In John Elway’s first NFL start for Denver in 1983, he completed 1 of 8 passes for 14 yards with 1 interception. Before the Steelers drummed him from Three Rivers Stadium with an elbow injury, they sacked him 4 times.
Retired quarterback Dan Fouts says he has long since forgotten his first NFL start for the Chargers.
“Most of my rookie year,” he says, “is a blur.”
Clearly a case of selective retention.
Let the record show that Fouts completed 12 of 30 passes for 183 yards in Oakland on Oct. 14, 1973. The hated Raiders sacked him once and intercepted 1 of his passes. The Chargers lost, 27-17.
Now consider Terry Bradshaw’s first NFL start with Pittsburgh: 4 of 16 for 70 yards, 1 interception and 0 touchdowns. That was 1970. Three years before that, Bob Griese completed 11 of 22 for 101 yards with 2 interceptions for Miami against Kansas City in his first NFL start.
The pattern is clear. Some pretty good NFL quarterbacks have had some pretty awful debuts as starters.
“You usually get your first start because your team is not very good,” Griese says.
Which brings us to Mark Vlasic, the second-year quarterback the Chargers will start for the first time in Atlanta Sunday.
“We don’t know much about him,” Atlanta Coach Marion Campbell says.
“Nobody’s seen much of Mark,” Charger Coach Al Saunders says. “ We haven’t seen much of Mark in game situations.”
Vlasic’s professional experience consists of 6 passes and 3 completions in a Denver blizzard at the tail end of a 24-0 Charger loss in last year’s season finale.
What is known is that history will not be on Vlasic’s side. But doesn’t mean he won’t have a few things working in his favor when he lines up behind center Dan Rosado to take the first snap.
-- The Falcons are 3-7 and have allowed more yards than any other team in the league except Pittsburgh.
-- The Falcons are among the league’s worst draws. Last Sunday, only 29,952 people showed up at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. There is no reason to believe any more will see the Chargers (2-8). And it means Vlasic will be able to go through his paces in an atmosphere more akin to a laboratory than a caldron.
-- The Falcons generally play a conservative defense with little taste for the blitzes and stunts that send inexperienced quarterbacks off the field on stretchers.
Five weeks ago, Seattle’s Kelly Stouffer, 9 months younger than Vlasic, made his first NFL start against these same Falcons in Atlanta. He responded by completing 11 of 21 passes for 164 yards. He threw no touchdown passes, but he didn’t throw any interceptions either. The Falcons sacked him twice. Mostly, he handed off to running backs Curt Warner and John L. Williams, who rushed for 110 and 50 yards, respectively.
Vlasic won’t have that luxury. The Charger running game ranks 20th in the league. Seattle ranks 12th.
Still, Fouts says, “I think this is a real good situation for Mark Vlasic. Atlanta’s defensive philosophy is more passive than many others. They’re not going to be overly aggressive.”
The Falcons have 21 sacks, half as many as the Rams’ league-leading total. If the Charger coaching staff had waited 1 more week to replace Mark Malone with Vlasic, guess which team his first start would have been against? (Hint: its home field is in Anaheim.)
Vlasic could have used a little of Fouts’ swagger Monday when reporters asked why the Charger coaching staff has pointed to him with one hand while beating back the flames of a 6-game losing streak with the other.
“If anything, I have youth,” said Vlasic, who turned 25 last month. “I don’t know what else you can say. I feel confident I can get the job done.”
In college, Vlasic played behind Chuck Long, now the injured quarterback of the future for the Detroit Lions. Vlasic didn’t become the main man at Iowa until Long left for the pros in 1986. Vlasic started 8 games his entire college career.
“The thing Mark has to do is be loose,” Long says. “If the pass isn’t there, throw it away.”
Long’s first NFL start was against the defending league champion Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football in the second-to-last game of the 1986 season. The week before, against Tampa Bay, he had thrown a 37-yard touchdown pass on his first regular season play.
The Bear defense was in the process of setting an NFL single-season record for fewest points allowed. And, to compound the pressure, the crowd in the Pontiac Silverdome was the Lions’ biggest of the year. Anybody with a microphone, a tape recorder, a pen or a pencil wanted to interview Long that week. By the time they played the national anthem, Long was about ready to burst.
“It was a very nervous feeling,” he says. “No doubt about that. But I was excited at the same time.”
Long completed 12 of 24 passes for 167 yards and 1 touchdown. And the Bears needed a 22-yard field goal by Kevin Butler on the last play to win, 16-13.
But Vlasic watched on television as the Bears sacked Long 6 times.
Vlasic watched from the sidelines at the Chargers’ season-opener this year as two other quarterbacks made their first NFL starts. Raider Steve Beuerlein completed 13 of 29 passes for 171 yards with no interceptions and only 1 sack. Babe Laufenberg completed 17 of 29 for 195 yards for the Chargers.
But the Raiders sacked Laufenberg 5 times in 108-degree heat at the Coliseum, and won, 24-13. After the game, Laufenberg suffered severe dehydration and needed an intravenous solution.
“I think maybe I was trying to be too fine,” Laufenberg says now. “I kind of talked myself into: ‘Geez, their DBs are gonna be all over our receivers.’ Rather than just putting the ball in on our wide receiver, I was trying to be too fine and make the perfect throw.
“I think the tendency is to give whoever you’re playing too much credit. You’ve got to just throw the ball in there. I don’t mean throw into coverage. But if you’ve got a close defense, just throw the ball in there and hope your guy gets it. Every ball that they get their hands on is not going to be an interception.”
In other words, respect everyone and fear no one.
And even more important, Fouts says, don’t get discouraged.
“If you throw an interception or get sacked, don’t make that a bigger play in your mind than it is,” he says. “Bear down on each individual play and don’t try to win the game all by yourself.”
Vlasic appears to understand that much already.
“How the offense performs will determine how long I stay in there,” he says.
Vlasic is taking over an offense designed for mobile quarterbacks with scrambling mentalities. Vlasic, 6-feet 3-inches and 203 pounds, is a classic, strong-armed, dropback passer. That’s why Jerry Rhome, Charger offensive coordinator, has talked about “building a game plan around him.”
Saunders says one of the reasons the Chargers didn’t give Vlasic a chance earlier is they wanted the offensive line to “solidify.” Sunday will mark the fifth consecutive game the Charger line has started as a unit.
And, yes, Saunders says, the game plan will change.
“We have to do it differently,” he said, “to maximize Mark Vlasic’s skills and to minimize his deficiencies.”
“I think at this point you’ve just got to hope that a change will rally the team,” Rhome says.
Just as they did for Laufenberg and Malone, the Charger assistants will call Vlasic’s plays. That, Griese says, makes it much easier.
“I had to call my own plays in my first start,” he says. “And a lot of times I had made the wrong play call even before the snap of the ball. That burden is lifted today because quarterbacks don’t have to call their own plays.”
With rare exception, there is no good time for a first start. Buffalo’s Jim Kelly completed 20 of 33 for 292 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 1986 season opener, but he had the luxury of 2 years of on-the-job training in the USFL before joining the Bills. In 1982, Chicago’s Jim McMahon completed 16 of 27 for 233 yards and 2 touchdowns in his first start. But McMahon benefitted from that game being the first after a 57-day strike.
Besides Beuerlein, Laufenberg and Stouffer, Indianapolis’ Chris Chandler, Houston’s Cody Carlson and Washington’s Mark Rypien all made their first NFL starts this year. Dallas’ Kevin Sweeney will be making his first start against Minnesota Sunday night.
In his debut, Chandler completed 10 of 18 passes for the run-oriented Colts in their 15-13 victory over Miami Sept. 25. He is 5-2 as a starter and hasn’t been sacked in his last 4 games.
Carlson replaced the injured Warren Moon in Week 2 and completed 21 of 34 passes for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 38-35 victory over the Raiders. He subsequently fractured his throwing thumb when it hit the helmet of Oiler offensive lineman Bruce Davis. Moon is back as the starter.
Rypien didn’t know until the Thursday night before the fourth game that he would be starting in place of Doug Williams, who needed an emergency appendectomy. He completed 26 of 41 passes for 303 yards and 3 touchdowns in Phoenix. But the Redskins lost, 30-21.
Sweeney, 5-11 1/2, who was selected 3 rounds after Vlasic in 1987, replaced Steve Pelluer during last Sunday’s 29-21 Cowboy loss to the New York Giants and almost rallied them to victory. He completed 19 of 37 for 189 yards and 3 touchdowns.
By mid-week, the Cowboys (2-8) were attributing a 2,000 increase in ticket sales to Sweeney’s heroics.
“When you’re 2-8,” Sweeney said, “the No. 2 quarterback is the guy everybody loves.
“I just hope my start is not just a fly-by-night thing. Everyone has to be given a chance. I hope after 1 game they don’t say, ‘He can’t do it. He’s too small.’ ”
Or, in Vlasic’s case, “He’s too immobile.”
Vlasic has been working tirelessly with Rhome on that shortcoming since the beginning of the season.
“Scrambling was just something I never had to do in the past,” Vlasic says. “I feel I’m a lot better at that now.”
Fouts says that kind of confidence will help.
“The psyche of a young starting quarterback is very fragile,” he says.
Vlasic first learned he might start in Atlanta as he was leaving San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium with Rhome Sunday night. The Chargers had just lost, 13-3, to the Raiders. They had failed to score an offensive touchdown for the third time in 5 home games.
Vlasic asked Rhome if Atlanta was going to be the week. Rhome looked back at Vlasic and said: “You wanted your opportunity.”
That was all he said. But the implication was clear. And Saunders made it official Monday afternoon.
Vlasic’s opposite number in Atlanta will be Chris Miller, also a second-year quarterback. Miller made his first start last year against the 49ers in San Francisco. He completed 13 of 36 for 136 yards with 4 interceptions and 3 sacks.
“My first start was a disaster,” Miller said this week. “The 49ers were all over me. I was terrible.”
Miller threw 4 more interceptions the following week. But today he is judged around the league as one of the two or three most promising young quarterbacks in the NFL.
For Mark Vlasic, there is hope.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS First NFL starts of selected quarterbacks (Elway did not complete game; PC--Passes completed; PA--Passes attempted; I--Interceptions; S--Sacks; NA--not available):
Name, Team Opponent (Game, Year) PC PA Yds TD I Bob Griese, Miami Kansas City (1, ’67) 11 22 101 0 2 Roger Staubach, Dallas St. Louis (1, ’69) 7 15 220 1 0 Terry Bradshaw, Pitt. Houston (1, ’70) 4 16 70 0 1 Dan Fouts, Chargers Oakland (5, ’73) 12 30 183 2 1 Jim McMahon, Chicago Detroit (3, ’82) 16 27 233 2 3 John Elway, Denver at Pittsburgh (1, ’83) 1 8 14 0 1 Warren Moon, Houston Raiders, (1, ’84) 12 29 201 2 0 Jim Kelly, Buffalo N.Y. Jets (1, ’86) 20 33 292 3 1 Chuck Long, Detroit Chicago (15, ’86) 12 24 167 1 1 Don Majkowski, G. Bay Denver (2, ’87) 10 20 121 1 1 Chris Miller, Atlanta at San Francisco (14, ’87) 13 36 186 0 4 Steve Beuerlein, Raiders Chargers (1, ’88) 13 29 171 0 0 B. Laufenberg, Chargers at Raiders (1, ’88) 17 29 195 1 1 Cody Carlson, Houston Raiders (2, ’88) 21 34 276 2 1 Chris Chandler, Indian. Miami (4, ’88) 10 18 110 0 1 Mark Rypien, Wash. at Phoenix (4, ’88) 26 41 303 3 1 Kelly Stouffer, Seattle at Atlanta (5, ’88) 11 21 164 0 0
Name, Team S Result Bob Griese, Miami NA L 24-0 Roger Staubach, Dallas NA W 24-3 Terry Bradshaw, Pitt. NA L 19-7 Dan Fouts, Chargers 1 L 27-17 Jim McMahon, Chicago 3 W 20-17 John Elway, Denver 4 W 14-10 Warren Moon, Houston 5 L 24-14 Jim Kelly, Buffalo 1 L 28-24 Chuck Long, Detroit 6 L 16-13 Don Majkowski, G. Bay 3 T 17-17 Chris Miller, Atlanta 3 L 35-7 Steve Beuerlein, Raiders 1 W 24-13 B. Laufenberg, Chargers 5 L 24-13 Cody Carlson, Houston 4 W 38-35 Chris Chandler, Indian. 4 W 15-13 Mark Rypien, Wash. 4 L 30-21 Kelly Stouffer, Seattle 2 W 31-20