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Injuries demonstrate importance of star QBs in today's NFL

St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner wasn't in Phoenix Monday night for the 49ers/Cardinals game, but the San Francisco coaches might have invoked his spirit.

Seconds away from halftime, the Niners watched in horror as Arizona cornerback Aeneas Williams blazed in and leveled Steve Young, handing the star quarterback and franchise centerpiece his fourth concussion since 1996. Young regained consciousness shortly but spent the rest of the game on the sidelines. Twenty-four hours and one MRI later, Young heeded medical advice and decided to shut it down for at least a week.

And what, you ask, does Kurt Warner have to do with any of this? He's the former Arena Leaguer who stepped into the starting role vacated by the injured Trent Green and piloted the heretofore hapless Rams to explosive wins in each of their first two games. The Niner hierarchy has its collective fingers crossed that anonymous rookie Jeff Garcia can do the same for them while Young is out.

But unfortunately for San Francisco, the situation in St. Louis is an anomaly, probably the result of some Faustian deal on the part of Warner. Throughout the nation, it is becoming increasingly evident that today's NFL is a league centered around its quarterbacks.

That may not sound like news, but it does represent a significant departure from a mindset that was widespread until recently: defense comes first when building a championship team. Obviously defense is crucial, but a quick glance at the last four quarterbacks to hoist the Lombardi Trophy (Elway, Favre, Aikman and Young) reveals the importance of having a superstar under center.

Just ask the Denver Broncos. The two-time defending champs sit at 0-3 on the young season. What's going on here? They've only lost one key member of their Super Bowl team. Well, when you replace one of the best quarterbacks in league history with a 37-year-old journeyman and/or a guy with one NFL completion to his name, you're in for a challenge.

The QB scenario isn't looking any rosier in New York or Atlanta either. The Jets, anointed in the preseason as the likely AFC champion, lost Vinny Testaverde for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon eight minutes into the season opener. New York immediately shut down the green-and-white bandwagon and prepared for a return to the days when "JETS" stood for "Just End The Season."

Certainly the season-ending knee injury suffered by running back Jamal Anderson in Week Two doused any Falcon hopes of a return to the Super Bowl, but their bid for a respectable follow-up season took a serious blow when quarterback Chris "China Doll" Chandler tweaked his hamstring again. Has anyone ever heard of this Tony Graziani fellow? He took over for Chandler in Sunday's 35-7 loss to St. Louis, a defeat that gave the Dirty Birds the same 0-3 record as the Broncos and the Jets.

Yet, as even the teams with healthy QBs have found, the old axiom that 90 percent of life is showing up doesn't hold true in the NFL. Having a star quarterback doesn't mean anything if he's not playing like one.

The Steelers can tell you that. After watching Kordell Stewart implode last season, Pittsburgh revamped their offense to get him back on track to stardom - or at least mediocrity. He dominated the expansion Browns in a 43-0 season-opening victory, but regressed severely in Sunday's horrendous 29-10 loss to Seattle, throwing for only 61 yards before getting yanked at halftime. Even with running back/freight train Jerome Bettis behind him, Stewart is the key to Steeler success.

The Redskins and Lions are two examples of teams finally winning because of great quarterback play. Washington's Brad Johnson has managed to stay healthy long enough to engineer a 2-1 start. He has thrown for 854 yards thus far, good for second in the NFC. In the Motor City, budding star Charlie Batch and the 2-1 Lions have shown that maybe the ship Barry Sanders abandoned wasn't sinking after all.

But if any team recognizes the importance of quarterbacking in the NFL of the late 1990s, it should be the team Joe Montana and Bill Walsh made a dynasty. The 49ers maintain that Garcia can keep the offense rolling until Young returns, but when they head east to face - who else? - Kurt Warner and the Rams in two weeks, they know they need Young at the helm.

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