Thursday, November 18, 2004

So Many Super Bowls, So Few African American Quarterbacks--Will the Trend Continue?

There have been 38 Super Bowls, dating back to the first one following the 1966 season. That means 76 starting quarterback opportunities in the big game's history. Plenty of guys have made multiple SB starts: Bradshaw, Elway, Montana, Starr, Favre, Griese Sr., Brady, Theismann, Aikman, Warner, Plunkett, Staubach, Tarkenton. Each of these fellows has at least one SB victory, with the exception of Tarkenton, who started three games for the Minnesota Vikings of the mid-'70s and came up empty-handed each time. (Sidebar: The Vikings, a well-respected and somewhat storied franchise, have never won a Super Bowl. They've played in four, lost 'em all pretty convincingly, and the drought of zero SB appearances goes back to the 1976 season.)

In the entire history of the Super Bowl, there has been but one victorious African American starting quarterback: Doug Williams, who won Super Bowl XXII for the Washington Redskins following the 1987 season. Williams' career was pretty much finished after that high-water mark, but his achievement was thoroughly historic. And, with the increasing numbers of African American QBs in later years, you'd have thought that maybe what Williams did might have opened the floodgates for his brethren black field generals. But we have seen only one other black QB start a Super Bowl since--Steve McNair of the Tennessee Titans, who lost in Super Bowl XXXIV. That makes Williams still the only one of his kind.

A few more thoughts about Williams: He was a studly athlete arriving in the NFL out of Grambling in 1978, the first black ever drafted in the first round as a quarterback. He toiled mostly haplessly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for five years--the team won a little, but Williams' numbers weren't particularly good. Then he abandoned the NFL for three seasons: Following the death of his wife Janice from brain cancer in 1983, Williams signed a lucrative USFL contract that gave him some financial security but didn't really raise his profile as a football player.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs rescued him from the scrap heap in 1986. In 1987, a partial strike year, Williams played in five games for the Redskins, then caught fire in the postseason and went on to perform brilliantly in the Super Bowl, which the 'Skins won 42-10 over John Elway's Denver Broncos. Williams was sort of a scrambler type initially, but it was playing for mediocre Tampa teams that basically kept him on the run. Under Gibbs, he stayed in the pocket, looked for his receivers, then used his gun of an arm with efficiency. He was deadly accurate in the Super Bowl, completing 18-29 passes for 340 yards and 4 TDs.

Now we come to a time in the NFL when black QBs are commonplace. It's probably just a matter of time before one of these gifted athletes wins the big game. There's Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and Aaron Brooks, to name a few. There's also still McNair, of course, who shared the 2003 NFL MVP honor with Indianapolis' Peyton Manning.

Nevertheless, there's something amiss here. In an age of obviously gifted black QBs, we still see lily-white fellows like Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, Rich Gannon, Kerry Collins and Chris Chandler getting into Super Bowls. Even Trent Dilfer, an almost complete non-entity, competed in Super Bowl XXXV, and managed to get the "W" for the Baltimore Ravens.

A couple of years ago, I was convinced that Vick was going to emerge through the playoffs and take his Atlanta Falcons to the promised land. It didn't happen. Then there's McNabb, who has lost three consecutive NFC championship games. He can't get over the hump. Culpepper looks great, puts up amazing numbers, and yet his Vikings are currently lingering at 5-4, having lost three straight after a torrid start. Brooks looks great one minute, then totally tanks out. The Saints, consequently, remain one of the league's big mystery teams, talented but inconsistent. As for McNair, injuries continue to plague him, and, now in his early thirties with a Titans team in transition, he may never have another shot at ultimate glory.

No one would ever confuse the physical abilities of Michael Vick with the likes of Dilfer or Johnson. So does any of this mean anything?

Well, let's look at Doug Williams. In many ways, he was the original model for these contemporary black QBs: Strong, quick-footed, great arm. But Williams floundered until he operated in a system that enabled him--encouraged him--to harness all the offensive team's possibilities while sublimating some of his own natural gifts. Quarterbacks who run around, showing what great athletes they are, make for the subject of entertaining highlight reels. They often astound us with their feats. They're exciting as all get out. But they do NOT win Super Bowls. Offenses run by jackrabbit QBs make great plays and win their share of games, but they do not put together a big stretch run that is typical of Super Bowl winners. I hate to say it, but all that "creativity" that Culpepper, McNabb et al. exhibit may be a lot of fun to watch, but it's not apparently what quarterbacking is all about.

Go into the record books. Look at the Super Bowl runs put together by the likes of Starr, Bradshaw, Montana, Aikman, Elway and Brady. Their numbers are very good--sometimes breath-taking, like 1989, the year Montana completed 70.2% of his passes for the season and the 49ers defeated their playoff and Super Bowl opposition by a combined score of 126-26.

But what these QBs are in particular, in every case, is models of efficiency. The don't scramble, they rarely improvise, and they don't throw the ball much more than 25 times a game. They minimize mental errors (e.g., when to throw a pass out of bounds), they manage the clock with uncanny awareness, and they take their teams on critical, game-breaking drives with poise and uncommon nerve. And, above all, they use every weapon in their arsenal. Running backs, tight ends and wide receivers shoulder equal burdens because the QBs know how to mix it up and keep their opponent off-balance.

In short, successful quarterbacking is more about leadership than it is about flinging a ball 60 yards after running all over the backfield eluding desperate defensive linemen. In fact, the earliest template for non-success is Tarkenton: he may have been a white man, but that didn't help him, because what he was first and foremost was a scrambler and an improviser. He was sure interesting to watch, but he couldn't win the big one. And he's the only multiple Super Bowl QB who never went to Disney World.

The only question now is: Which of the new breed of African American hotshots will learn his craft, and take his place next to Doug Williams?

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