Two Michigan State quarterbacks were decisive losers in the first round of the NFL playoffs last weekend: Kirk Cousins with Washington and Brian Hoyer with Houston. There was some alarm expressed on Twitter that the Spartans had not had a starting quarterback in a winning playoff game since Earl Morrall with Miami in 1972.
This caused my mind to turn into a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives — the issue being, did the Gophers ever have a quarterback start in a winning game (regular season or playoffs) in NFL history?
Better yet, did the Gophers ever have a quarterback start an actual NFL game?
The answers to both of these questions are, “Sort of.’’
Mike Hohensee came to the Gophers as a junior college transfer in 1981 and had impressive passing stats in two seasons. In 1987, he was tending bar in Maryland when the NFL players went on strike at the end of September and the owners decided to field replacement teams.
Hohensee was signed by the Bears and went 2-0 — beating Philadelphia 35-3 and the Vikings 27-7. He was injured for the third game played by the strikebreakers and the Bears lost 19-17 to the Saints.
Then, the real players caved in, as has become a tradition with the NFL Players Association, a very weak-kneed union compared with their baseball and basketball brethren.
Hohensee’s two replacement starts deserve a very bold asterisk, and that leaves Spergon Wynn as the only former Gophers quarterback to start an NFL game.
That also comes with an asterisk.
Wynn was a freshman with the Gophers in 1996. He played in two games and threw eight passes. Jim Wacker’s staff was fired, and Wynn followed Bob DeBesse to Southwest Texas State (now Texas State). He was drafted by Cleveland in the sixth round in 2000 out of that school.
Do the Gophers get to count Spergon’s three starts: a 48-0 loss for Cleveland as a rookie, and then two losses at the end of the 2001 season for the Vikings?
I’m not sure, but that’s it for Minnesota starting quarterbacks in NFL history: two games for a replacement player, three for a guy who was with the Gophers for one season and eight passes.
There’s a chance this dearth of quarterback excellence could play a part in what’s now the Gophers’ 48-season slump between gaining pieces of Big Ten football titles.
The Gophers did have an All-America quarterback in Sandy Stephens in 1961. His two Rose Bowl teams didn’t throw the ball much, relying on an early version of an option attack featuring the strength of Stephens and his bevy of running backs.
Stephens was drafted fifth overall by the New York Titans in the AFL, and by Cleveland in the second round of the NFL, but both teams said they wanted him as a running back. Sandy signed with the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL, instead, in order to play quarterback.
There were three Gophers drafted as quarterbacks:
• Bobby Cox was taken by the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth round in 1957. He didn’t make the team and played in Canada.
• John Hankinson, an excellent passer, was taken by the Vikings in the eighth round in 1965. The position was crowded and he didn’t make the team.
• Craig Curry was taken by Miami in the eighth round in 1972. The Dolphins looked at him at several positions and he was dropped in the final cut.
There is another long-ago Gopher listed as a quarterback in the NFL draft: Bill Garnaas in 1944. This was the era of single wing football, and quarterbacks were basically blockers and did not throw the ball.
Most passes came from the tailback. Hal Van Avery was a Gophers tailback who was drafted by Green Bay in 1940 and played two seasons for the Packers. He threw 71 passes, the third most in the NFL for an ex-Gopher.
Wynn threw the most: 152. And the second most? Bronko Nagurski, the legendary fullback and tackle, threw 77 for the Chicago Bears.
Cory Sauter, runner-up to Lindsay Whalen for Hutchinson athletic fame, got in one game for the Bears in 2002 and threw nine passes.
Tony Dungy was an effective quarterback for the Gophers, but he went undrafted in 1977 and signed with Pittsburgh to compete for a job in the secondary.
Dungy’s only quarterback action came on Oct. 9, 1977, in Houston. Terry Bradshaw and backup Mike Kruczek were both injured. Dungy entered in the fourth quarter of what was a 27-10 loss.
He was 3-for-8 with two interceptions, and earlier had an interception on defense, making him the only NFL player to both throw and get an interception in a game.
As distinctions go for NFL quarterbacking, that’s about the best ex-Gophers have to offer.