Ten years ago, maybe even five, it would have been an enormous deal that Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick were facing each other in a conference championship game in the NFL, the first time black quarterbacks have faced each other in a title game. Only 17 years ago Doug Williams was the novelty of all novelty acts at the Super Bowl because he was black and played quarterback.
The story now is that it's not a big deal. It's almost commonplace. Last year, McNabb was in a conference championship and Steve McNair was in a conference semifinal. A few years before that, Shaun King and McNair started for their teams in the conference championship games. It will not be long before there will be black opposing quarterbacks in a Super Bowl.
Once in the late 1980s, when Warren Moon was starting for the Houston Oilers in the playoffs, I asked him when he thought being a black quarterback in the NFL would no longer be a big deal, and his answer was when blacks could be backups at quarterback, hold clipboards, get traded and released, picked up by coaches with whom they had become friends at previous stops.
Moon, it turns out, was right. In addition to starters Daunte Culpepper, McNabb, Byron Leftwich, Aaron Brooks, McNair and Vick, King is now a backup, as is Quincy Carter, David Garrard, Rohan Davey, Charlie Batch, Kordell Stewart and Tony Banks. You can have a black quarterback without him being the star, without him being a sociological study or a figure of a civic controversy. Culpepper was the No. 2-ranked passer in the league this year and McNabb was No. 4, while Leftwich, Brooks and Vick were in the middle of the pack at 18th, 19th and 21st respectively. McNair played in only eight games because of an injury.
And each is very different. Culpepper has a pulling guard's body, John Riggins's speed and Terry Bradshaw's arm. Leftwich is a lead-foot pocket passer, the antithesis of what bigots suggested for decades a black quarterback had to be. In fact, the irony of the Vick-McNabb faceoff Sunday in Philadelphia for the NFC championship is that they're nothing alike. Their philosophies as to how the game ought to be played from the quarterback position are polar opposites. The only thing they have in common, as quarterbacks, is that they are black.
Vick threw just 321 passes all season, fewer than any of the big-time quarterbacks. Trent Green threw 556 and Bret Favre threw 540. Vick runs. He finished with more than 900 yards rushing and easily would have become the first quarterback in NFL history to surpass 1,000 rushing yards if he hadn't been rested the final two weeks because the Falcons had wrapped up a first-round playoff bye. Vick might as well be running the option, and seems to care nothing about how that style fits the long-held stereotype of what black quarterbacks were built to do. The Falcons are winning with Vick, Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett running the ball and they're not apologizing to anybody.
McNabb, on the other hand, has never been comfortable with that approach. He ran early in his career but said even then he disliked running. Now, he does it only when necessary. McNabb has gone from 86 rushes in 2000 to 71 last year to 41 this year. At the same time, he has gone from a 77.8 passer rating in 2000 to a 104.7 this season.
While Vick rushed 120 times for 902 yards, McNabb ran just 41 times for 220 yards. While Vick was rushing eight times for 119 yards in Saturday's playoff game against the Rams and passing for only 82, McNabb, a man who once rushed for 629 yards in a season, carried three times for three yards Sunday.
And it's not a coincidence. McNabb's dramatic drop in rushing attempts is intentional, and in part has to do with race. It isn't something he talks about very publicly because it's a sensitive subject, the issue of black quarterbacks and athleticism. In several conversations in recent years, McNabb has talked about wanting to be a pocket passer, not a runner. He was conscious of it at Syracuse and even more so in the NFL. McNabb knows the black quarterbacks who came before him. He knows many of them were stigmatized with the label "running quarterback" and he wanted none of it. It didn't catch him by surprise that Rush Limbaugh said on ESPN that he was overrated, because for so long that's what critics -- often white critics -- wanted to believe about black quarterbacks, that they were athletic but not disciplined enough, not cerebral enough to stand tall in the pocket and patiently wait for receivers and plays to develop. "I want to be a passer, a passing quarterback," he has told me several times, particularly when asked if he could have run more in certain situations.
He wants no part of the stereotype, no part of presumption. He doesn't want to be reduced, pigeonholed or stigmatized. If quarterbacks are judged and respected for passing accuracy, then McNabb will put a body of work out there that can be judged on the same standard as all the other great, winning, passing quarterbacks. If that's your standard, he says, then watch me do it your way.
And I understand why McNabb feels the way he feels. Increasingly in some circles, McNabb is now, ironically, being criticized for not running more, the way he did when he was younger. Folks point to his two critical rushes late in the season against Dallas, after Terrell Owens got hurt in the game, that sealed victory for the Eagles.
People point to the success Vick is having, even though he threw 148 fewer passes than McNabb during the season, and even though he completed 56 percent of his passes compared to a career-high 64 percent for McNabb.
My friend and colleague, an African-American columnist, John Smallwood, writing in Monday's Philadelphia Daily News, says it's silly that McNabb has been so "polluted by the notion that running will define him as an athlete instead of a quarterback."
But it isn't silly. I think part of McNabb's maturation and evolution as a quarterback is his defiance on this issue. Just because Vick doesn't care about stereotyping doesn't mean McNabb doesn't have to care. They don't have to agree on how to play the position just because they're both black. They have every right to come at the position as differently as Steve Young and Dan Marino did.
McNabb, though he just turned 28, was perfectly aware of the hurdles he'd have to clear to be accepted as a quarterback, to play without having his authority and his intelligence undermined while he developed. He was booed, quite viciously actually, by Philly fans who didn't want him to be selected so high in the draft. A great many of his critics that day undoubtedly saw him as an athlete and doubted he could become a great passer, which in their eyes equaled a great quarterback.
But now, at the end of this his sixth NFL season, McNabb has become an accurate passer and a good enough quarterback to lead his team to the NFC championship game for a fourth consecutive season. With T.O. injured, the theory is McNabb is going to have to make some plays with his legs, and perhaps because he so seldom uses them now, they'll be fresh enough to do just that.
Whether McNabb runs or stays in the pocket he now finds so comfortable, it is refreshing that these two black starting quarterbacks in Sunday's NFC championship game are free to play the position in such radically different ways.