NEW ORLEANS – The first Super Bowl I covered was in 1985. It featured two quarterbacks who, at the time, were considered stars of the future. Joe Montana was one. Dan Marino was the other. Montana, who eventually would win four Super Bowls, threw one of the softest balls around. Marino, even at that young age, barely could move from the pocket.
Today, I attend my 29th straight Super Bowl. And again, two young quarterbacks are featured. Joe Flacco is one. Colin Kaepernick is the other. Flacco is celebrated for a skill Montana never had: throwing the hardest ball in the game. And Kaepernick’s running talent makes Marino look like a tractor. A parked tractor.
Let’s be honest. The quarterback position is the most scrutinized job in sports – and it is constantly being reinvented. I think back over the years to one guy after another who represented the next big thing.
Montana was “it” because of short pass decision-making. John Elway was “it” because of movement and arm strength. Brett Favre was “it” because of accuracy under pressure. Ben Roethlisberger was “it” because of big body toughness.
Peyton Manning was “it” because he’d audible the offense like a computer. Michael Vick was “it” because he could run away. Now it’s Kaepernick and RG3 and Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, speedsters who can whip the ball and fool defenders from the trendy “pistol” formation.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t think any of these guys are the last word in quarterbacking.
Because the word keeps changing.
Kaepernick displays do-it-all talent
Tonight the word is “freak,” most often used to describe Kaepernick’s unusual combination of throwing, running and body strength. Teammates talk about protecting their fingers from his insanely hard passes. They marvel at his 6-foot-4 frame, his weight-room dedication, the way he can take off and leave entire defenses behind.
But, as Barry Sanders reminded me last week, none of this is new. “Players like that have always been around in high school and college,” Sanders said. “Quarterbacks who run and pass and do everything. But once they get to the pros, they want to protect you.”
He’s right. Think of any recent high school superstar and he’s likely a do-it-all talent like Kaepernick. The “freak” part comes in that Kaepernick is – so far – still doing it in the pros.
But tonight we will find out a more important detail. How does he handle the moment? Because the only thing that is consistent in Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks is that, when it mattered most, they ran up the hill and planted the flag.
Eli Manning is not the NFL’s most consistent passer. But twice now, when his team needed it, he made magic that led to a trophy. Tom Brady doesn’t flex his biceps or his calf muscles. But three times, he has commanded his team to championships, directing key drives and managing the clock.
It’s no coincidence that four of the past five Super Bowls have been decided on the final drive. Good teams can neutralize each other until something peculiar decides it: moxie, courage, leadership, maybe luck.
At some point tonight, Kaepernick will need all those things. He is making just his 10th start as an NFL quarterback and is playing only his third postseason game. True, this is a kid who popped off the bench in high school and college and had amazing performances. But the Super Bowl is not high school or college. The air gets thin. An overly excited Kaepernick could sail a few passes early, get picked by a tough Baltimore defense, and things could change.
Flacco’s style is tried and true
On the other hand, there is Flacco. Nowhere near as flashy. Nowhere near as fast. But he hasn’t thrown an interception in the past five games, he has eight touchdown passes in the playoffs and, unlike Kaepernick, has a gaggle of game-winning drives on his rÃÂ©sumÃÂ©.
“Dull” is how some have referred to him. And not exactly cutting edge. But his drop-back style is something that always has worked in football and always will – as long as you are accurate. More NFL passers have won a championship with that style than any other.
Maybe, in a few years, the blocking quarterback will be the rage. Or the 6-foot-10 quarterback. Or the jumper. Who knows?
I do know this. Nearly 30 years after I saw my first Super Bowl, all eyes remain on this position. And whoever keeps his head, avoids mistakes and rises to the moment is going to win tonight. Could be Flacco. Could be Kaepernick. Names change. Game remains the same.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.