The NFL quarterback is the highest profile athlete in all of sports. He's the leader and focal point of the team, and no player is more identifiable on or off the field. When you think of the Miami Dolphins, you think of Dan Marino. When you think of the Green Bay Packers, you think of Brett Favre and Bart Starr. When you think of the San Francisco 49ers, you think of Joe Montana and Steve Young. However, if you're a football card collector, you're liable to forget them much more quickly.

Football card collectors tend to have a more disposable attitude toward their collections. This is especially true of quarterback cards. QB's go through what I call the "quarterback cycle."

When a QB is first drafted, collectors buy their cards at a moderate level. The player may or may not pan out, but hobbyists are willing to take the risk. As the player develops, collectors determine whether to stay or go -- just like owning stock. Is the player capable of becoming a superstar? If he's a bust, the collector shrugs his shoulders and tosses the cards into the commons box. But if he's a success, then it's buy, buy, buy!

So far, there are no surprises. Card collectors in all sports follow this model. But here's where things change. The quarterback becomes a superstar, puts up Hall-of-Fame numbers, and the collector can't get enough. He buys everything and anything related to his hero. But then one day, for no apparent reason, he stops. The question is why?

In the early 1990s, Steve Young was the man. The 49er dynasty had shifted from Montana-to-Jerry Rice to Young-to-Rice with relative ease. San Francisco was a perennial Super Bowl contender and Young led one of the most exciting offenses in the game. He could do no wrong and his cards were hot. Then it all went south.

Although still a powerhouse, the 49ers began to struggle in the playoffs. Young continued to put up great numbers, but it made no difference. His cards were dead.

The same thing is now happening to Brett Favre cards. Favre is still one of the best and most exciting players in football, but collector interest has almost completely disappeared. Favre's cards haven't gone down in value, but collectors have become indifferent.

Because of its brutal nature, football is a more temporary sport than baseball, basketball, or even hockey. But it's alarming when interest in the top athletes dissipates so suddenly. How can fair-weather collecting be avoided?

The solution, in my opinion, is grading. What better way to create a market out of forgotten cards, than to establish a premium? An ungraded 1987 Topps Dan Marino (#233), for example, can be bought for just a few dollars. Of course, fourth-year cards don't drive the market, but this is a tough card to find well-centered and with sharp corners. A high-grade version of this card can add a premium and may awaken collectors to a market that has grown stagnant. Grading may be the answer to keeping the market fresh.

Collectors will always buy quarterback cards of the future stars, as well as other momentary heroes, but they need to avoid losing sight of the stars of the past. Otherwise, those Peyton Manning collectors had better watch the Sportscard Market Report