"Four Vikings Charged in Boat Incident" -- No, it's not a headline from the Northumbrian Times of 860 A.D., but another incident in a big story from the NFL in 2005 that you won't hear elsewhere: the decline of the black quarterback. After years of sportswriters demanding more black quarterbacks, the mediocre performance of black quarterbacks this year, with only Byron Leftwich and Michael Vick having effective seasons, is not exactly Topic A to sportswriters.
Black quarterbacks, with their superior running ability, have added some valuable excitement to the league, but the current NFL game is dominated by passing. Here are the seven black quarterbacks' passer rating ranks so far this season (the passer rating synthesizes yards per attempt, completion percentage, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage):
Leftwich of Jacksonville has the highest passer among the seven main black quarterbacks, ranking #12 in the league. Vick is only the #22 passer, but he remains a dangerous runner, although not as spectacular as last season when he gained 902 yards with a 7.5 yards per carry average. Other than Vick, none of the black quarterbacks are running well enough to make up for their mediocre passing. The tough veteran McNair has done another admirable job coming back from injuries big and small. Brooks of New Orleans had his city wash away. Wright is just a stopgap. Seven quarterbacks for one season is too small a sample size to draw conclusions, but this year's performance does raise questions that aren't being addressed elsewhere.
Minnesota Viking Daunte Culpepper, who finished in the top 3 in passer efficiency the last two seasons, was indicted yesterday, along with three teammates, on disorderly conduct, indecent conduct and lewd or lascivious conduct for a cruise by 30 Vikings on Lake Minnetonka on which they invited along dozens of prostitutes. It didn't help their popularity that the Vikings were off to a 1-3 start and Culpepper was throwing bushels of interceptions. Culpepper is now out for the season with an injury. He currently ranks 25th in the league in overall passer rating. Culpepper's replacement, Brad Johnson, the epitome of the boring white journeyman quarterback, now ranks 9th in the league and the once-reeling Vikings have won six in a row under him.
Meanwhile, Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia, who was the beneficiary of much praise from sportswriters two years ago when Rush Limbaugh quit his football commentary job after saying that McNabb was overrated because sportswriters had been calling for more black quarterbacks for so long, who is out for the season with an injury, after an adequate season as the #14 passer, has come under increasing criticism, in part for his poor play in last year's Super Bowl. Philadelphia's management suspended their superstar receiver Terrell Owens for criticizing McNabb. The much derided Owens, notorious for his showboating after touchdowns, performed heroically in Philadelphia's Super Bowl loss, garnering over 100 yards receiving despite playing on half-healed broken foot. McNabb, who apparently had been out partying the night before, ran one of the worst two minute drills in history, and was visibly woozy at one point when his teammates had to point him in the right direction.
Now, McNabb has been criticized by the owner of the local black newspaper, who also heads the local NAACP office, for not running the ball anymore. The black journalist attacked McNabb for saying To which McNabb replied, "Obviously if it's someone else who is not African-American, it's racism. But when someone of the same race talks about you because you're selling out because you're not running the ball, it goes back to: What are we really talking about here?... I always thought the NAACP supported African Americans and didn't talk bad about them,"
Indeed, what are we talking about? The black columnist's criticism of McNabb was fairly off-base: It's rational for McNabb to stop running now that he is older and slower and more beat up. By not running last season, he had his best passing season, ranking #4 in the league after many years of mediocrity as a passer. Similarly, Steve McNair led the league in passing in 2003 by not running anymore. He'd had only 138 yards rushing, whereas in 1997 he'd had 674. But, he was voted co-MVP in 2003 along with Peyton Manning.
But, it's not healthy for McNabb to play the race card.
Overall, what we may be seeing is a natural evolution of the black quarterback fad that began about a half dozen years ago. Nothing in the NFL lasts forever. The defenses eventually always figure out how to adjust to a new offensive style, including running quarterbacks. There's probably no effective defense against an unbelievable runner like Vick, but for mortals, defensive coordinators can take steps.
One advantage of black quarterbacks has been that they can be fairly effective early in their careers before they've learned how to be an NFL quality passer because of their running ability is at its peak early. In contrast, a classic immobile white quarterback like Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman at USC in 2002. He didn't play at all as a rookie in 2003, then started but was a detriment in 2004, but now, in his third season, is second in passing only to the great Peyton Manning. And that's fast development. San Diego's Drew Brees wasn't an asset until his fourth year, Brad Johnson not until his fifth season, Trent Green his sixth season. Leftwich, an immobile black quarterback, has had a similar progression, becoming an above average quarterback in his 3rd season.
In contrast, McNabb started six games as a rookie, and in his second season, even though he was a mediocre passer, was an effective quarterback because he ran for 629 yards.
But, what's not clear yet is long they keep it up. NFL running backs take an extraordinary pounding, and their careers seldom make it to age 30. In contrast, QB Brad Johnson is 37.
For example, perhaps nobody in NFL history outright hurt the defense like Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers in his first three seasons, 1978-1980. Coach Bum Phillips's "offensive strategy," such as it was, consisted mostly of sending Earl slamming into the line, figuring that by crunch time in the fourth quarter, Earl would have bruised the defensive linemen more than they would have bruised Earl. For three glorious years, it worked, but after that, Campbell was never the same.
Turning quarterbacks into part time running backs may work out somewhat similar. Culpepper, for example, has had a lot of back problems.
On the bright side, little Doug Flutie is still getting a few snaps as Tom Brady's backup in New England at 43, and he ran for 476 yards at age 37, but most of his prime was spent in the Canadian Football League (where he was probably the greatest ever in CFL history), where tacklers aren't quite as fast and heavy. But Flutie is something special.
If you want running quarterbacks, and want them to have long careers, and, personally, I think they are more fun to watch, then you ought to think seriously about imposing on team's weight limits, because that's the only way to cut down on the pounding players take. Restrict each team to an average of, say, 215 pounds per player on the field at any time.