Another BYU football regular season has ended, and the mystery continues: What in the name of Jim McMahon has happened to the Cougars?

It is the Year 4 A.C. - After Championship - and the Cougars are still stumbling around trying to recapture their old form. From first place in the Western Athletic Conference, to tied for first, to second place, to second place again, to, egads, tied for third place this year, their slide has been gradual and steady.On the bright side, nobody's complaining about over-age missionaries, a cupcake schedule, grabby offensive linemen and running up the score.

Ah, those were the days.

If there were any lingering doubts, this season was reaffirmation that BYU's heady days of domination are finished for the foreseeable future; that the past couple of years were not mere aberrations. But the Cougars' decline has not been as drastic as their fans might have you believe. They are still a good team - good for eight or nine wins - but, as one BYU coach muttered recently, "That's not good enough around here." Unbeaten national championship seasons will do that to you. Perfection is a hard thing to live up to.

So the Cougars are trying, as calmly as possible, to fix their broken juggernaut. To be sure, there is no shortage of free advice. What's wrong with the Cougars? is a favorite discussion around town.

Here's a radical idea: MAYBE IT'S NOT THE QUARTERBACK.

Everyone seems to think that by plugging in a new signal caller, BYU would solve all of its problems. The Cougars have been down this road before. In the three years since Robbie Bosco graduated, they have tried three different starters - Steve Lindsley, Bob Jensen and, most recently, Sean Covey. Now Covey may give way to a fourth, Ty Detmer.

It has been a curious thing to see Covey's performance of late. It is remarkably reminiscent of Lindsley's and Jensen's falls from grace. All three were solid enough quarterbacks who started fairly well, but, strangely, their performances declined rather than improved. They were better quarterbacks when they began than when they finished. In the end, beaten down by their own flagging confidence and the weight of expectations, they were pressed just to complete a pass.

"I went into it knowing I was a good quarterback," recalls Lindsley. "I guess I listened too much to fans who didn't think I was . . . ."

Perhaps too much has been made of the quarterback's role at BYU (although understandably), and it seems to have crushed a trio of capable, if not exceptional, athletes - unnecessarily. Certainly, an exceptional talent there could make a difference, but BYU's problems run deeper than that.

Don't you find it strange that for 13 consecutive years the Cougars produced a successful (although not necessarily wonderfully gifted) quarterback - even their reserves excelled! - and now suddenly they can't find one in four years?

It's revealing that Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' director of player personnel, had more to say about a certain BYU basketball player than any BYU football player following a recent visit to Provo. "This is one of the better coaching jobs they've done at BYU, if not the best," he said. This was after saying thatthe Cougars "don't have a vintage senior crop" of players (diplomatic translation: they were fortunate to get this far with the talent they have).

Others in the BYU program have privately said as much. Brandt continues, "I do know there's a basketball player out there who should be a football player - Marty Haws. I know all about his high school career. He should go out for football. Ladell (Andersen, the BYU basketball coach) will shoot me for saying this, but his best future is in football . . ."

The point is, there are other problems at BYU that a long parade of quarterbacks won't help. For the most part, the system used to make quarterbacks, not vice versa; now the system is broken - for whatever reason(s). Is it the talent? Have changes in the coaching staff that began immediately following That Championship Season made a difference? Have the Cougars unknowingly drifted away from the schemes that once made them so successful?

Is Marty Haws busy?

BYU must make changes if it hopes to reestablish its position in the football world. "They can do it again," says Lindsley. "But not just because they'reBYU. They've got to be aggressive."