A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

So, the established head coach wasn’t totally sold on his QB. The QB had been successful, and been a major part of the team’s successful climb from the cellar, but the coach felt he should play better. The QB didn’t put in the film study the coach wanted, seemed to miss too many games due to nagging injuries, and could be more consistent throwing the ball. The coach said all the right things in support, but displayed his real feelings with his willingness to pull his QB for his backup.

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Isn’t Google News Archives great?

Don Meredith was one of the first installed in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, and spent years in front of the nation talking on Monday Night Football. That colors our perception of past events, and guides our interpretation. Here’s what really happened-

Don Meredith was the first player signed by the Cowboys, and spent only one year learning on the sidelines before being thrown into the fray as a starter on the expansion team. The Cowboys took six years to build into a competitive team. He was a natural leader, laid back under pressure and committed to winning. This was an era when the QB was expected to be the leader, as coaches (with the exception of Paul Brown) had not yet taken full control of playcalling duties away. There were clashes for control of the locker room between Landry and Meredith. Landry wanted less joking and tomfoolery (Meredith would break into song in the huddle sometimes. By all accounts, he had a nice voice.). Meredith wanted more freedom. They worked well enough together, and each brought enough talent, to build the Cowboys into a contender for the NFL championship, second only to Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.

In the mid-60s, the Cowboys drafted another good QB, Craig Morton. Landry had no qualms about playing Morton, who was a real talent (he would lead the Denver Broncos to the Superbowl years later). Landry preferred Dandy Don, but wanted Meredith to understand that he could be replaced.

An injured Meredith played poorly in a playoff loss in 1969. It was another disappointing end to a season, and Meredith was roundly panned by the media for his play (his teammates, aware of his injuries, were more forgiving). After the game, he talked of retiring. He admitted years later that he really wasn’t wanting to quit football at that time; he just wanted his team to commit to him. Instead, Landry announced a full QB competition between Meredith, Morton and, to be fair, Roger Staubach. When July came, Meredith retired.

The Cowboys would lose a Superbowl with Morton as QB, and win one with Staubach, finally losing the title of "Next Year’s Champion". Meredith stayed retired- he saw no point in signing with a bad team, and the good teams had QBs. Landry would admit later that he handled Meredith wrong and claimed to learn from the experience. You know, he was not a Hall of Fame QB; he needed a NFL Championship for that. His career passing stats are unimpressive, but passing statistics are notoriously dependent upon the era of play. He was considered one of the stars of the 60s, probably on a level with Fran Tarkenton and John Brodie, below Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas.

When Meredith died recently, his old teammates pointedly mentioned his hard work in their reminiscing.

The obvious question- is there anything to learn here with respect to Vince Young’s situation? Probably. For one, Jeff Fisher is no Tom Landry. When Landry had the same tenure as Fisher, he had coached four Superbowl teams and won two of them (with another to come the next year). He had revolutionized football with his motion offense and 4 - 3 defense.

Vince Young is no Don Meredith. Meredith was close to the local media, with a similar upbringing and common cultural views. Vince scares most sportswriters, his presence a reflection of the mean streets he grew up on. The country songs Meredith loved were all known by the Dallas sports media. The music Vince Young dances to is strange and scary to the Tennessee writers. There will never be confidences shared nor commiseration between the writers and Young. They are worlds apart.

I wanted to revisit the story to answer many of the commenters who like to claim Vince can never be successful because his coach says he doesn’t work hard enough, or that he’s too dumb (on the latter point, I’ve got a googled news story on 5th year pro Terry Bradshaw not knowing what plays to call on a two minute drill, and wasting a drive).

Successful athletes come in all forms, and frankly it’s a total copout for coaches to argue they need a Manning or Brady to be successful. Many successful quarterbacks had notable flaws in their makeup. Some (Stabler) had weak arms. Others (Bradshaw) were not the brightest. Others (Namath) had significant off-field distractions. Then there were guys like Joe Montana who managed to fall to the third round despite being an AA, MNC-winning QB from Notre Dame (too small, average arm, and not the sharpest were the reasons given). These guys all found success when paired with coaches that appreciated them for what they could do rather than blame them for what they couldn’t.

There is no guarantee Vince will find that situation. Meredith never did. Lombardi was a noteworthy fan, but he had a QB already at Green Bay, and the Cowboys were never letting Meredith go to Washington. Having flaws is not a sign of greatness, obviously. Overcoming flaws is. I hope Vince can succeed. I like watching the guy play.

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