They are the Sean Connerys and Harrison Fords of pro football. Like aging matinee idols who may have lost some hair and added some waist line, they still have that certain patina capable of magnetizing an audience and making a success of their productions.
They are the vintage quarterbacks of the NFL, and they are likely to have as much impact on the 1999 season as they did a year ago.
It would have been a far different season in '98 had not Randall Cunningham rescued the Minnesota Vikings and led them to the NFC Championship Game after Brad Johnson was injured.
Or if Vinny Testaverde hadn't filled the huge vacuum in New York, winning an unlikely division championship for the Jets in the AFC East.
Or if Doug Flutie hadn't confounded his detractors by leading the Bills to eight wins and a wild-card playoff berth.
Atlanta never received a whiff of a Super Bowl until Chris Chandler reached his personal maturity level and spurred the Falcons to the NFC championship, capped by a startling upset of the Vikings in the title game.
"It's the old story," says Brian Billick, new head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. "There is no substitute for experience."
Billick spoke ruefully. His new starter is Scott Mitchell. Mitchell may not have the right amount of patina on him yet. The Ravens are his third NFL team. Chandler didn't find real success until his sixth team.
There are now more vintage quarterbacks contributing dramatically to their teams' successes than there are prodigy quarterbacks ready to win much at all.
Consider some of the quarterbacks drafted within the last five years. Kordell Stewart not only is in crisis in Pittsburgh, he may be the crisis. Steve McNair remains a work in progress in Tennessee. Peyton Manning is being spoon fed in Indianapolis. The same for Charlie Batch in Detroit. Trent Green made some progress in Washington but then was traded to St. Louis when the Redskins dealt for Brad Johnson.
The only fast track for a young quarterback is in Arizona, where Jake Plummer passed the Cardinals to the playoffs last year, their first postseason appearance since 1949.
This season teams are depending more on vintage quarterbacks. Some of them are failing. Bubby Brister, a sub-.500 quarterback before he was signed by Denver in 1998, tried to replace John Elway. Two weeks before the season began, coach Mike Shanahan decided Bubby was not even a reasonable facsimile of Elway. The Broncos will roll the dice with untried Brian Griese, playing just his second season.
The Raiders signed journeyman Rich Gannon from Kansas City and installed him as their starting quarterback. San Diego, scarred by the immaturity of Ryan Leaf, signed two semi-antiques -- Jim Harbaugh and Erik Kramer.
Years ago, coaches used to say, "It takes four or five years to polish a pro quarterback." These days, unless the youngster is bona fide top of the line, it takes a lot longer. The game is far more complicated than it used to be.
Why? The quarterbacks of today are no smarter than the quarterbacks of 20 years ago, maybe less so. But consider the size of the coaching staffs. When the Bills went into business in 1960, their head coach, Buster Ramsey, had three assistants. This year Miami's Jimmy Johnson has 17 assistants.
What is there for all those guys to do? Plot. Figure out complicated strategies. Analyze and reanalyze the strengths and weaknesses of opponents. They also analyze and reanalyze the strengths and weaknesses of their own players. It's a much tougher thicket young quarterbacks must negotiate than their counterparts of two decades ago.
From the 1994 through the 1998 drafts, NFL teams selected 15 quarterbacks in the premium rounds (the first three). Seven are starting and only two are approaching star status -- Manning and Plummer of Arizona. No wonder coaches prefer experienced quarterbacks, even if they have a lot of mileage on them.
"Often it's a question of which team and what sort of offense the veteran quarterback gets to play," says Billick.
Almost all the success stories involve good teams on the cusp of winning big. As in the case of the Jets and Testaverde, all they needed was a firm hand at quarterback. It doesn't work so well with bad to mediocre teams. Philadelphia, a contaminated football area, has 31-year-old Doug Pederson as its starter because new coach Andy Reid brought him from Green Bay. But Pederson never started a game in his career. The betting in Philly is that rookie Donovan McNabb will become the starter in Week Six at Chicago, after the Eagles start 0-5.
Ty Detmer, a career backup, is an oldie but hardly golden. He didn't do much for the expansion Cleveland Browns this summer, and now rookie Tim Couch seems on the verge of becoming the starter.
A half dozen vintage quarterbacks made the playoffs last year, yet except for John Elway and Denver their teams were just looking for the last important piece.