KID KOSAR LEARNING ON THE RUN

CLEVELAND — Bernie Kosar came walking back to his locker, grinning like a thief.

“You won’t believe who just called me,” he whispered to fellow quarterback Garry Danielson.

“Who?” said Danielson.

Kosar leaned over and mumbled a woman’s name. Danielson slapped him wickedly on the stomach, a locker-room slap, which, if spoken, might come out,
“You STUD!” Kosar, tall and curly haired — a little on the Big Bird side, actually — slapped Danielson back, and the two men broke up laughing. The reporters, standing nearby, gazed on with half-smiles. They got it. They didn’t get it. Because the quarterbacks were somewhere the reporters can never be. They were on the inside, warm in the womb of NFL brotherhood. Experienced. Battle-wise.

Gary Danielson, 35.

And the starter, Bernie Kosar.

Age 22.

What do you think of Kid Kosar now? Two springs ago he rode his bicycle home from football practice at the University of Miami, and announced that he was turning pro. He had played only two years of college ball. “Where’s he going?” people said. “Where’s the rush?”

He is the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns today, running the offense on the field, trading barbs in the locker room. One of the boys — sorry, one of the men. The rush was inside his head. And when things swirl there, you might as well try holding back a tornado. “He is,” Danielson said,
“as quick a thinker as I have ever seen.”

How young is too young? How soon is too soon? Surely he’d ride the bench for a few years. Rushing a young quarterback can only snuff out his confidence, right? Archie Manning, Jim Plunkett, Norm Snead. It happened to them.

“Who?” Kosar seemed to say. He took over the reins in the fifth game of his rookie season, at age 21, when Danielson went down with a shoulder injury. He fumbled his first snap, then completed his next seven passes, and led the Browns to a victory over the New England Patriots, a team, you might recall, that later went on to the Super Bowl. How young is too young?

Today — though he still has plenty to learn — the job is his. In reality, when he came off the field against the Patriots, Kosar was already just a scratch away.

It didn’t take long . . .

Long . . .

. . . Did someone say Chuck Long?

Well, if Bernie can, why can’t Chuck? You know that’s the question for Detroit fans when the Lions play Sunday at Cleveland. Same goes for LA Rams’ fans, who are waiting for rookie Jim Everett to take over out there.

How soon is too soon? People recall Danny White’s long apprenticeship under fellow Cowboy Roger Staubach, and they say “That’s healthy.” Then along comes Kosar, who helps get his team to the playoffs in his rookie season. And who knows?

“How long should it take to be an NFL starter?” someone asked Kosar after practice on Wednesday.

“I don’t know,” he said, pulling off his sweat-soaked clothes. “Most quarterbacks are pretty competitive. It’s easy for other people to say, ‘Sit back and learn. Take a year off.’ But most quarterbacks would rather do their learning on the field.”

“Do you think they should all start as soon as they’re ready?”

“Well, I don’t have that much of a feel for it,” he said, shrugging. “I mean, I’m the only first-year quarterback I know.”

Understand this: Bernie Kosar is not your average farm- kid-with-an-arm. He is bright to the point of almost wasting his time with football. He holds a finance degree — earned in less than three years — follows the stock market, casts himself a political conservative and reads everything in the paper “except the sports.” He carries himself with a detached sort of leadership, curiously quiet, so you sometimes get the feeling that deep down he knows everything — everything — and it’s just a matter of peeling away the layers until he gets to it.

That, as much as his arm, has him running Cleveland’s offense when most guys his age are learning how to type a resume.

“Unbelievably smart,” Danielson said. “In practice, he’ll ask questions of the coaches that really challenge them. Like why are we doing this? Why don’t we attack that? A lot of the questions I find are right on the tip of my tongue. The same thing I was about to ask, he asks. Only he’s in his second year. I’m in my 11th season. It’s eerie.”

Kosar is football’s answer to the fast-track, the Harvard MBA who blinks into a $100,000-a-year job, the law school student who clerks for a Supreme Court justice. It is not just “what?” with him, it is “how soon?”

“Didn’t you have second thoughts about giving up on college so quickly?” he was asked.

“Not really,” he said. “Professional athletics is where you have your best chance to grow as an athlete. I had reached my peak in college. I wasn’t progressing at the rate I have since I got up here.”

“Is that really important to you, your rate of progress?”

“Exactly.”

“In everything?”

“Yeah. In everything.”

It didn’t take them long to figure that out in Miami. Kosar helped lead the Hurricanes to the national championship in his freshman year. He was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s football issue the following fall, trading “We’re No. 1” fingers with Dan Marino.

He was 20. What else was left?

There was the beach. There were his buddies. But football- wise, sophomore year was predictably a disappointment. Sure, the Hurricanes made it to the Fiesta Bowl, and Kosar finished among the leaders for the Heisman Trophy, but who needs to stick around for that?

From the time he was a kid in Boardman, Ohio, he seemed to know what he wanted, and what he wanted in 1985 was to play for his hometown team, the Browns. A cagey — some would say downright dirty — manipulation around draft time last year slipped him out of the clutches of Minnesota, who wanted to draft him, and into the hands of the Browns, who got him as a supplemental draft pick. Not long after, he had a four-year, $5.2 million contract.

And his college degree.

Any kid quick enough to pull that off shouldn’t have trouble taking snaps in the NFL.

“Isn’t it a lot different up here,” someone asked, “now that you’re in a business?”

“College football is a business, too,” he said. “Really, the only difference between the NFL and college is team speed — and the fact that college players don’t get paid.”

He smirked.

“Supposedly,” he added.

As Kosar spoke, Danielson, who has a fractured left ankle, leaned against his crutches and listened. The former Lions quarterback, the oldest player on the Browns, has seen the kid take his job while he languishes on the injured reserve list.

Yet Kosar considers Danielson his closest friend on the team, and their relationship is clearly not something concocted by coaches. How can a guy who remembers the Beach Boys doing “California Girls” relate to a guy who thinks David Lee Roth invented the song? How young is too young?

“I think the age difference actually works well for us,” Danielson would say later. “I don’t think he feels threatened by me, nor me by him.

“There’s no doubt Bernie knows the intellectual side of the game. He has an overall feel for things out there. The little things, like when to look off his primary receiver, how long to stay with another receiver, feeling a blitz, feeling when the blitz is a fake. He plays football like Isiah Thomas plays basketball. He knows where everyone is at all times.”

True, Kosar has been criticized for his lack of mobility — he runs like a stork — and for his unorthodox delivery of a football. But never for his brains. Oh, no. In Kosar, the Browns have a motherlode of field smarts. So far this year, he has completed nearly 59 percent of his passes, 762 yards, two touchdowns, only one interception.

So what if he doesn’t have to shave that often? Too young? What can he say? As gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson once answered when asked whether drugs and alcohol make a man a better writer: “Well, it’s always worked for me.”

So there he is, Bernie Kosar, gawky, slow, and one of the most promising quarterbacks in football. Is he one of a kind? Or the prototype for all young quarterbacks currently holding clipboards?

“All I know is practice is never the same thing as a game,” he said, scratching his mop-top head. “Just the timing and the ‘liveness’ of it all. I don’t think I started too soon. I prefer to learn on the run.”

He pulled on a shirt and began to button it. “The most important thing is learning how to use all 10 guys around you, and getting them to believe in you,” he said.

“Once you do that, and you learn your offense, there’s no reason you shouldn’t play.”

So what do you think about Kid Kosar now? He is starting, isn’t he? He is winning some games, isn’t he? He is making locker-room jokes with the veteran he replaced. Isn’t he? And he is 22.

You shake your head. You feel old. But then again . . .

“Do you think Chuck Long should complain?” someone asked him. “Maybe ask to be put in? Tell his coaches he’s ready?”

“Well,” Kosar said. “It’s not really Chuck’s decision. That’s up to Monte and his staff.”

“Darryl,” someone corrected.

“Darryl?”

“Monte Clark doesn’t coach the Lions anymore. It’s Darryl Rogers now.”

“Oh. Darryl. Sorry.”

See? He’s doesn’t know everything. CUTLINE Bernie Kosar, the Cleveland Browns’ 22-year-old starting quarterback, cools off during training camp.

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