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Debate renews on QB injuries

Conventional wisdom says you don't fix what ain't broke. But has anyone noticed how many quarterbacks have broken into little pieces in the season's first four weeks?

Nine teams already have had to turn to their backup quarterbacks because of injury. Phoenix has had its starter go down twice, and Cleveland has fielded three different quarterbacks in three weeks. If Detroit's Rodney Peete misses today's game against New Orleans as expected, the body count will stand at 10.

All of which has sparked renewed debate on the rules that protect quarterbacks. Do they need fixing?

One man with a vested interest thinks so. Leigh Steinberg, a sports attorney/agent who represents 23 NFL quarterbacks, argues that the war of attrition among quarterbacks is affecting the NFL's competitive balance. To counter the game's change to passing-dominated offenses, Steinberg proposed in a recent column that quarterbacks receive at least the same protection provided a punter _ no contact allowed after releasing a pass in the pocket.

In deference to the laws of momentum, defenders are currently allowed to hit quarterbacks if they're within two steps when the ball is released.

"Sometimes even one step shouldn't be allowed because it could be avoided," said Buc Vinny Testaverde, who's taken his share of shots. "There should be some kind of rule that you can't hit below the waist. But it's a tough call. We know it's a physical game. I guess that's why we get the big money."

"Regardless of what the rules are, it's always going to come down to a referee's judgment," said ex-San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts. "You'll never find any two who call it the same. I wouldn't go so far as giving them the same protection as a punter, but hitting below the waist should be illegal. But you can't make it illegal to touch the quarterback at all. Then you're taking away from the game. That's why you have three quarterbacks on your team. It's a game. You can't fix everything."

Citing last year's Stan Gelbaugh (Phoenix) versus Brad Goebel (Philadelphia) matchup, Steinberg says what can be fixed is worth fixing.

"What I've suggested might not be the most effective way to do it, and I know the purist will say you can't put a dress on the quarterback," Steinberg said. "But the nature of football has changed. We need to err on the side of protecting quarterbacks."

It's now or never: With Keith Jackson already gone, and 27 other Eagles set to be free agents after this season, Philadelphia could be the team that free-agency killed. "There's a possibility that this could be one of the teams that break up," said Reggie White, one of the potential free agents. "Free-agency could be the worst thing that ever happens to this team in the future. They've taken every guy except Randall (Cunningham) through the mud in negotiations."

South of heaven: Players argue that free-agency won't upset the competitive balance in the NFL, but isn't it funny how it can upset team harmony? The ink was barely dry on Jackson's four-year, $5.9-million deal with Miami when incumbent tight end Ferrell Edmunds said: "You've got to wonder what they're thinking. Even (Mark) Clayton and (Mark) Duper aren't making that kind of money."

Clayton chimed in, promising that there would be animosity over the contract among Dolphins, calling it a sign that management has "no loyalty" to equally deserving Dolphins.

Super host: Six years after his ignominious two-season stint with the Bucs, Leeman Bennett at long last has made it to the Super Bowl. This week, the only winning coach the Atlanta Falcons ever had was named executive director of the Atlanta 1994 Super Bowl XXVIII host committee. "I guarantee you it's easier (getting there this way)," said Bennett, 54.

Them again?: When Phoenix hired longtime Redskins assistant Joe Bugel in 1990, it did so with the expressed intent of overcoming the Cardinals' inability to beat Washington. But since coming west, Bugel is 0-4 against his old team, having been outscored 123-24. But that's just part of the Cardinals' fine tradition against the Redskins. The franchise has lost seven straight to Washington, 14 of 15, 19 of 21, 23 of 26, and 28 of 32. The last time the Cards posted consecutive wins in the series was 1974.

More than a feeling: How loud was it in the Superdome during last week's 49ers-Saints game? "I couldn't hear (quarterback) Steve Young at the line of scrimmage," said 49ers center Jesse Sapolu. "I snapped the ball when he goosed me."

The man upstairs: With the Raiders 0-4 and on an eight-game, regular-season losing streak, L.A. coach Art Shell took play-calling duties away from assistant Terry Robiskie and gave them to assistant Tom Walsh.

"I wasn't running the whole show no matter what anybody thinks," said Robiskie, in a veiled reference to owner Al Davis. "I don't make the calls on which running backs to play." Speaking of Eric Dickerson, the ex-Colt has lost 15 straight games in which he has played.

Super swindle: Making plans to attend Super Bowl XXVII Jan. 31 at the Rose Bowl? Don't forget that second mortgage. The Pasadena host committee is pushing the following "patron packages": Bronze _ $995: end zone seat, parking, lunch, and a souvenir; Silver _ $1,250: sideline seat, parking, lunch, souvenir; and Gold _ $1,750: premium seat, parking, celebrity brunch, an ex-NFL coach's pregame talk, post-game dinner, souvenirs. Ticket prices are expected to rise again, from $150 last year to $175 this year. The expected paid gate is $18,025,000.

Parting shot: Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer, on Denver quarterback John Elway: "I really don't want to try to evaluate him until my coaching career is over. When that happens, I'm going to step back and figure out how much money John Elway has cost me."