Black QBs -- again

With McNabb and Stewart leading their teams into the conference championships, will athletic quarterbacks outduel their white counterparts?

Published January 23, 2002 8:15PM (EST)

Looking for themes in this week's NFL final four, the press twisted every which way they could to avoid the obvious: white, drop-back quarterbacks vs. black, scrambling quarterbacks. Remember last season when everyone was talking about the new wave of black "athletic" quarterbacks, running quarterbacks, who were going to revolutionize the game? Well, the Baltimore Ravens rolled in with one of the great fluke teams of all time (in two seasons, their supposedly invincible defense faced only one quarterback ranked in the top 10, and that was Brett Favre, who beat them with four touchdown passes) and squashed that idea. Now, it's back as the two best running quarterbacks, the two greatest athletes at the position, Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, are both just one game short of the Super Bowl, and no one wants to say it for fear of, you know, the black-white thing.

I've never been able to decide for sure if I thought that black athletes, on the whole, had some special trait that gave them an advantage in games of speed with white, Hispanic or Asian athletes. I am fairly certain that if I did I'd keep my mouth shut about it. You're not supposed to notice things like the fact that, in a society where blacks comprise about 10 percent of the population, there are 15 black wide receivers and defensive backs for every white player. Now, inevitably, blacks are moving into the last bastion of white player supremacy, the quarterback position.

I know, I know, there are lots of reasons why this is happening besides racial ones. First, whites are withdrawing themselves from the American athletic gene pool at a remarkable rate. I wrote in this column last year that most males in my family played one, two and even three sports in high school, but when we got together for a family picnic we found scarcely a single kid from the next generation who played anything but soccer and who showed precious little interest in that. I said that I thought much of it had to do with the increasing laziness and narcissism of middle-class white kids, who spend most of their free time in solitary games like skateboarding or video, and who simply don't want to take crap from coaches or have to compete with black kids who are hungrier. A man in Tennessee whose family had played college football for three generations and whose son now refuses to watch football on TV tells me the situation is even worse than I thought: "What you don't understand is that this generation of white kids has gotten so noncompetitive they'd be dropping out of team sports even if there were no Hispanic or black kids out there with more desire."

He might be right, and maybe I'm looking for too broad an explanation for the disappearing white quarterback. It's entirely possible that what we're seeing on the field is the result of a trend that's become more and more pervasive in high school and big-time college football. As late as the early '70s, a lot of quarterbacks in major college programs called their own plays, or at least most of them did. As the game became more sophisticated or at least as coaches took over more and more control, the quarterback who could think and react on his feet began to disappear. The majority of white quarterbacks still come from relatively pampered programs where you have a quarterback coach while you're still in high school. The majority of black quarterbacks still come from backgrounds where they have to pretty much learn to shift for themselves at an early age. By the time they reach the college level, many black kids playing quarterback have established their game pattern and most smart college coaches are pretty much content to let them go with it. I think what's happening in pro football over the last several seasons is that it's becoming as automated and predictable as the college game and coaches have decided the best antidote for smothering defenses with 340-pound sumo-wrestler linemen has been the spontaneity and unpredictability of the great scrambling black passers.

The problem, of course, with being a great running quarterback is that no one has yet established that there's much of a future in it. Defensive ends and linebackers don't much like being made fools out of by swivel-hipped quarterbacks and are more than happy to trade 15 yards for a serious shot at an opposing passer. In truth, there have been a great many white quarterbacks who had reputations as scramblers and runners before wising up.

Everyone remembers Fran Tarkenton's reputation as a scrambler, but no one remembers that except for an occasional out-of-bounds scramble late in the game, he pretty much abandoned his running after a few seasons and used his speed and agility almost exclusively in setting up the pass. Steve Young may have been the most athletically gifted combination of runner and passer the game has ever seen, more so even than the spectacular and erratic Randall Cunningham. But after three concussions, one had to wonder how many Super Bowl rings he might have won had he stopped heading upfield on rollouts and instead made for the downs marker. And who remembers Bobby Douglass anymore? I guarantee you that whatever factors have brought on the age of black quarterbacks, you're not going to see any of them become consistent winners until they learn to read defenses and resist the temptation to tuck the ball and run.

While both McNabb and Stewart have improved in the art of reading defenses -- their teams wouldn't be on the verge of going to the Super Bowl if they hadn't -- much of their passing success is still due to the fact they haven't had to pass much. Playing on teams with strong defenses, they can usually count on having the score close. So their teams build simplified offensive schemes around their talents. However, that's also often the reason why they are less effective against good defensive teams the second time around: opposing defenses get used to their limited number of plays rather early. Satisfying as it was to watch Stewart running rings around and embarrassing the fat old defensive linemen on Baltimore last week, Pittsburgh fans have learned over the past few years that the Steelers are never going to be a dominant team until "Slash" learns to spot the guy getting single coverage.

Once, on Bob Costas' radio show, I asked Kenny Stabler -- you may remember him as such a great runner at Alabama that he won the nickname "The Snake" -- what was the secret of being able to play quarterback for 15-plus years in the NFL. "It's the same thing," he told me, "that I used to hear my dad say about pilots: There are old quarterbacks and there are bold quarterbacks, but there are no old, bold quarterbacks."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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