quarterback to Joe Montana, the 49er exemplar. Montana began his 49er career as Elway was beginning his Stanford years, so the comparisons were even more stark given the geographical proximity.
Montana was drafted in the third round in 1979. As a “project” he watched Steve DeBerg take the beatings behind a porous offensive line, but even then Montana was being groomed by 49ers coach Bill Walsh to run the offensive scheme much of the NFL would envy and emulate. Montana was declared a “winner” from his time at Notre Dame, where myth often gives a touchdown in any bet with metrics, but his future in San Francisco was far less ethereal. Montana’s magic, such as it was, would be in molding his skills to Walsh’s offense, rather than the other way around.
Unlike any other quarterback in 49ers history, Montana won games not by exceeding his gifts but adapting them to his surroundings.
Which is how Elway cemented his place in the NFL.
As a collegian, Elway never even reached a bowl game. The most memorable moment during his college career was The Play. He entered the NFL as, weirdly enough, a New York Yankee, because he chose not to accept his draft assignment to the moribund-and-about-to-become-moribunder-still Baltimore Colts. Elway said he wouldn’t go, the Colts drafted him anyway and, after a highly charged draft day in which he reiterated his intention to play for George Steinbrenner before he would ever play for Bob Irsay, he was traded to Denver.
There, he would be defined by his frightening arm, his gangly speed out of the pocket and his willingness to try plays that even Brett Favre would find risky. Montana would win a Super Bowl in his third year; Elway would throw 605 passes during his. Montana became known as a January savant; Elway, as a January victim.
A lot like Manning as it turns out. Elway became defined as what he couldn’t do – win the big one – as Manning did later, only Elway lost three Super Bowls (including a record 55-10 rout to Montana’s 49ers in 1990) and had five other early playoff exits before finally hitting the jackpot in his 15th season. Manning only needed to wait nine years, but Elway heard the same can’t-win-the-big-one taunts, and did so in the fishbowl of Denver, where even his choice in Halloween candy became a matter of scrutiny. Elway was perceived as having engaged in a long-term cold war with head coach Dan Reeves, who wanted him to gear down to fit a conservative system, and Elway often rebelled at the restraints.
Montana won four rings and was the quarterback of the decade; Elway won nothing and was described as having everything but the resume.
Eventually, though, all things turn. Montana was crowded out of San Francisco by Steve Young and the cruel gravity of age, ending his career in Kansas City. Elway endured, became his own car-dealership conglomerate with help from Denver owner Pat Bowlen, and when he finally won his first championship, Bowlen made a point of defining it with his timeless “This … one’s … for … John.” He had outpaced Montana by actually becoming the city in which he played, and when Bowlen became ill, he became the team president and owner in all but cash.
And in doing so, he gathered Manning to recreate the good old days.
Manning was being eased out of Indianapolis after a significant neck injury, and though several teams (including the 49ers) made serious runs at him, Elway had the best selling point; he was Elway. And Manning had the best selling point for Elway; he wasn’t Tim Tebow.
The 49ers showed interest because while Jim Harbaugh had rehabilitated the career of Alex Smith, he wanted more than Smith’s careful, efficient, low-risk preparation. Elway, had something better to offer Manning – control of a team.
Manning took the surer thing, and Harbaugh replaced Smith with his own version of Elway in Kaepernick. But that’s history. The here and now is another matter entirely, and the stylistic collisions are obvious.
These are not exact matches, mind you. Manning is more demonstrative on field than Montana, the prototypical room-temperature savant, but both possess (or in Montana’s case, possessed) the ethereal gift of making the game around them slow down in their mind’s eyes, to find form amid the chaos, to subtly but decisively making the game conform to their dictates.
Kaepernick and Elway, on the other hand, are stylistic kin in that they both began their careers defined by their exceedingly strong throwing arms and willingness, even eagerness, to incorporate running into their repertoires. They unabashedly would throw across their bodies while running away from a receiver, secure in the notion that they throw too hard and too well to pay for what seems to be a mistake. Elway settled down later in his career when his legs started to bark from the wear and tear, but in his prime he was all big motions and big deeds, much as Kaepernick is now, for good and ill.
Manning replaced a series of less subtle artisans (Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow), while Kaepernick replaced the ultimate system quarterback in Smith. Smith struggled for defensive coaches in Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary and had only running back Frank Gore as a bona fide offensive weapon. He paid for the sins of his superiors, and it wasn’t until Harbaugh came (from Stanford, of course) to crystallize Smith’s gifts that he reached his zenith as an NFL quarterback.
But Harbaugh, perhaps channeling what he thought his own career could have been, fell madly in love with Kaepernick’s Elway-like characteristics, and switched Smith out and Kaepernick in at the first real opportunity he had, more than halfway into the 2012 season. And Denver, which had hit a gully while they stumbled to replace Elway, found their short-term salvation in Manning.
People with wisdom (in other words, conservative bet-hedgers) tend to discount trends as absolute predictors, and the mobile/big-armed quarterback revolution has not yet happened even though it was first predicted when Michael Vick was drafted by Atlanta nearly 15 years ago.
So it is that Manning and Kaepernick meet on Sunday Night Football, a game which will present the starkest of opposites. It isn’t old-school/nu skool or anything quite so prolix, but Manning is long past borrowing from quarterbacks barely half his age, and Kaepernick is years from absorbing the amount of second- and third-level subtleties of the job from Manning, if only because many of those things cannot be rushed into a brain.
For the moment, they are who they are, just as Joe Montana and John Elway were who they were 35 years ago, when the art of quarterback fetishizing was still in its infancy.