CHICAGO -- It's a wonder Steve DeBerg doesn't have a permanent crick in his neck from looking over his shoulder. For most of his 14 seasons as an NFL quarterback, DeBerg would glance back and find someone gaining on him.
He set single-season records in 1979 for passes attempted and completed in San Francisco, but Bill Walsh was falling in love with the quarterback-in-waiting, Joe Montana. In his third season at Denver, DeBerg was just settling in; he led the Broncos to six wins in eight starts in 1983. But the path had to be cleared for the next virtuoso, rookie John Elway. And in 1987 at Tampa Bay, after throwing for 38 touchdowns his first two seasons there, DeBerg tossed 14 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. Not bad, but rookie Vinny Testaverde was the club's future, not DeBerg.
Not once, for five different teams, has DeBerg been anybody's future. Not even with the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted him in 1977. A fellow named Roger Staubach had a few throws still left in him. Now, three weeks from his 37th birthday, DeBerg isn't the future of the Kansas City Chiefs either. But he is the present. DeBerg has thrown 23 touchdowns, only four interceptions. It is no coincidence that the Chiefs have won 11 games for the first time since 1969. The last two weeks, DeBerg has played with a broken left pinkie and excruciating pain. He's not about to come out of the lineup, not now, not when his ship has finally come in.
"Talk about MVP of the AFC," Chiefs safety Deron Cherry said. "You see his finger and you have to figure there is no way he can play. All he does is spit on it, go back out there and play. It's his best year as a pro. He's the man here. Finally, he doesn't have to look over his shoulder."
It's defensive backs who'd better be looking over their shoulders, because DeBerg has been the most efficient passer in the league this season. His four interceptions (three in one game, at Indianapolis) give him the second-lowest interception rate (four in 444 passes) in NFL history, behind Joe Ferguson (one interception in 151 passes for the Buffalo Bills).
Of course, the scouting report on DeBerg had always been that he could play so beautifully, then make you crazy by throwing an interception when least expected. "The thing you'd hear about Steve," Chiefs cornerback Albert Lewis said, "was that he'd play a great game then throw the heartbreaker, the interception that killed a team's spirit." Not anymore.
"It's been fantastic," DeBerg said. It's not the single-season performance that many find surprising. In fact, there are those who feel DeBerg and the 49ers would have prospered under Walsh had Montana not been drafted. And you can easily make the case that DeBerg is better than Testaverde. The truly shocking stats are the career numbers. With 28,490 passing yards after Sunday's 21-10 victory here over the Bears, DeBerg is 17th on the NFL's all-time list.
Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field on a misty day more suited to running than throwing, DeBerg's accuracy (25 for 32, 276 yards) was stunning. More so when you consider he started each snap in pain. He didn't wear that big wrap on his hand. "That pain is not fake," said Len Dawson, the Chiefs quarterback hero of the 1960s. "It's impossible for people to understand just how important it is to have your hands all right just for handing off. Forget passing."
Dawson recalled last season, when DeBerg's first pass -- against Denver -- "was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. The second time he touched the ball, there was a fumble."
So why now? Why is DeBerg, an NFL senior citizen, on such a roll? How has he become football's version of Steve Stone, the journeyman who had one Cy Young season for the Baltimore Orioles in the midst of an otherwise unspectacular career?
"I have developed into the quarterback I am," DeBerg said. "When I first came into the NFL, I wasn't very good. At San Jose State, I could throw the hell out of a football, but I didn't know who to throw to. I couldn't read defenses. I didn't understand the game."
DeBerg learned the game long ago, but he was always splitting practice reps with the young guy. As soon as he learned one system, he was shipped off to Denver or Tampa or Kansas City. When asked if he is more at ease now not having to worry about a Golden Child, DeBerg said, "Ah, it's not that big a deal. Really, it's not. I've had to deal with it a lot of times. I'm not sure if it makes you better or worse as a quarterback."
Chiefs Coach Marty Schottenheimer walked by as DeBerg spoke with a reporter in the Kansas City locker room. He looked at DeBerg's left finger, swollen and purple and said, smiling, "Steve's a lot tougher than he is smart. He's really competitive. I've come to learn that about him since I came to Kansas City. . . . It's not how hard you can throw it or how athletic you are. It's how much you can compete and lead your team."
The talk reverted to DeBerg's frustration. He said he never got to the breaking point. Someone asked about his on-field demeanor, why he smiles so often and appears to have so much fun even as a 260-pound defender tries to smash the rest of his hand.
The answer revealed how he really feels about this season in the sun. "It's a result of a lot of frustration through my career to have it now going the other way," he said.