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No Longer Looking Over His Shoulder : At Least for Now, the Chiefs’ Steve DeBerg Is Unchallenged Starter at Quarterback

Throughout his NFL career, Steve DeBerg has had an uncanny knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Everywhere the veteran quarterback has gone, his territory has been usurped by younger players tagged as future superstars: first Joe Montana, then John Elway and Steve Young and finally Vinny Testaverde.

Montana is headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Elway probably is, too, and it is too early to rule out the other two. Through a remarkable coincidence that makes DeBerg wince, all except Montana were the first men taken in their respective drafts.

With obstacles such as that facing him at San Francisco, Denver and Tampa Bay, DeBerg has had to keep moving. And now that he seems to have become a bona fide first-stringer at last with the Kansas City Chiefs, he can’t help but wonder when his bubble will burst again.

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As one of the NFL’s nonpowers, the Chiefs are among the early favorites in the Troy Aikman sweepstakes. So are the Chargers, whom the Chiefs will meet Sunday in Kansas City.

Aikman, the trigger man for UCLA’s unbeaten team, is considered a cinch No. 1 pick in the 1989 draft. Even though the Chiefs are better off at quarterback than the Chargers, there is no way they could turn down Aikman if they had a shot.

DeBerg, 34, admittedly gun-shy about such matters at this point, talked about the danger of being joined by Aikman in a telephone interview from Kansas City.

“It’s almost a done deed that the guy is going to wind up here,” DeBerg said, half joking. “I don’t think this team will have the No. 1 pick, but there’s always the possibility of a trade.

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“I had another opportunity like this in Denver. Craig Morton was up in years, and when the Broncos took (offensive tackle) Chris Hinton in the first round (in 1983), I thought I was safe. I figured nothing could have been better. It was a great situation. A little later, they traded for Elway, and the situation wasn’t great anymore.

“Now that I’m here and starting, I can only hope Aikman goes someplace else. The more games I can help this team win, the less I’ll have to worry about that.”

DeBerg, now in his 12th pro season, was born in Oakland, attended Savanna High School in Anaheim, then Fullerton College and San Jose State. He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1977 but not until the 10th round (275th player picked), and that set the tone for his pro career.

Not only was DeBerg an afterthought, he was taken by a team that already had Roger Staubach and Danny White. Staubach has since gone into the Hall of Fame, and White hasn’t had a bad career himself.

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DeBerg didn’t make it through training camp with the Cowboys but was picked up on waivers by the 49ers. Montana eventually forced him out of that job, so it was on to Denver, and suddenly Elway came along. His next stop was Tampa Bay, where Young nudged him to the bench. Testaverde pushed him all the way to Kansas City.

It’s interesting to note how DeBerg’s market value has fluctuated over the years. The 49ers got him for nothing, the Broncos gave up a fourth-round draft choice, the Buccaneers a second and a fourth, and the Chiefs a fourth, an eighth and safety Mark Robinson.

Through it all, DeBerg has rarely been a bench-sitter. He has been more like a baby-sitter, holding the fort until the hotshot youngsters developed sufficiently to take over. He has started 81 games and thrown 3,070 passes, completing 1,741 for a 56.7%.

DeBerg wasn’t handed the starting job when he arrived in Kansas City. The incumbent, Bill Kenney, 33, is good enough to have gone to the Pro Bowl after the 1983 season. The fact that DeBerg beat out Kenney after just two games tells a lot about his ability.

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Still, much of the football world thinks of DeBerg as a journeyman, and a label he accepts without rancor.

“It comes with most of the territory,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of success in my career, and I’ve been put in some awkward situations. This is the first time I’ve been in a situation where I’m not competing with a young superstar quarterback and given the job of teaching him. It’s nice to have a quarterback my own age (Kenney) and have a situation where we can bounce things off each other and help each other.”

DeBerg doesn’t agree with those who think he has had an unlucky career.

“I’ve met great people, and I’ve lived in some nice cities,” he said. “I could have stayed in San Francisco and worn two Super Bowl rings, but I would have hardly played.

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“As it is, I’ve had the opportunity to go places where I’ve been able to play. Even though I’ve had 3 No. 1 picks in the entire draft come my way and have the franchises totally committed to them, I’ve been fortunate enough to go somewhere else and compete for starting jobs.

“I’ve played a lot. I went over 20,000 yards (passing) last week, and I’m proud of that. On top of that, I’ve stayed healthy, probably because I’ve played so many half-seasons.”

Along the way, DeBerg has given a great deal of advice to young guys who were waiting to boot him out of his job.

“I’m not a quarterback coach by any means,” DeBerg said. “But from what I’ve observed, a young quarterback can learn from a guy like me.

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“I’ve never had a problem with young quarterbacks, and I’ve never been unemployed. There’s always somebody who can use an experienced quarterback.

“I asked to be traded from Denver and Tampa Bay, and fortunately, those organizations worked with me and helped me out of bad situations. There was no question that Testaverde was going to be the quarterback in Tampa sooner or later. In Denver, they had Elway, and I would have been crazy to buck that. Montana was going to play eventually in San Francisco, and now Young is there, too. They’re all good friends of mine.”

Young now has almost equal status with Montana, and considering that he was the No. 1 pick in 1984 supplemental draft for USFL players, the 49ers’ deal for him last year was a steal. They got him from the Buccaneers for second- and fourth-round picks, a price that carried an intriguing touch of irony; it was precisely what the Buccaneers paid for DeBerg in 1984.

The Chiefs usually are mentioned in the same breath with the Buccaneers among the have-nots of the league, and DeBerg feels that his newest team has far better personnel.

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“My biggest impact role here is to help the Chiefs play up to their ability,” he said. “I don’t know why they haven’t. This is the best team I’ve played on. I’ve been waiting for this chance my whole career.

“It’s hard to evaluate my performance at Tampa Bay, because there just wasn’t much talent there. You can’t win in the NFL without a defense, and we couldn’t stop anybody. I would have one of my best games, and still we couldn’t win.

“That happened a lot with Dan Fouts in San Diego, too. The Chargers should have been unstoppable and racked up a lot more victories, but they didn’t have a defense.”

DeBerg has had many big days in his career, including 14 on which he passed for 300 or more yards, but none has topped his starting debut with the Chiefs last Sunday when they upset the Broncos. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions. In the process, he helped beat his old team, and most satisfying of all, he outplayed Elway.

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“That may have been my best performance ever,” DeBerg said. “It was a very special win. It’s nice to win your first game as a starter for a new franchise. Plus, it came against a team I had played for, and that made it even more special.

“It was tremendously exciting for me. I don’t know if it was the highlight of my career, but it was one of them.”

Can it be that DeBerg has finally found a home after all these years of frustration?

“Well, I’ve bought one here,” he said. “But after only one game as a starter, it’s hard to say. I bought homes in all the other places, too.”

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