Wassup With The Black QB?

Samori Benjamin

The most promising of all the black quarterbacks in the NFL, Vince Young, has been grounded this season.

The game as we know it was supposed to have been changed by now. Franchise executives were supposed to have stumbled over each other for a chance at getting the next best one in line. After so much discrimination led to lost dreams because of the denial of an opportunity it was only going to be a matter of time until the chance finally came, and the point would be emphatically driven home as the athletic brilliance was going to be too powerful to be denied. The last position on the field that was identifiable with the Caucasian fan base was in jeopardy of turning out like all the others. 

But now, here in the year 2008 there are as many questions as ever concerning the black quarterback, after the multi-dimensional, running, new age crop of black quarterback has failed to deliver substance. Substance measured in longevity, wins, super bowl wins, and oh yes the dreaded quarterback passer rating.

The plight and the fight for opportunity for the black quarterback has been well documented throughout the history of the sport.  Calls for inclusion of the African-American at the quarterback position were ignored for years as institutional racism kept the number of African-American quarterbacks down on the college and professional levels.  But a few years ago, at the beginning of the millennium there was a lot of excitement in the belly for anyone who had longed to see the black quarterback really get a chance to take the field and showcase their talents in the National Football League. 

On January 31st 2008 Doug Williams, who starred at quarterback in college for historically black University Grambling State, led the Washington Redskins to victory over the Denver Broncos in super bowl XXII.  Williams became the first African-American quarterback to win a super bowl and he did it in grand fashion setting passing records for most yards in a game (340), and most touchdowns thrown in a single quarter (4) and was named the game’s most valuable player.  No other African-American quarterback has won a super bowl since and only two, Steve McNair in 99’ and Donovan McNabb in 04, have made it back.  The success of Williams in super bowl XXII did not immediately signal the opening of the floodgates for the African-American quarterback.  Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were the only two black quarterbacks who really excelled in the league from the time Williams won super bowl XXII until the late 1990’s.  While Moon was primarily a stand in the pocket assassin ala Doug Williams, and the other quarterbacks of the times, Cunningham on the other hand played the game different and was the first of his kind to really have an impact on the National Football League. 

Coming on the scene with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 80’s Cunningham exhibited a powerful throwing arm with sensational running ability to match, earning himself an NFC Pro bowl selection from 1988-1990.  He was the NFL’s first legitimate dual threat at the quarterback position, and excited the football masses with his ability to scramble out of the pocket, and on occasion hurdle a defender or two before rocketing a 60 yard bomb down field from his wiry right arm.  Randall Cunningham was Mr. Excitement and you knew there were others like him out there waiting to get an opportunity.  Due in some part to injury Cunningham’s career with Philadelphia fizzled shortly after the 1991 season.  He stayed with the Eagles until 1996 winning just one playoff game with the organization which came in January of 1993. 

Cunningham moved onto the Minnesota Vikings in 1997, and in 1998 Minnesota added super rookie Randy Moss to the team and Cunningham had the greatest season of his career throwing for 34 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions.  Minnesota ended the regular season scoring the most points in NFL history up to that point and finished with a record of 15-1, third best all-time.  It looked as if they would cruise to the Super Bowl where a highly anticipated matchup against John Elway and the reigning Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos awaited.  But the NFC Championship game brought disappointment as the Vikings were stunned at home losing 30-27 to the heavily underdog Atlanta Falcons in overtime.  For Cunningham, a great opportunity at a super bowl title went by the waste side.  He was named to his fourth and final pro-bowl that season and retired after the 2001 season with a career playoff record of 3-7. 

In 1995 the AFC conference champion Pittsburgh Steelers were steered primarily by quarterback Neil O’Donnell, but the game plan was slashed once the playoffs began in the form of Kordell Stewart.  Stewart, who had quarterbacked at the University of Colorado as a collegian, was a rookie on the 95’ Steelers and was the closest thing to Randall Cunningham, a dual threat type of quarterback, since Cunningham rose to stardom in Philadelphia.   Because of his athletic ability, Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher used Stewart at a plethora of skilled positions.  Stewart was a key talent in the Steelers playoff run to Super bowl XXX, (where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys), and took a number of snaps at the quarterback position where he threw defenses off and made things happen.  The Steelers teased and whet the appetite of fans who waited to see a black quarterback burst onto the NFL scene and shake things up.  The following season in 96’ Pittsburgh dumped quarterback Neil O’Donnell but head coach Bill Cowher did not name Stewart the starter.  Kordell had to wait until the 97’ season to get his shot at the starting spot. 

That same season in 1997, Steve “Air” McNair got his opportunity to start at quarterback after being selected 3rd Overall in the 1995 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers, then spending his first two NFL seasons primarily learning from the bench.  In 97’ the Houston Oilers relocated to Tennessee and unveiled McNair to their new fan base  by naming him the starter for the 1997 season.  Three years previous in 1994 during McNair’s senior season at Historically Black University Alcorn State in Lorman, Mississippi Sports Illustrated put McNair on the cover of one of their September issues with the headline “Hand Him the Heisman.”  That season McNair put up numbers for the ages throwing for 4,863 yards, 44 touchdowns, and racking up another 936 yards with his legs.  McNair would finish third in the Heisman trophy voting behind Penn State running back Ki-Jana Carter and the eventual winner Rashaan Salaam from the University of Colorado. 

Through his first two seasons as Tennessee starter McNair showed incredible toughness and became a young leader while putting up modest numbers.   In the 1999 season McNair led Tennessee to the playoffs for the first time in his career, they finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and made it to Super Bowl XXXIV which made McNair the second African-American quarterback ever to play in the super bowl.  McNair and Tennessee fell to St. Louis 23-16.  In 2003 McNair had the best statistical season of his career throwing for 3,215 yards with 24 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions, while running for another four scores on the ground.  McNair shared MVP honors for the 2003 season with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. 

After the 2003 season McNair would battle a number of injuries which would keep him in and out of the lineup for the remainder of his career.  He would not make another playoff appearance with Tennessee and in 2006 he went to the Baltimore Ravens via trade and was looked at as the missing piece to a championship run for a team that had been anchored for years by a dominating defense.  McNair disappointed in Baltimore as he continued to battle injuries.  In two seasons with the Ravens McNair threw 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and ran for just one touchdown.  In April 2008 McNair announced his retirement from the NFL.

The slash style of play that made Kordell Stewart a popular player and an intriguing quarterback prospect translated into mild success during his six year on and off again career as Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback.  In his first season under the helm in 1997 the Steelers went to the AFC Championship game where they lost to Denver and Stewart threw three interceptions.  Four years later with Stewart guiding the reins after losing the starting job the season before, the Steelers finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and made it back to the AFC Championship game, and the quarterback was named a pro-bowler for the first and only time of his career.  The season however ended terribly for Stewart as he played miserably in that AFC championship game against New England, throwing two interceptions in the final three minutes of the game with his team trailing by 7 points.  The Steelers lost the contest 24-17. 

Even though Stewart was a pro-bowl quarterback in 2001 the egg he laid in the AFC Championship game was the beginning of the demise for him in Pittsburgh and his career period.  He would not last through the third week of the following season without being benched and losing his starting job for the remainder of the season.  He was released following the season and went on to play for the Chicago Bears and later the Baltimore Ravens, but his big time to shine had past.  Stewart is 2nd all-time in career rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 38.

The year Steve McNair became the second African-American to quarterback in a Super Bowl in 1999, the NFL had a heralded draft class of blue chip quarterbacks in which  5 of the first 12 players selected  were quarterbacks, three were African-American.  Donovan McNabb was taken second overall by the Philadelphia Eagles.  Philadelphia fans booed the selection.  They wanted the Eagles to draft running back Ricky Williams from the University of Texas, who had just set the all-time career collegiate rushing record.  McNabb dazzled in college at Syracuse University but the Philadelphia fan was not buying it. 

With the very next pick, the Cincinnati Bengals chose Akili Smith third overall from the University of Oregon.  Smith fell off the face of the football map faster than he arrived, which says a lot.  Smith, who was raised in San Diego, California and comes out of the same high school as Marcus Allen and Terrell Davis, was a no name on the college football landscape prior to his senior season at Oregon.  Of the five quarterbacks who were selected within the first twelve picks of the 99’ draft Smith’s stock rose overnight more so than anyone’s.  Prior to his senior season Smith was a no-name, but 32 touchdowns in 11 games later in his final season made Smith a formidable NFL prospect.  Teams fell further in love with him when they got a load of his raw athletic abilities.  While in Cincinatti Smith would only make 17 starts for the Bengals in four seasons, totaling 5 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.  Smith was the classic case of a draft bust.  After having such high hopes for Smith on draft day 1999, he was released by Cincinnati in 2002. 

After McNabb and Smith garnered two of the first three picks in the NFL draft, 6-4 270 pound quarterback Dante Culpepper out of the University of Central Florida was snatched up by the Minnesota Vikings with the 11th overall pick.  Central Florida was a small school that had just ascended from Division I AA to the Division I-A level during the time Culpepper was there.  The school didn’t play in one of the power conferences against the best competition which led to Culpepper having that much more to prove. 

The 1999 season saw McNabb, Smith, and Culpepper all sit the bench for the majority of the year as each of their head coaches wanted them to take their time and initially learn from the sidelines. During that same time in the fall of 99’ a young quarterback in Virginia was getting Virginians all riled up in a way never seen before in the old dominion state.  The quarterback’s name was Michael Vick, and he was in the process of taking Virginia Tech University to threshold’s never before reached.  Vick began the 1999 college football season in Blacksburg, Virginia as a redshirt freshman starting quarterback.  While at the time Virginia Tech was a stalwart team inside the big east conference, the school was never a serious contender in the National championship discussion.  Under Vick Virginia Tech reeled off win after win in the fall of 99’.  VA Tech began to gradually give Virginians a belief that it could possibly be a special season.  All of a sudden it was November and Vick and VA Tech were still undefeated.  November 3rd 1999 marked a matchup that pitted Virginia Tech on the road against the West Virginia Mountaineers.  The game has since gone down in the annals as the “Miracle in Morgantown”. 

Trailing 20-19 With 1:04 left in the fourth quarter Virginia Tech  had the ball on their own 15 yard line with no timeouts remaining.  Vick promptly connected on two passes to get Tech to their own 38 yard line.  On the next play with time ticking off the clock Vick rolled to his right, could not find anyone open downfield, then promptly put the ball down and ran up the right sidelines for a clutch 26 yard gain which put Tech on West Virginia’s 36 yard line.  On the next play Vick dropped back again and completed a 9 yard pass to West Virginia’s 27 yard line.  That set up a 44 yard field goal attempt by Hokes kicker Shawn Graham which he nailed giving Virginia Tech a 22-20 win, keeping their undefeated record intact.    

With a season of improbable wins and comebacks, Michael Vick became a must watch event on Saturday afternoon’s in Virginia, and the rest of the nation had begun to take notice.  The wins kept coming and on January 4th 2000 Vick and Virginia Tech found themselves in New Orleans with an undefeated record playing in the National Championship game against perennial powerhouse Florida State University inside the Sugar Bowl.  Florida State beat Virginia Tech handily that night by the score of 46-29.  Despite losing the game Michael Vick stole the show, shifting, shaking, and scrambling past speedy Florida State defenders who were on his tail all-night long.  Tech fell behind in the game 28-7 but rallied back behind a strong charge from Michael Vick to take a 29-28 lead in the 3rd quarter.  Vick put his exploits on display in front of the nation that evening, improvising his way through arguably the fastest defense in the country, finishing with 225 passing yards and 97 rushing yards.  After that night many college football observers who watched the game said Vick’s performance was the best they’d seen in their years watching college football.  At the end of the 1999 season Vick won the Archie Griffin award, which is presented after the college football season and signifies college football’s best player for the entire season.  

By 2000, Donovan McNabb and Dante Culpepper were doing something rarely seen by young quarterbacks early in their careers.   Winning and going deep into the playoffs.  Both men were named the starting quarterback of their team at the beginning of the 2000 season.  McNabb and Philadelphia finished with an 11-5 record that season after finishing with a 5-11 record the previous season.  After throwing for 3,365 yards, 21 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, running for an additional 629 yards and six touchdowns, and leading Philadelphia to a surprising playoff berth, McNabb finished second in the MVP balloting.  McNabb went on to lead the Eagles to a first round playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before they lost in the NFC divisional round to the New York Giants.

After losing in the NFC championship game in 1998 with Randall Cunningham, the Minnesota Vikings got off to a 2-4 start in 1999 with Cunningham still at the helm.  Cunningham was benched by head coach Dennis Green after the sixth game and the team finished the season with an 8-2 record over the final 10 games with Jeff George starting at quarterback.  Minnesota qualified for the postseason with a 10-6 record and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams in the NFC divisional round. 

In 2000 with a super bowl contending team Minnesota handed the starting quarterback position over to Dante Culpepper in his second pro season.  Culpepper finished the season with 40 touchdown scores.  33 through the air and another 7 on the ground.  The Vikings went all the way to the NFC Championship game, where they had been two years earlier with Randall Cunningham.  Minnesota would fall again suffering a 41-0 annihilation to the New York Giants.  For the next three seasons Culpepper and the Vikings play would be erratic.  They failed to make the playoffs again until the 2004 season when Culpepper had the best year of his career setting a number of franchise passing records and even broke Dan Marino’s NFL record of combined passing and running yards in a season with 5,123 total yards. 

Culpepper and McNabb both led their teams into the 2004 playoffs where they faced off against each other in the NFC divisional round.  Both men were teamed with the top two receivers in football that season. Culpepper with Randy Moss (who had been in Minnesota since 1998) and McNabb with Terrell Owens who was traded to Philadelphia before the season began.  Like Culpepper, 2004 was McNabb’s best season of his career.   He threw 31 touchdown passes and ran for three more.  He finished the season as the first quarterback in NFL history to throw more than 30 touchdown passes while throwing fewer than 10 interceptions, 31 to 8.  That season Philadelphia finished the regular season with a 13-3 record and unquestionably the best team in the NFC conference.  In their postseason matchup both quarterbacks accounted for two touchdowns on the day, but it was McNabb and the Eagles who won the contest 27-14. 

The 1999 college football National championship game was the only game Michael Vick lost in college as a starting quarterback.  After being taken first overall in the 2001 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons it took him until the 2002 season before Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Reeves named him starting quarterback.  First game out for Vick in September of 02’ he went to historic Lambeau field to face Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.  Vick finished the game throwing for 209 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another 72 yards and a score.  His Falcons jumped out to a 14-3 lead only to give it up and eventually trail 34-31 late in the 4th quarter before Vick led the offense to a late field goal to send the game into overtime.  The Packers eventually won the game in overtime 37-34, but the performance by Vick in the opening game of his first starting season was impressive to say the least and laid the foundation for the rest of the season. 

Led by the electric show stopping Vick Atlanta went on to finish the season with a 9-6-1 record to qualify for the postseason for the first time in four seasons.  Vick looked like he was on his way to revolutionizing the sport.  He finished the regular season throwing for 2,936 yards, 16 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and ran for an additional 777 yards and 8 touchdowns.   That set the stage for a first round playoff matchup in January of 03’ that sent Vick and the Falcons back to Green Bay’s Lambeau field for a rematch against Favre and the Packers in the NFC wildcard round of the playoffs.  At that point Green Bay had never lost a postseason home game in franchise history.  Furthermore Brett Favre was a legend with a super bowl championship under his belt and had the ghosts of Lambeau field and the frigid Green bay weather, that he had come accustomed to performing brilliantly in over his career, behind him.  No one gave Atlanta a chance going in.  The game began, and In his first ever playoff game Vick dazzled and stunned the football audience watching around the country, except for those who followed his college career in Virginia, as he dominated the game en leading Atlanta to a 27-7 victory, handing the Packers their first playoff loss in franchise history.      

The following week Vick and McNabb met in the NFC divisional round.  Both men entered the game pro bowl quarterbacks for the season, but the 26 year old McNabb outclassed the 22 year –old Vick as Philadelphia won decisively 20-6.  McNabb threw for 247 yards and a touchdown, while Vick threw for 274 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.  Vick finished the game running for 30 yards on six carries, while McNabb ran for 24 yards on 4 carries.  The following week McNabb’s season would end at home, a game away from the super bowl, in a stunning loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game. 

Two years later in the 2004 season the two explosive quarterbacks would meet again in the playoffs, and this time it was for a berth to the Super Bowl in the NFC Championship game.  The meeting marked the first time two African-American quarterbacks met in a conference championship game.  McNabb’s Eagles beat Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons once again 27-10.  Once again it was McNabb who outplayed Vick, throwing for 180 yards and two touchdowns.  Vick threw for 136 yards no touchdowns and one interception, and McNabb outrushed Vick on the ground 32 to 26.  The two quarterbacks looked as if they were on the verge of being big winners in the league and taking the quarterback position to new heights.  However, Michael Vick would not make another playoff appearance since, and Donovan McNabb would face a multitude of problems after that game as well.       For McNabb it started two weeks later in Super Bowl XXXIX, where he and his Eagles battled the two-time super bowl champion New England Patriots to the end, but they lost 24-21.  McNabb took some criticism after the super bowl for performing erratically in the fourth quarter, a fourth quarter in which he fell ill on a drive late in the 4th quarter which caused precious time to tick off the game clock.  McNabb has not quarterbacked another playoff game since.  The following three seasons from 2005-2007 McNabb was hampered by injuries.  These days the Philadelphia quarterback does not run as much and has settled into mostly being a pocket passing quarterback.  Here in 2008, McNabb is healthy and off to his usual strong start in a season where the Eagles division of the NFC East is the strongest in the NFL. 

Michael Vick’s showdown against Donovan McNabb in the 2004-05 NFC Championship game would be the last taste of success Vick would taste in a career that has been put on hold.   Over the next two seasons Vick struggled to quiet critics who’d said since the beginning of his pro career that he was not, and would never be an efficient passing quarterback.  Vick had a lot to shoulder in Atlanta.  The franchise had only two winning seasons in the 20 years prior to him being drafted.  When he became the team’s starting quarterback in 2002 his supporting cast was devoid of playmakers.  He still led the team to two winning seasons in his first three seasons as the starter, and the one season Atlanta did not make the playoffs in 2003, he was out most of the season due to injury. 

Atlanta failed to make the playoffs in either the 2005 or 2006 seasons, as the team finished 8-8 and 7-9.  Over those two seasons Vick had a passing rating around 74, which ranked him in the bottom echelon of the league.  While Vick continued to rack up yardage on the ground and in 2006 became the first quarterback in the history of the league to run for 1,000 yards, the Falcons passing game never got on track. 

The frustration mounted on Vick.  Despite the lack of a talented supporting cast, athletes in this country are measured by wins and losses and everything else is often looked at as an excuse.  Football critics and fans dissected his passing game, and the bottom line was that the style of play that Mike Vick brought to the game was exciting but it was not proving to be a winning formula after back to back disappointing seasons of not making the playoffs.  Then in 2007, at the peak of his career, while he was in the midst of trying to figure things out and take his game to the next level, he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of federal dog fighting.  Michael Vick once looked as if he was on his way to totally revolutionizing the quarterback position, now he sits in prison hoping that one day he can get the opportunity to redeem himself and resurrect a career.  

While Michael Vick struggled to find consistency with his passing game in Atlanta, a quarterback down in Austin, Texas began tearing up the college game, similarly to the way Vick did it during his college days at Virginia Tech.   University of Texas quarterback Vince Young exploded onto the national scene during his red-shirt freshman year at the University of Texas.  In 2004 he led Texas to an 11-1 record where they finished 5th in the final national polls.  That preceded a phenomenal performance by Young in the Rose Bowl against the University Michigan in which Texas won in a shoot-out.  In 2005, Young led Texas to an undefeated regular season where they went on to face the University of Southern California for the national championship at the Rose Bowl.  USC came into the game with a 34 game winning streak.  Vince Young finished the game throwing for 267 yards and running for another 200.  Young rushed for a nine yard touchdown in the waning seconds of that game to lead Texas to a 41-38 victory, snapping USC’s impressive win streak.  Six years after Michael Vick put on an incredible performance in the national championship game Vince Young put on the greatest performance in the history of college football, and when the game was finished many looked at him as the greatest college football player of all-time. 

The Tennessee Titans drafted Young with the 3rd overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.  Young started his rookie season looking on from the bench but was given the starting spot on October 1st against the Dallas Cowboys.  Young came into the NFL with the promise to take what Michael Vick had started to the next level.  While Vick possessed all the skills to make him a dual-threat quarterback with a shot at revolutionizing the position, struggles with his passing and two consecutive seasons of not making the playoffs began to remove a little luster from his star.  Vince Young was a lot taller than Vick which allowed him to see over defenses better, and made it harder for defensive players to knockdown passes at the line, which happened a lot to the shorter Vick.  Plus, Young finished his final collegiate season at Texas with the best passer’s rating in the country. 

Young made great strides in that rookie season of 06’.  He guided Tennessee to within one game of a playoff spot.  He set a rookie record for rushing yards by a quarterback, led his team to fourth quarter victories, and was named NFL rookie of the year.  2007 saw Young and the Titans make the playoffs despite Young regressing in his progression.  In 07’, Young threw just 9 touchdowns against 17 interceptions to finish with a quarterback rating of 71.1.  He ran for another 395 yards and 3 touchdowns. 

The 2008 season is now halfway complete and Young’s promising career has taken a pause for the moment after he injured his knee in the opening week of the season, which led to him being sidelined for 3 weeks, and coincided with him enduring some personal problems caused from pressures of quarterbacking an NFL team under national scrutiny.  Two and a half years into his professional career, Young has yet to develop into the complete quarterback that saw him dominate the college game.  Like Michael Vick, Vince has failed to become a consistent passer, and at times he has looked one-dimensional, unable to lead consistent drives with the pass.  Now we wonder if he will materialize into the quarterback that we thought was coming when he was raising the national championship trophy at the rose bowl in the beginning of 06’.

Currently in the NFL, there are four starting black quarterbacks, which is actually a drop from the last four or five years.  Jacksonville has David Gerrad who has proven to be a steady field general, but nothing special.  Nothing like the talent of Vick and Young who have the potential to do things at the position never before seen.  Oakland has the number one overall pick from the 2007 NFL draft, JaMarcus Russell, who at 260 pounds manages to be nimble on his feet, and possesses a big arm.  Russell sat the bench for almost all of his rookie season, and in 2008 through six games he has thrown 5 touchdowns against 2 interceptions, and has a quarterback rating of 76. Oakland has a record of 2-4.   Jason Campbell of the Washington Redskins wears the same number 17 that Doug Williams wore.  Through seven games in 2008, Washington has surprised much of the NFL with a 5-2 record playing in the toughest division in the NFL.  Campbell has played well, even showing occasional flashes of brilliance with a rocket arm.  He has a quarterback rating of 96.3 which is very good.  Donovan McNabb is the fourth and last African-American quarterback starting for a NFL  today. He continues to put up impressive numbers which someday could land him in the hall of fame.  Through seven games he’s thrown for 1,829 yards, 8 touchdowns and three interceptions.  He has run for just 25 yards and no touchdowns on the ground. He has a passer rating of 93.2. 

The black quarterback has added spice to the National Football League, but after more and more got the opportunity to man the position, none have managed to win a super bowl in 20 years.  The talents that the running black quarterback has brought to the game has proven to be exciting.  What is not so certain is whether or not the style of play can translate the excitement into the ultimate goal, efficiency and a super bowl championship.  Are NFL teams better off which a traditional stand in the pocket quarterback?  Or is the dual threat, make things happen with your feet quarterback, the best approach to run an NFL offense?  For the black multi-dimensional quarterback, the point has yet to be proven.  


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