The thing that makes 1999 different in pro football is that it's the year of the young quarterback.

And for the NFL's numerous new young leaders, the learning curve has been a league-wide happening.

In one conspicuous case Sunday, the new Miami quarterback, Damon Huard, grew up on national television. In the first half against New England, he couldn't make a first down in the first quarter but caught the hang of it in the second quarter and drove the Dolphins into a 10-10 halftime tie.

Learning some more in the third quarter, Huard drove the Dolphins in front with two touchdowns that made it 24-10, a lead that stood up through the rest of the NFL's game of the week, though Huard left with a broken nose. Miami won, 27-17.

At 26, Huard, from the University of Washington, is a backup quarterback who until 1999 had thrown only nine NFL passes. Last week he could generate only three points and 101 net yards in Miami's defeat at Buffalo, 23-3.

He's learning.

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Huard: Big Mistake to Big Play

Chances are, the Dolphins' new, young quarterback will be watching the veteran Dan Marino in many of this season's remaining games. But if they want him, Huard will be nourished by a remembrance of how he did it Sunday, when he progressed in 30 minutes from the big mistake to the big play.

The big mistake was a first-quarter pitch to a running back who wasn't looking for the ball, which was fumbled into a New England lead, 7-0.

The big play was a third-down shotgun pass from Huard, a graduate of the NFL's European league, to arena-league graduate Oronde Gadsden, a second-year Dolphin wide receiver who has been growing up along with the new passer.

That play produced 16 yards for Miami's first first down of the game--in the second minute of the second quarter--and Huard liked it so much that in his next third-down crisis, he shotgunned it again to Gadsden, who eventually caught both of Huard's touchdown passes.

They're learning together.

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Losing a Team Effort for Pats

The game that Huard won with critical, timely pass completions is being described in New England and Miami today in two other ways:

They're saying Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe blew it with five interceptions.

Or they're saying Miami's defensive team won it by cleverly earning five turnovers, which, for the following reasons, is also an oversimplification:

Interception 1 came on a pass that shouldn't have been called--or which the Patriot coaches shouldn't have permitted--near the end of the first quarter. It was third and five at the New England nine-yard line--91 yards away from a touchdown against one of the NFL's toughest defenses. It came at a time when New England led, 7-0, and the Miami offense had gained hardly a yard.