American Football: Young, gifted and black quarterbacks beat racism to lead NFL revolution

Modern demands of American football's key position create new type of playmaker.
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In January 1988, during the build-up to Super Bowl XXII in San Diego, the Washington Redskins quarterback, Doug Williams, was forced to field yet another question on the topic which had gripped the nation.

In January 1988, during the build-up to Super Bowl XXII in San Diego, the Washington Redskins quarterback, Doug Williams, was forced to field yet another question on the topic which had gripped the nation.

How long, he was asked, had he been a black quarterback? The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates the prejudices of the day. The unique complexities of the quarterback position were deemed, in effect by American society, beyond the capabilities of a black man.

Williams, the first non-white quarterback in Super Bowl history, responded by throwing a record five touchdowns in a single quarter, winning the game's Most Valuable Player award, as the Redskins thrashed the Denver Broncos, 42-10. The issue was duly laid to rest.

Today, black quarterbacks are once again the talk of the sport, albeit for more positive reasons. A group of exciting young playmakers are beginning to fulfil their potential, and the issue now is not about their limitations, but instead how much they can achieve.

In Philadelphia, Donovan McNabb is emerging as one of the best decision-makers in the game, and his Eagles are unbeaten as a result. The Minnesota Vikings have been a revelation under the guidance of Daunte Culpepper, who is on course to break Dan Marino's single-season marks for passing yardage and touchdowns thrown.

The Atlanta Falcons are progressing under the most thrilling prospect of them all, the electrifying Michael Vick, while Steve McNair continues to lead the Tennessee Titans by sheer force of will. In New Orleans, Aaron Brooks is throwing off the shackles of inconsistency, while Jacksonville's surprising renaissance owes much to the steady play of their cerebral young passer, Byron Leftwich.

Times have changed, but perhaps under the surface, prejudices remain. While Williams was enduring ridiculous questions about his ethnicity, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, a television analyst, was espousing his theory that blacks were better at sport simply because of slave plantation breeding techniques. "The black is a better athlete because he's been bred to be that way," said Snyder, whose views cost him his career.

This time last year, the right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh added this thought on the early-season struggles of McNabb: "The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well," he said. "There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he didn't deserve." The observation may have lacked the crassness of a Ron Atkinson, but the racism was even more insidious. Black quarterbacks were still not being judged on merit. Snyder's sentiments were simply being repackaged.

Historically, black players were perceived purely as superior athletes, and many were discouraged from playing quarterback because they were wanted for other, more physically demanding, positions.

The first to break through was Denver's Marlin Briscoe, who literally had to beg the coaching staff to let him play quarterback in training camp. "It was 1968, a volatile time in our nation," he recalled. "There was a belief that blacks were not bright enough, that we didn't have the ability to lead." Briscoe performed adequately, but his services were dispensed with at the end of that maiden campaign, and although he went on to enjoy a successful NFL career, it was at wide receiver, not quarterback.

Only a select few have enjoyed much success in the intervening decades. Warren Moon, a solid technician, was forced to play in Canada to get his break. The Houston Oilers took a chance on him in 1984, and by his retirement in 2000, only Dan Marino and John Elway had amassed more career passing yardage.

Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham was more typical. He would thrill spectators with his scrambling ability, but few gave him credit for his intelligence. "He wasn't a great student of the game," said his former team-mate Brian Baldinger, "but in Randall's case that helped, because he wasn't very well coached." Scrambling to make plays to stay alive, Cunningham unwittingly reinforced the stereotype that black quarterbacks were runners, not thinkers.

Limbaugh's comments simply raised it to the surface once more. Even the normally affable McNabb felt stung by it. "I'm just going to continue playing football with my skin colour, and with my muscular build, as you guys say."

The perception seemed to persist that black quarterbacks were happiest running rather than staying or dropping back in the pocket, and that physique rather than mental agility was their main strength. "There's not a black quarterback that people consider a drop-back passer," says Shaun King, an African American passer with the Arizona Cardinals.

"They are all considered athletes. Look at some of the great quarterbacks over time. When they run the football, everyone says they are making plays. When Donovan [McNabb] does it, he's a running quarterback."

However, this ability to run helps to explain the emergence of the modern quarterback. Today, defences are so fast and complex, that playmakers need the reactions of a gunslinger. A drop-back passer can still thrive, but if you can run, you can create opportunities. Running alone will not work, as Vick discovered when he broke a leg last year. The key to success is accurate decision-making under intense pressure.

"The game has evolved," says McNabb. "It's no longer about the drop-back passer. It is about guys who can make plays with their arm, with their mind and with their feet. Brett Favre [a white quarterback with Green Bay] set the tone, but people look at myself, Vick, Culpepper and Brooks as the future of the game because we're able to do that little bit more."

Take Culpepper, for example. Two years ago, he threw 23 interceptions: so far this season, he has thrown just three, along with a league-leading 19 touchdowns. The poised McNabb has taken his play to a new level, and the Eagles are favoured for a first Super Bowl appearance in 24 years. Vick, whose Atlanta shirt is also the most popular item of merchandise in the game, is adapting well to a system popularised by one of the most cerebral quarterbacks ever, San Francisco's Joe Montana.

The racists will mutter away, but McNabb, Culpepper, Vick and their ilk are driving them deeper into the dungeons of their own bigotry. "No longer is it a widely held belief that blacks aren't smart enough to play quarterback," observed Briscoe. "We come to 2004, and a black quarterback is judged as a quarterback. If he makes a good play, he gets cheered. If he makes a bad play he gets booed. That's all you can ask."