Southern Quarterbacks

Jul 23, 2008, 3:36:56 AM by Bob Gretz - FAQ

There was a time in football when quarterbacks from one geographical area dominated the game. Eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania was the land of quarterbacks.
That time has passed. Like the manufacturing and steel industry jobs that have left the Rust Belt, so to have the quarterbacks moved on.
Now, if you are looking for the offensive leader, the guy to throw the ball and direct the offense, there is a new quarterback belt. Its western boundary is the Sabine River. Its eastern boundary is the invisible dividing line between the Eastern and Central time zones.
Today, the quarterbacks come from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Brett Favre, Steve McNair, Jake Delhomme, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, JaMarcus Russell and Philip Rivers all came from this territory. Same with not so famous names like Jason Campbell, Cleo Lemon, Brock Berlin and Travaris Jackson.
So has the Chiefs current starting quarterback, Brodie Croyle.
Why has the Land of Quarterbacks shifted? There are demographical, sociological and institutional issues. In many ways, it’s a story that matches the evolving nature of 21st Century America.
The state of Texas is 660 miles across and high school football is king there, as evidenced by the network television show Friday Night Lights. According to population estimates in 2005, there are almost 23 million people living in the state.
Last year, four quarterbacks started games in the NFL that were from Texas.
Florida has close to 18 million people and some of the most talented and athletic football players in the country. Only three starting quarterbacks called the Sunshine State home.
Ohio and Pennsylvania combined for eight NFL starters with roots in those states. Add New York to the mix and it’s nine. Throw in the District of Columbia and it’s 10.
Yet, that’s still no match for LA-MISS-AL.
The Gulf Coast has become the breeding ground for NFL quarterbacks.
It’s 490 miles across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Combined, the three states had a 2005 population of just over 12 million people.
Yet last year, 11 quarterbacks from those three states started games in the NFL. There were grizzled veterans like Favre and McNair. The last two Super Bowls have been won by Louisiana quarterbacks, the brothers Manning. Delhomme and Rivers continue to try and elevate their teams to spots among the league’s elites. And there were youngsters getting their first chances to start like Campbell, Jackson, Lemon and Croyle.
OK, so what’s in the water that in LA-MISS-AL that makes quarterbacks?
“High school football,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. “Down in that part of the country, high school football is very big and very important.”
Gailey knows. As a college head coach over the last six years at Georgia Tech, he and his staff have recruited heavily in the Southeast.
“Most of the high schools down there have spring football, just like the colleges,” Gailey said. “I don’t think that’s the case most places around the country.
“Combine that type of commitment and interest and that’s going to increase the stakes.”
Ohio and Pennsylvania do not have spring practice for football. Never have.
“Fall was for football, winter was for basketball and the spring was for baseball or track & field,” said former Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, an eastern Ohio native. “That was the calendar and everybody did that.”
As a young high school quarterback growing up in Alabama, Brodie Croyle took part in football practice every spring. “We had four weeks of spring ball,” said Croyle. “Once a week we would have a full-out scrimmage. People would come and watch the scrimmages.”
And much as it did more than 50 years ago for a young Ohio quarterback like Len Dawson, that type of interest and attention creates a pressure cooker that teaches a young LA-MISS-AL quarterback very early about dealing with the position.
“There’s a lot of attention on the high school game,” said Croyle. “As a quarterback, you are exposed to a lot of things that prepare you for the next step. You learn the lesson early that when you win, the quarterback gets too much credit, and when you lose, the quarterback gets too much blame.”
Said Gailey: “They’ve been through the wringer down there. Even in high school, they go through the wringer. They grow up understanding that if you are the quarterback, there are certain expectations on the field and off the field. You are under the microscope down there, you really are. So much of what a young quarterback has to learn to deal with is the stuff the surrounds the game, whether in the locker room or outside the team. It’s a big part of his development. Quarterbacks, who have come out of places where the spotlight is on high school football, get that lesson then, when they are 16, 17 years old. They learn early how to deal with everything else about the position.”

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The opinions offered in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Kansas City Chiefs.
A former beat reporter who covered the Pittsburgh Steelers during their glory years, Gretz covered the Chiefs for the Kansas City Star for nine years. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Board of Selectors. He has been the senior columnist for the Chiefs web site since its inception.
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